Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
11th Jan 2013

Turning international students into brand advocates

How much attention are you paying to the satisfaction of your international students? If the answer is “a lot,” you’re on the right track. Paving the way for a student’s rewarding study abroad experience has never been more crucial. This is because – on top of the natural desire to see students succeed – students constitute a key brand touchpoint for your institution. They are highly likely to be posting on social networks about their experiences, whether bad or good, or calling home to friends about it. When they go back to their home countries as alumni, they will without doubt be telling their peers – possibly prospective students – all about how much they liked or disliked their experience. Their ability to find good jobs in their chosen field will be closely watched by their peers in their home country; it serves as a testament of the quality of the school they attended.

Many determinants of student satisfaction

So what sort of factors play into international student satisfaction? The following stem from our own research as well as from a Social Indicators Research report (Volume 53, Issue 3) article by David Lackland Sam. Culturally, influencers of satisfaction can include:

  • Language proficiency
  • Ability to negotiate day-to-day social activities in the new culture
  • Domestic students’ perceptions of international students – which can at worst play into racial or ethnic discrimination
  • Degree of difference between new culture and home culture (e.g., students from Western countries have been shown to have more ease than those from non-Western countries in Western study destinations (e.g., British students having more ease in the US than say, Nigerian students)
  • Ability to make friends with domestic students (studies have shown that international students tend to make friends first with co-nationals, then other foreign students, and finally if at all, domestic students)
  • Ability to get to know the local/national environment and culture, including recreation and travel
  • Sense of being part of the campus – comfort levels with going to events and generally participating

Academically they can include:

  • Quality and availability of academic advice and support
  • Academic load
  • Academic stress
  • Quality of teaching
  • Degree of success in exams/courses
  • Recognition and reputation of institution/programme among prospective employers, as well as possible co-op placements with these

And otherwise:

  • Financial situation
  • Quality of information received both prior to enrolment and during studies – adequacy of orientation services
  • Age (studies have suggested that younger students tend to adapt more easily)
  • Gender (studies have suggested that women from certain countries can have more difficulty adjusting due to the pressure of domestic obligations)
  • Ability to learn the language of the host country
  • Ease of negotiating visas/red tape/immigration issues
  • Living arrangements (e.g., a good or bad homestay or dormitory situation)
  • Degree of comfort with food (food can be such an emotional trigger - if food seems overly strange or inadequate, it can really be a put-off)

The power of student experience in marketing

The following verbatims from international students rating their study experience in Europe help to elucidate the factors that can make or break a student experience; they are pulled from StudyPortals’ 2011 report, “Key influencers of international student satisfaction in Europe.” The quotes were collected by a research team as part of interviews, but you can easily imagine the effect they would have if delivered to other prospective students, peer-to-peer.

  • “The university has a high academic level, they provide high quality lectures and it is one of the oldest universities of Madrid. It is well known by companies and different organisations, so students have the opportunity to take advantage of these.” Belgian student about studying in Spain (explaining why s/he rated the experience a 10 out of 10)
  • “Beautiful landscapes just around the corner, excellent outdoor activities, small but sizable town and, above all, a great student city!” Venezuelan student about studying in Norway (explaining why s/he rated the study experience with a 9 out of 10)
  • “Everything is well organised and all necessary information and support is given to make the exchange run smoothly. Upon my arrival at the campus, there was a buddy waiting for me with keys to my apartment. I was given a start package with maps of the campus and surrounding areas and practical information. There is also a welcome event for exchange students so I quickly made friends and integrated into the social life on campus.” Finnish student about studying in Sweden (explaining why s/he rated the study experience a 9 out of 10)
  • “There are heaps of student associations and activities, which is in my opinion essential to make your university experience unforgettable.” Dutch student about studying in Spain (explaining why s/he rated the study experience a 10 out of 10)
  • “It is the best place on earth for meeting people of different cultures and friends for life.” Student about studying in Serbia (explaining why s/he rated the study experience a 10 out of 10)
  • “It is a small city in Poland and I don't like crowded cities. People are so kind to foreign people. I just love it.” Turkish student about studying in Poland (explaining why s/he rated the study experience a 10 out of 10)

Contrast these positives to a negative and the power of student word of mouth becomes even more apparent:

  • "The accommodation was nothing I expected. As much as the university stresses that it has been the university of the year, this achievement was reached just by preferring quantity over quality. The accommodation system of the University is so chaotic. First of all, when applying for the accommodation at the University, you are never sure that you would be eventually given some. In the first 3 weeks, there were many students staying at the Holiday Inn cause the university took some 750 students over its abilities and did not have sufficient accommodation." Slovakian student about studying in United Kingdom (explaining why s/he rated the study experience a 4 out of 10)

The Study Portals’ report concludes with a series of recommendations for various groups associated with international student satisfaction, including student associations, higher ed institutes, and policy makers. Here are the report's recommendations for institutions (edited slightly for conciseness):

  • "Provide (obligatory) language training to all student focused staff in the official language of tuition (in most cases English). Language proficiency … is the single most often mentioned reason to not recommend a university.
  • Encourage a close working relationship between academic staff and students. Personal guidance and the opportunity to ask questions are highly appreciated and contribute to quality of education; 13% of all academic-related reasons are about teacher quality.
  • Use student-centred, interactive teaching methods, group work and field visits. To many students this type of education is innovative and in fact a reason to study abroad.
  • Provide a tutor or mentor as contact person for every international student. This is the first point of communication and can help incoming students with taking care of administration, housing and other practical matters. It makes them feel welcome.
  • Promote and support student associations. Through their activities, network and services they positively contribute to student satisfaction. The level of support from the institution often determines how active student associations can be.
  • Facilitate personal growth of students in any way possible. Maturing, becoming independent and broadening horizons are often mentioned and highly valuable results of international mobility.
  • Connect international students with each other and with local students, for instance through organising events (if possible, in collaboration with local student associations).
  • Start by organising a welcome event at the beginning of every semester, if possible together with the local groups of international student organisations. This facilitates social interaction, makes students feel welcome and is an excellent opportunity to get administrative obligations taken care of. The City of Melbourne has even created a Student Welcome Desk programme to improve the study experience of international students.
  • Emphasise the following in external communications:
    • Any of the points above.
    • Drivers of student satisfaction that are beyond the control of your institute, such as city atmosphere or local culture. Regional and cultural aspects are certainly a decisive factor when choosing where to study (almost one third of all influencers is on this topic).
    • Reputation and ranking, also if your institute is not listed in the top 100 universities.
    • Universities renowned in a specific study discipline or regionally strong universities are also much sought after.
    • Poor service quality is the second most mentioned reason to not recommend a university. This is often related to bureaucracy, which is an important negative influencer of student satisfaction. Therefore, focus on the quality of the services and information provision towards current students.
    • Make important study choice information such as enrolment date and annual tuition fee easily accessible for prospective students. Many students indicate their choice of university depends on information availability, particularly emphasising website quality. Not only is this information critical in their choice, it is also a way for students to assess the general service level and quality of the institution as a whole."

The extension of satisfied international students: brand advocates

Word of mouth has always been a significant influencer of a brand or business’s success or failure, and now this has been massively amplified by the sharing power of the Internet and social networks. If your international students are satisfied, your prospective international students are going to hear about it, whether through their own initiative or through an organised brand ambassador programme such as the one Study Brisbane runs. If they are not satisfied, there is possibly even more likelihood that they will hear about it, since angry or dissatisfied consumers have been shown to be more passionate about posting their feelings. Therefore, an investment in international student satisfaction can actually be considered a marketing investment: it reduces the potential for negative word of mouth, increases the potential for positive word of mouth even to the extent of a student becoming a “brand advocate,” defined by author Rob Fugetta as:

“… a person who recommends a company, brand, product or service without being paid or given incentives … brand advocates will go out of their way to evangelise and recommend brands, products, services, companies and you don’t have to pay them.”

Mr Fugetta argues:

“We believe … passionately that business today, in fact all of business, has become a battle for word of mouth …. When it comes to a brand generating real influence and real clout, really the number one way they can do that is find people who are just everyday consumers and who are enthusiastic about their brands and products and services and enabling them to tell the brand’s story to their friends. Word of mouth recommendations have always been the most influential form of marketing and they continue to be so today.”
Image credit: Tom Fishburne, found on brandfasttrackers.com.ICEF Monitor has devoted a post to this idea as it relates to alumni

, but we could well extend the notion to current international students. At the end of the day, recruitment is not simply about getting students enrolled – not for recruiters in it for the long haul at least. Making a serious investment in every possible aspect of student satisfaction – from accurate and comprehensive information delivered before enrolment to top-quality resources for students currently studying – carries with it the potential for great savings in both recruitment effort and budget down the line.

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