Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

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Is your marketing answering the right questions?

Amidst the ever-intensifying global competition for students, all education institutions with internationalisation mandates are asking themselves what they can do to present themselves more effectively to students in target markets – and the answer can end up being a long list.

But in the struggle to cover all bases in marketing and branding – all channels, all techniques, all technologies – there is a danger that some basics of communication get lost.

Today we’ll take a look at the importance of making sure your marketing resources are answering the right questions for prospective international students.

First things first: who is asking the questions?

A prospective international student seldom decides what country and institution to choose in a vacuum. Most often – and especially if they are younger – they embark on their selection process amid friends and parents, and the latter especially are likely to have strong opinions and/or preconceptions. In addition, parents are likely to have different priorities when evaluating schools than students do. They are considering sending their children to another country, and to do this, they are looking for certainty that their children will be:

  • Safe;
  • Supported (academically and socially);
  • Happy and welcomed;
  • Provided with an education that opens doors for exciting and well-remunerated careers;
  • Provided with an environment that respects home country traditions (e.g., prayer rooms for Muslim students).

The parents of study abroad candidates are often among the most ambitious parents; such parents want the best lives possible for their children and can also be excited about the prospects their children’s education may mean for the family as a whole. This is particularly true in many important source countries with burgeoning middle and upper classes, such as China, India, Russia, and Brazil.

Especially for institutions that do not have the benefit of elite rankings or established brands, it is important to make sure that parents – key influencers in students’ study decisions – get the information they need to be able to support a student’s interest in a school.

Some schools even devote entire sections of their websites to the parents and families of prospective students, such as the University of Toronto.

Categories of question: emotional and logical

For parents and students alike, there are two types of questions that have to be dealt with in order for them to enrol with a school:

  • Emotional: Will this decision satisfy my emotional needs?
  • Logical: Is this a decision I can afford to make – will the return on investment justify the cost and effort required?

If students aren’t emotionally moved by an institution (e.g., “I will fit in well in this community – I can see myself being happy here. Imagine what I’ll be able to do when I graduate!”), they won’t care about the logistics of getting into the school. However, if it seems like too much trouble to get into a school, even if the school looks exciting, students may give up and turn to another option – of which there are often many.

Looking at emotional drivers

In terms of the emotional assurance students and their families crave, it really boils down to this: is this school going to make the student (a) happy when they are studying there and (b) successful after they graduate?

Leveraging satisfied current and alumni students’ experiences via social media, the school website, print materials, and by video or in-person (e.g., student fairs) can go a long way to moving the emotional needle in the right direction.

In addition, marketing materials should emphasise such things as employment and earning rates after graduation, companies’ testimonials about their positive experiences working with the school’s graduates, and VIP alumni doing exciting work in their careers. The student, and their family, has to be convinced that the benefits of studying at Institution X trump those of studying at Institution Y, and/or that Country X is a better choice for their career than Country Y.

An important question, therefore, for an institution’s marketers, is:

“Are we focusing enough on the benefits our school provides students (e.g., entry into a successful, global network of alumni or an internationally recognised qualification), and not dwelling too much on the school’s actual features (e.g., world-class facilities)?”

It can be useful to trace a line from features to benefits to make sure the latter come out in messaging. For example, Brown University doesn’t just say that it “is frequently recognised for its global reach, many cultural events, numerous campus groups and activities, active community service programmes, highly competitive athletics, and beautiful facilities located in a richly historic urban setting.” The university spells out the meaning of such features for the student: it was “named by the 2010 Princeton Review as the #1 College in America for Happiest Students.” The result? A movement from features… to benefits.

Ending with logical drivers

As much as students and their families want happiness and success from the experience of studying abroad, they have to be assured that the experience makes sense for them from a logical – and logistical – perspective. Is the student even able to study in the country in question? Do they have the credentials required by their institution of choice?

Institutions need to ensure that they take the unique concerns of international students into their marketing materials. First, they need to address all the possible questions students may have in their target markets, such as:

  • How will my credentials translate to the institution? Do they all count?
  • Will the qualifications I receive from the study abroad institution be recognised in my home country?
  • Is there financial aid or scholarships available to help fund my studies?
  • Can my partner/spouse/children come with me?
  • Can I/we work abroad when I’m studying? What about internship opportunities?
  • What about immigration? Are there programmes to help international students stay in the country upon graduating?
  • What kind of student accommodation would best suit me?
  • Are there graduates from my country to whom I can speak with for advice?
  • My English isn’t where I need it to be in order to be admitted – what can I do?
  • Will there be a medical exam? Do I need special kinds of documentation to be admitted into the country?
  • What kind of support can I expect to make sure I am successful at the study abroad institution?
  • In which other ways can you assure me that international students are a priority at your school?

Many institutions are new to international student recruiting, and may not have adapted their marketing resources to adequately reflect questions like the ones addressed above. But these are make-or-break questions, and students need prompt, comprehensive, current answers to be able to progress seamlessly in their movement from interest to enrolment.

Providing easily discoverable answers to such questions – for example, on websites – is part of the solution. The other part is making it very easy for prospective international students to correspond directly with a knowledgeable school representative to have questions answered – and even, where possible, answered in the student’s first language. There should be several ways to do this, which may include email, live web chats, Skype, Facebook/social media messaging, and telephone.

As with consumers in other high-involvement product and service categories, prospective students will be more likely to choose those institutions that respect their needs, and that deliver real value over the long term.

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