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China an “indispensable recruitment market” for study abroad for which online channels will be key this year

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A featured conference presentation points out that, even with slower outbound growth, China will remain a key student recruitment market because of its unique combination of size, wealth, and underlying demand factors
  • Digital channels are playing a greater role in the Chinese market this year and recruitment marketers are being challenged to learn new tactic for localising and delivering digital content and campaigns in-market

China’s demographics are changing, and so too are some of the patterns of outbound Chinese students. They are choosing a wider field of study destinations than in the past, including those closer to home, and the prevailing patterns of age distribution across the population means that China’s college-aged cohort has been shrinking and is expected to continue to do so through 2025.

This has all translated into slower growth for total Chinese outbound, and, in particular, a slowing of commencements for the leading global destinations – including the US, Canada, and Australia – that have relied on China to drive foreign enrolment growth over the last couple of decades.

“All of this matters,” says market specialist David Weeks, “but not quite as much as you might think. It is still important to remember that China is an indispensable recruitment market because of its unique combination of size, wealth, and push factors…Chinese students still want to study abroad because of the many disadvantages of China’s domestic university system.”

Mr Weeks is the chief operating officer of Sunrise International Education, a provider of experiential and extracurricular education in China, whose activities have expanded to include recruitment events and digital marketing consulting for institutions abroad. He was presenting earlier this month, along with Sunrise co-founder Gavin Newton Tanzer, at the annual conference of the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC).

“It is important to remember as well,” Mr Weeks adds, “that Chinese students generally plan two years in advance. So we’re not so much courting the students of next year but the students of two or three years from now…Eventually, the pandemic restrictions on travel and visas will lift and there will be renewed interest in study overseas. The question is which universities will be best positioned to capture that renewed interest? If your university hasn’t been reaching out to students, you are going to have less leads in the pipeline once it is possible for students to travel [again].”

Mr Weeks set out the sheer scale of the market by noting:

  • There are 130 cities throughout the country with more than a million residents each
  • China’s population is aging but its middle class – the key group that has both the inclination and the means to study abroad – is growing faster still, and especially so in the Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities
  • The education system is correspondingly massive, with roughly a half million students in international K-12 schools alone
  • China’s economy has largely recovered from the pandemic

Mr Weeks says of the economic rebound, “It is an incomplete recovery, an uneven recover, but China’s economic growth rates do look a lot closer to pre-pandemic levels than almost any other country.”

The presentation highlighted a number of near-term recommendations for recruiting China, including:

  • Education fairs and tours have begun to resume and the event schedule is expected to continue to expand throughout 2021. Note though that border restrictions on entry for non-Chinese citizens remain in place, meaning that recruitment will need to be carried out for the foreseeable future by in-country staff or by Chinese citizens (staff, students, or alumni) living abroad.
  • All education materials, both online and offline, should be localised for the Chinese market to emphasise inclusiveness, safety, and graduate outcomes.
  • This is the time to increase the frequency and responsiveness of communication with agent partners in China, and streamline admissions and payment processes as much as possible.
  • Enhance career support services for returning graduates to boost their career prospects and, in turn, your recruitment appeal to prospective students.

The increasing reliance on digital channels

It goes without saying that digital recruitment channels have become even more important in China this year. Gavin Newton Tanzer joined the presentation to note that all recruitment events in China necessarily shifted online this year, with mixed results and some good lessons learned. He explained that students moved quickly to these events when they realised that it was still possible to have one-to-one engagement with agent counsellors and university representatives. He adds however that, “Now we’re seeing upwards of 50 or 60 events a month, sometimes even 80 or 100 events in a month, and it is starting to be more difficult getting people to attend.”

Mr Newton Tanzer points out as well that virtual student fairs are particularly difficult to organise, in part because of the wide time differences between China and major study destinations but especially because of the famous Chinese Internet firewall. “The firewall functionally prevents most online platforms from working, which means that [webinars and presentations delivered from within China] tend to be the most effective.” Zhumu, for example, is a Chinese counterpart to Zoom, with similar functionality but with better stability and performance within China.

Similarly, calls to action and follow-up options around any such virtual events must be carefully calibrated for the Chinese market, targeting, for example, teachers in the case of international school students or major Chinese platforms such as WeChat for college-aged students.

Even with the expansion of in-person events in 2021, virtual fairs and webinars will continue to play an important role in reaching prospective students for the foreseeable future.

Adapting online content for China is another key strategy in the digital-heavy recruitment context for this year. “Localisation is a very, very big piece of [readiness to recruit in China],” says Mr Newton Tanzer. “We even today find large numbers of universities that are not localising their websites [for China]. This is an easy way to boost yield, by making sure that a Chinese parent who wants to look up your university can easily find you. When we talk about localisation, what we mean is that your site is locally hosted so it can be accessed quickly and it has an ICP license, which means it can be indexed by Chinese search engines. Even if [that localized presence] is just a Chinese landing page with a .cn domain, you are allowing those parents to find you online and send any queries they may have.”

He adds that of a recent survey of 2,000 websites run by foreign companies and institutions, and aimed at Chinese users, most (94%) were either blocked in China or had very long page load times, virtually none had any content localisation for China, and most again (89%) were not optimized for Chinese search engines. “Search for yourself in Baidu or other major Chinese search engines and see what comes up,” he advises.

And of course China’s mobile-heavy social web remains a key channel for reaching students, especially WeChat (1.17 billion users) and Weibo (523 million users) – all of which are seeing exploding use of video content. “Seriously evaluate how you are using video content,” advises Mr Newton Tanzer. “For WeChat, make sure you are using as a yield tool, reflecting the university’s voice and sharing [articles or other resources]. For Weibo, you can do a little more campaigning, you can leverage hashtags and have more targeted ads with more frequent posts.”

The challenge this year will be how to stand out amid all of the noise of so many webinars, events, and campaigns this year. “You really want to have a message that can stand out,” he adds. “We’ve seen interesting campaigns where people are doing alumni panels that really focus on the student voice, or where you have admissions counsellors walking around campus – anything that you can do to stand out a bit more.” As on social channels, effective video and virtual reality content – both of which are growing exponentially within China – is key.

Sunrise expects as well that the sheer volume of digital recruiting this year might also open the door to more “old school” recruiting as students really seek our one-to-one contact with agent counsellors and educators. But it seems clear as well that digital will continue to play an important, and expanding, role in recruitment in China going forward.

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