Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

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Are you paying enough attention to social media in your recruitment marketing?

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Social media is second-most important information source for prospective students (after only the institutional website) when exploring options for study abroad
  • Most social media usage happens before the student even makes an enquiry
  • Some social channels, notably TikTok and Instagram, are now being widely used as search engines by students who are looking for recommendations or peer input
  • Authenticity and tone are key elements to approaching student-led channels such as these

Have you ever thought of TikTok as a search engine? Even if you haven’t, chances are that many of your prospective students are using it in that way.

If you haven’t spent time on the app before, TikTok is a social channel for short-form video content. It’s where you go to check out the cool new viral trends, and where you will find lots of memes, jokes, and little peeks into other people’s lives. TikTok is also an increasingly important channel for reaching students.

@studywithhashx Top 10 Universities In the UK 🇬🇧📔 #fypシ #university #uk #top10universities #study #college #uni #degrees #studywithhashx #trending #blowthisup #tt ♬ Own Brand Freestyle – FelixThe1st & Dreya Mac

The platform was originally released in China in 2016 where it still operates as Douyin. An international version – TikTok – launched in 2017. About five years later, at the start of this year, TikTok had over 1 billion monthly active users, and it is projected to roughly double that user base by the end of the year. That is enough to make it the sixth most popular social channel in the world, putting it the same field as other leading channels like Instagram, WhatsApp, and WeChat. For additional background on the app, please see “Why the viral video app TikTok needs to be part of your recruitment strategy this year.”

Of particular note to international recruiters is that most of the active users on TikTok are aged 24 years or younger. In other words, they are the core of the college-aged demographic as well as those younger students who are planning ahead for studies abroad.

That 25-and-younger demographic – aka Generation Z – currently accounts for a little over a quarter of the world’s population. That translates to 2 billion Gen Zers worldwide, making this group the largest demographic cohort alive today.

This is also the first generation to have grown up with access to the Internet and portable digital technology. The Internet is always on for Generation Z. It’s in their pockets and Gen Zers are relentless consumers and creators of digital content. Research also tells us that this is a cohort that is confident and optimistic about the future. They value authenticity and they value connection.

For all these reasons, Generation Z uses and thinks about the Internet in a completely different way than other generations.

Google already knows

Prabhakar Raghavan is a senior vice president at Google. Appearing on a conference panel in July this year, he quite notably said:

“We keep learning, over and over again, that new Internet users don’t have the expectations and the mindset that we have become accustomed to. The queries they ask are completely different.”

What Mr Raghavan was getting at, in an observation that drew a lot of attention in technology circles, is that Google’s own, internal data reveals that Generation Z’s search habits are changing. When they want to find information, Gen Zers don’t turn to Google. Almost half of them instead use TikTok and Instagram as search engines.

If we unpack that a little further, what we see is that younger users are searching to learn about experiences, gather recommendations, and connect with other users with similar interests.

Think about that for a minute: all the effort we spend on search optimisation, online advertising, putting info out on our own websites (or on other websites) is necessary, but many of the students we’re trying to reach are searching for information on channels on which we may not even be active yet.

The TikTok video you saw at the top of this article, for example, was one of the first results returned for a simple search of “university UK” on TikTok. Once you dip a toe into those waters, you will quickly see that there is a great deal of student input coming back concerning every aspect of study abroad.

The student journey

Put yourself in the shoes of a student who is planning for study abroad.

Where does their research take them? Probably to quite a few different sources where they can gather up facts and details about different study options: programmes, admissions, fees, travel, and visas.

But aside from those practical matters, what other things might this student be wondering about at this stage? One thing we know from research in the field is that students are quite concerned about simply fitting in on campus and making friends.

But how would a student know if a particular institution or school is the right fit for them? Recent studies provide some clues.

The QS International Student Survey, for example, tells us that 85% of students use social media in their research about study abroad. In fact, after the institutional website, social media channels are the second-most important channel for students who are exploring where they will study.

The QS survey also reveals that 70% of students’ exploration about what kind of social experience they might have on campus or in a city occurs before students even submit an enquiry to an institution or school. The implication here is that students are often looking on social media for a general sense or gut feeling of whether or not a school is the right fit for them. They are asking, “Is this place for me?” “Can I see myself there?” And “Will I fit in?”

@lifeofankii The lessons I learnt after 3 years of university – it’ll really help in your transition & enhance your experience at Uni 💗 #universitylife #unithing #melbourneuniversity #melbuni #monashuni #students ♬ Vlog Video work Fashionable BGM(847726) – Tsuyoshi_san

Guiding ideas

Here are a few key ideas to consider when it comes to beginning or expanding your social media marketing:

  • Choose carefully: There are many apps and platforms out there, but each one will take some measure of budget and staff time to develop. So choose carefully and be guided by real insights into which channels are most important to the students you are trying to reach.
  • Participate: Spend time on the social channels you are exploring. Observe, practise, and learn how people talk to each other and interact in that space.
  • Get your students involved: Peer-to-peer influence is crucial when it comes to social. You will learn a lot from your students about how to be successful on popular channels. Let students help shape or even lead your outreach efforts on social media.
  • Be real: Anything that is not authentic, or that feels like codified marketing language, is just not going to work with Generation Z. Express the values and the intent of your institution or school in an authentic way.

Most of all, understand why your students are looking for and sharing information on social channels in the first place. When it comes to study abroad, there is a very human question at the heart of this activity and it amounts to this: “Is this place for me? Can I see myself there?” You should, in every aspect of your approach to social media, aim to answer those questions as completely as possible.

@itsmandycherie Ask me questions about studying in Paris in the comments 🇫🇷 #paris#parisian#studyabroad#europe ♬ Steven Universe – L.Dre

For additional background, please see:


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