Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
22nd Nov 2023

Move Over Google: Social media is also a search engine

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • As the digital universe expands, so do the ways in which students research study abroad
  • Social channels, notably Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok are playing a greater role in search, including for students seeking information on study abroad

The following feature is adapted from the 2024 edition of ICEF Insights magazine. The digital edition of the magazine is freely available to download.

“TikTok is coming for Google’s gig, as the kids might say.” —Nadia Tamez-Robledo, writing in EdSurge

If you’re of a certain generation, you “just Google it” when you need to find something, whether it’s a definition, the history of a country, or where to buy your favourite brand. But if you’re a teen or twenty-something, Googling is just one of many searches you might perform every day.

In fact, research shows that people under 34 are now more likely to visit a visually based social media platform such as TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube to find or explore topics, people, places of interest, or … schools that might be just the right fit for their goals and personality.

According to Google research, almost 40% of young people looking for dining or recreational options choose TikTok or Instagram rather than Google Maps or Search. Commenting on that finding, Prabhakar Raghavan, senior vice-president at Google, told an audience at Fortune’s 2022 Brainstorm Tech conference that “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.”

Intuitive recommendations

Often Gen Zers don’t even “query.” For example, when they open their TikTok app, their For You Page (FYP) serves them a delightful banquet of things they will probably love. Prospective international students will almost certainly have looked at schools and the posts of current international students, so their FYP will show them more of that kind of content because that’s the way the TikTok algorithm works. Interviewed in the New York Times, Pennsylvania-based Jayla Johnson, 22, said, “[TikTok] knows what I want to see. It’s less work for me [than]to actually go out of my way to search.”

Ms Johnson’s observation underlines a very important point. TikTok is mostly known for the buzzy, candy-like short video experience it provides. But underneath that is what is arguably one of the most sophisticated recommendation engines ever created. That engine is the reason the algorithm is so successful at holding people’s attention and why the platform has such a significant impact on sales of music, film, TV, books, and a wide range of other products.

Sense of authenticity

Though TikTok’s algorithm masterfully manipulates content based on user data, younger users find it to be more authentic and trustworthy than Google. Alexandria Kinsey, 24, a communications and social media coordinator, told the Times that TikTok’s results “don’t seem as biased” as Google’s. She said that she “often wants ‘a different opinion’ from what ads and websites optimised for Google say.”

The success of apps such as Instagram and TikTok is due in large part to users’ sense that they are hearing recommendations from peers, rather than from corporate brands.

Show me, don’t tell me

Another reason students turn to social media for discovery is that they love learning through video and photo-based posts – especially when it comes to experiences like dining out, travel, and study abroad. This is key because QS global research has found that 70% of students’ exploration of the “feel” of a campus or city happens before they even submit an enquiry to a school.

What are the implications for international recruiters?

Keep adjusting. Digital marketing budgets are made to be remade. Change is a constant in terms of student preferences and digital algorithms. As important as SEO remains for the institutional website (since prospective students almost always go there as part of their research), a strong presence on one to three social platforms is essential.

Choose platforms where you can establish a personality. According to We Are Social’s 2023 Global Web Index survey, TikTok, Instagram, and X (formerly Twitter) are favoured for product and brand research, making them likely contenders for one of your budget lines.

Enlist the help of students. TikTok and Instagram users are looking for fun, creative posts. This is where it makes all the sense in the world to have student social media ambassadors help your school with – or star in – posts and videos. More and more, major colleges and universities are leveraging current students in their overseas recruitment campaigns, and you can be sure that a good deal of their investment here is linked to social media.

Consider a third-party social media firm. School and university resources are often stretched thin, and creating a successful social strategy can be quite a lot of work. Many excellent social media marketing firms specialise in the education sector, and investing there could be wiser than overwhelming your staff, who may or may not have expertise in this area.

Back it up. If you have tweens or teens, you have probably heard something they learned on TikTok quoted as a “fact.” But TikTok and Instagram are fun/shocking trends first, accurate sources second. This is where an excellent institutional website comes in, along with accurate marketing materials and training for agents and in-country reps, and allowing students to talk with institution-vetted students on peer-to-peer platforms such as UniBuddy or The Ambassador Platform. Students can get a feel for your school on social media, but make sure they can get solid information on other channels.

For additional background, please see:

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