China is well known as the world’s largest market for international HE recruitment, with almost double the amount of Chinese students studying in the US than from the next biggest market, India. And it’s not just the US Chinese students flock to either; there are currently over 200,000 Chinese students studying in the UK alone. 

And with a huge 44% of these students enrolled in non-Russell Group institutions, there’s a huge opportunity for challenger brand institutions to take a share of this growing market. 

So if China is on your radar, you really need to know how to make an impact in the right places, at the right times, to effectively engage prospective students. Here’s how to get started. 

Get to know your students

We know that students from China are traditionally very discerning, seeking the very best possible study destination to bring them their desired skills and career prospects. 

But while Beijing and Shanghai are perhaps the best known cities for UK and US student recruitment activity, most of China’s outbound students actually come from Tier III and Tier IV cities such as Hefei and Qingdao. And these markets are worth noticing. Qingdao alone has over half a million targetable Douyin users aged 18-23, and Hefei has 630,000, with almost another million aged 24-30.

Competition for Chinese students is on a global scale. As a challenger brand, this may seem intimidating, but there’s opportunity here; what this really means is that you don’t need to take market share from the big players - Ivy League or Russell Group universities in your own market - to be successful. Rather, you can tempt potential students from similarly positioned universities in other countries, or develop your own market.

So how do you go about this?

1. Define your target audience

First, decide who you want to target. As you would within your home market, you need to think about which students will not only be attracted to your challenger brand institution, but who will be successful there. And why would they choose you?

As well as the strength of your programmes in terms of academic quality and career prospects, our research shows that Chinese students value the following:

  • The opportunity to explore and develop their identity, with the cultural experience as important a part of their study abroad as the educational one.

  • A positive and welcoming environment - more so than ever, in light of international tensions around Covid-19. Chinese students want to know that they will be welcomed and valued as part of your student community.

  • A safe environment. This has always been strongly on the radar of prospective Chinese students and their parents, from crime levels to protection from abuse, and, now, measures in place to operate safely in the context of Covid-19.

Always consider key influencers too. Parents in China play an active role in their childrens’ decisions about study destinations and are often the ones footing the bill. So ensure your proposition resonates with parents.

2. Manage your brand

As a challenger institution, brand perception is everything. A strong brand will showcase your offering, attract potential students and raise your profile amongst a sea of competitors. Having 100% control over what people say or think about you is never really possible, but it’s important to understand what’s in the market and what prospective students really think of your institution.

"Something as basic as getting your translated name wrong can lead to confusion. If you are not actively managing your content on Chinese social media, via a Chinese speaker, there may well be conversations taking place that either cause confusion, or worse, negatively impact your reputation.

If you are not a highly ranked university then you need really positive, truthful content that showcases your brand, your programmes, and your impact. You need to make sure you own and shape any branded content, as well as responding to any user-generated content within a range of platforms."

- Yushan Luo - China Marketing and Media Strategist, Net Natives

3. Be on the right platforms

The advertising you run in China needs to reach your audience, be appropriate for the market, and enhance your brand as a challenger institution. That’s obvious, right? But it’s not that easy in the country with the strongest firewall in the world, and a range of social and digital channels that differ completely from Facebook and YouTube. 

Weibo, WeChat, Bilibili, Douyin, Zhihu are just a few channels that have millions of users in China, but may be totally unknown to anyone in your institution. 

But as we’ve seen from the advertising we’ve run for our clients, these social media channels are playing an increasingly important role in students’ research processes, and your presence (or lack of) on them can make or break your recruitment. Understanding how these platforms work and the organic and paid opportunities they offer is crucial, as is ensuring the cultural relevance of your content and messaging. 

Managing your digital presence in China is a specialist skill. The strongest results and ROI come from investing in a partner who knows the market and can operate behind the firewall. The right partner will support you in navigating the digital landscape in China, manage your reputation, and transcreate your content, making sure that your brand and message intent, style, tone and context are translated effectively for your target audiences.

Get in touch with our experts for even more strategic insight on:

  • Your perception in China: Auditing your existing presence and ensuring that your brand image is clear and correct.

  • Your China strategy: Defining your audiences, identifying where they are based and understanding their online behaviours.

  • Implementing your strategy: Identifying what combination of channels and content you need to win attention for your brand, build a connection with your audience, and push them towards making an application.

  • Measuring the impact of your investment: Tracking conversions from advertising and integrating your systems to track the impact of your advertising activity.

Get in touch.

Article by

Holly Cartlidge

Education Consultant