Targeting Parents for International Student Recruitment
Date posted: March 16, 2017
While most education marketing is understandably focused on prospective students, savvy schools recognize the important role that parents have in the decision making process. This influence becomes more pronounced the younger the student and the farther they must travel to your campus. Parents have long been active in supporting their children’s higher education but the extent of this involvement has been steadily rising in recent years.
Although admissions teams may be occasionally frustrated by uninvited “helicopter parents” who are perceived to be overly involved in the college selection process, it should come as little surprise that a student’s family would want to be heavily invested in this significant time in their life. As higher education becomes increasingly competitive and costly, students are more likely to seek the opinions of their trusted advisors.
Parents play an even more important role in the study abroad decision, especially at the boarding school and undergraduate levels. Besides being generally the primary financers of a student’s education, parents are obviously concerned about their child’s happiness and wellbeing in what is usually their first time living away from home, and about securing their best possible future.
And yet, even though 90% of students according to some research say that their parents played a significant role in their final decision, some parents have expressed frustration that they’re not sufficiently engaged by the student recruitment process. Parents have unique priorities and communication preferences that institutions should consider when reaching out to them. Making the extra effort to meet their needs with thoughtful marketing initiatives can be the difference in elevating your school above the crowd.
Market Segmentation Strategies for International Parents
The better that schools can understand the decision-making process leading to application and enrolment, the more effectively they can target recruitment strategies. The challenge is that these factors are continuously changing and may significantly vary depending on where the student is coming from.
Developing multiple student and parent personas for your top source markets can be a good first step toward clarifying the unique cultural backgrounds, academic motivations and concerns influencing your diverse prospects’ study decisions. Start from your experience with your current students and common questions to your admissions advisors, then add emerging social, economic and political considerations affecting recruitment. The resulting profiles can help to customize marketing approaches and key messages for each market.
While the students themselves will be the primary decision-maker in many of these source markets (at the post-secondary level), their parents will be a key part of admissions conversations and in some countries are likely to assume a leading role. This is particularly true in Asian countries that comprise the majority of international student recruitment, especially traditional Confucian cultures like China that value respect and obedience to family authority.
Although parental influence may be the deciding factor, it’s important that the prospective student remains the central recruitment focus. They want to feel that this important decision is their own (and it often is) – after all, they’re the ones who will be relocating to an unfamiliar land for the duration of study.
Understanding a Parent’s Decision-Making Process: Focus on China
To better understand a parent’s decision-making process, seek to accumulate this knowledge throughout your recruitment efforts. Asking questions (or deducing from their actions) to determine what triggered their search, the information and sources that most helped them, and the factors prompting their final decision, will guide your mapping of their journey to application so you can send them the most effective messages at the best times.
For instance, schools developing student recruitment strategies for China should know that the country’s now-abolished “One Child Policy”, cultural emphasis on education, and insufficient domestic higher ed system are key factors behind the boom of students abroad. A 2012 study by University World News found that while the student had a say in the decision-making process, a majority of the final choices of country, program and/or university were made by the parents.
However, there is evidence that these cultural traditions are softening and children are becoming more involved and empowered in their study destinations. The rigid, high-pressure Chinese academic system motivates many parents to seek alternatives for their children abroad, for a more relaxed and happy life as much as the broader personal development and future opportunities. More and more of these children are being sent abroad at a younger age, sometimes accompanied by parents – the Vancouver Public Education Alliance has doubled its client base of Chinese pre-Grade 12 pupils in each of the past few years, ranging from high school to kindergarten students.
“My granddaughter (who is 12) is studying French at the distinguished Shanghai Foreign Language School,” said Cen Qingcai in an interview with the South China Morning Post. “She spends all of her time on her studies and the school puts pressure on its students. Our family hopes to send her to a school where she does not need to worry so much about her academic scores.”
Adapting Your Digital Marketing Strategy to Parent Search Behaviour
While agents and international fairs are still effective recruitment resources in many markets, a growing number of prospective students and parents around the world are interacting with schools exclusively online to conduct their searches and admissions processes. These searches typically begin with unbranded general research of a particular country’s education options, making search engine optimization (SEO) essential if you want your school to show up in the top organic results.
Effective SEO demands an understanding of which search terms are popular among your prospects and those your competitors are using, then strategically integrating them throughout your website and inbound marketing initiatives.
Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising campaigns can be the ideal method for revealing search patterns of international markets, since expense is only incurred when the ads are clicked. This will complement your SEO efforts to increase your search engine visibility, and is an opportunity to test combinations of keywords, messaging and calls to action to see what converts best. Be sure to connect your ads to relevant landing pages and calls-to-action that provide appropriate information for the parent or student’s stage of the admissions journey.
Does Your Website Answer Parents’ Questions?
A parent’s first impression of your school is often your website – do you make it easy for them to find the answers they seek? If you can simplify your website’s navigation and messaging for them, you’ll make them happier and it might even give you the competitive edge.
Example: The University of Colorado makes it easy for parents to find resources that are important for them, with a quick link prominent on the homepage encouraging them to “be involved”.
They do a great job of giving a sense of an inclusive community, welcoming parents to their “family” and offering a wealth of clearly laid out resources and opportunities to get involved. This includes submitting favourite family recipes, contributing to the “Parent Fund”, and supporting recruitment of other students by writing notes, making calls or volunteering at college fairs. Their child may have left home but they still want to be part of their life – their personal testimonies to prospective parents make a highly desirable recruitment ally.
Parents will always be interested in information about safety, academic rigor and career services. The 2014 E-Expectations report from Noel-Levitz revealed that the top concerns for international students were funding, safety on campus, and safety in the surrounding area. Detail information about campus security, health and wellness services, and state-of-the-art facilities, with helpful links to explore your connections to police, bus and emergency services.
Of course, parents are usually financially involved in their child’s education. Costs shouldn’t be the first reason you engage with them but providing a transparent breakdown of tuition, room and board, and other fees will be appreciated – clarify the specific rates for international students as well as typical payment options, budgeting advice, scholarship opportunities and other frequently asked questions. Consider explaining how financial aid reduces the “sticker price” by providing a Net Cost Calculator and resources for follow-up questions.
For international parents, do you put this information in a Parents section or the International Students section? While many schools use variations of a parent portal site, the University of Hertfordshire kindly simplifies this with an International Parents section. It includes unique benefits, fees and scholarship information, application processes for international students, preparation and arrival advice, and specific entry requirements and upcoming visits for each country.
Justify the hefty sacrifice that international parents are prepared to make (in terms of both money and lost time with their child) by adequately demonstrating their return on investment. Provide evidence of successful outcomes to alleviate their concerns, detailing alumni accomplishments and typical graduate paths with handy statistics, infographics, stories and videos. Why not include more immediate successes as well – show how students grow, flourish and achieve their potentials while learning and living on campus.
Addressing Top Concerns of International Parents
International applicants have unique priorities and education expectations that your website and marketing materials should particularly address. Your own research will help confirm what prospective parents want to know but, in general, international prospects are even more career focused than the average student/parent, wanting to know all about career services, employer connections, internships and co-op opportunities.
Education systems in top Asian source countries place great emphasis on major standardized tests, which can be the sole factor for determining acceptance to top universities. Although these prospects and parents tend to be more results-oriented, it would be a mistake to assume that they’re only interested in STEM and business subjects.
Studying abroad is an exciting opportunity for Chinese and other nationalities to finally be able to choose their own path of study, taking advantage of the wide range of available majors, participative education and special supplementary programs. Highlight the flexibility of your study options, such as the opportunity for blended learning and multiple majors, effective teaching approaches and potential benefits of less expected career paths.
Brexit and the Trump presidency mean that UK and US schools now have extra work to do to clarify how new and emerging policies affect international students’ residency and employment options. Parents will need reassurance that your community is inclusive and immigrants are welcome. Explain which immigration documents are needed and provide helpful links for accessing visas to study and work.
Schools should also lay out other practical aspects to simplify the transition to campus, including concrete information about orientation and pre-arrival programs, registration and housing information, meal plans and food options, transportation concerns, and ongoing support services for international students. International parents will greatly appreciate campus maps, orientation videos, and advice for arriving from the airport.
Communication Considerations for International Audiences
Effective communication with international prospects implies respecting that they’re rarely native English speakers. Even though they are applying for a program in English, they may not understand many expressions and common higher ed terminology. Parents and extended family members in other countries are even less likely to speak English.
Offering translation options on your website for the most common languages of your international prospects is the ideal solution, taking care that the wording aligns with your school’s tone and how the target audience really says things. If you can’t translate your entire site, focus on the sections most important for priority markets – about section, available programs, international student and parent sections, financial information, etc.
Besides translation, you can make your content more understandable by writing text in simplified “Global English” that avoids jargon, idioms and insider language – this writing renders better automatic translations by commonly used applications. Images, videos and infographics can often communicate important concepts better than text, particularly video testimonials and advice from international students (and parents!) in their mother tongues. Improve your readability by breaking up text into paragraphs with sub-headings, and using links and expandable text boxes rather than wordy explanations.
International prospects may also be confused by other aspects of the admissions process that seem obvious to you. When in doubt, take the time to explain things like homecoming or university transfer processes that are unique to your country’s education system. Conduct focus groups with students of various nationalities to better understand wording or concepts needing simplification or further clarification.
Here’s how ONCAMPUS uses simple infographics to illustrate how their pre-university foundation programs fit with the US education system:
Opening Your (Virtual) Doors for Parents
Most colleges and universities find that prospects who visit their campus, usually with a parent or two, are far more likely to apply. To address the parent’s unique priorities, some schools separate parent and student for part of the visit so the former can meet with financial aid staff or a professor while the latter get the inside scoop from the student tour guide or perhaps other students.
Campus visits aren’t likely possible for international students and their parents but a variety of digital marketing techniques can help bridge the gap. Virtual tours are an increasingly popular tool to bring your school to the prospect and their influencers, letting students and parents visualize walking through your campus at their convenience. Parents want to see your academic and athletic facilities, residence halls and rooms, dining areas and impressive architecture – remember that parents love cleanliness!
Many schools are now offering multiple virtual tours, featuring attractions with unique appeal to various segments, including parents. These tours could highlight your public safety features, important landmarks and parking to help with move-in, social venues, inclusive resources like prayer/meditation rooms, diverse student body, and international clubs and activities. It’s also an opportunity to include memorable campus details, meaningful statistics and admirable achievements in a more impactful context. Some of these tours embed short videos for a more lively virtual walk around campus – seek to make them interactive with interviews and engaging features, mirroring a physical visit as much as possible.
Example: Boise State has a virtual tour especially for parents, appropriately starting with its university health services before exploring athletic opportunities, campus expansion, and the gift shop, of course.
Several schools offer a “virtual open house” for interested applicants around the world. These tend to be web conferencing sessions that are dedicated to addressing key points about a school or program, with live video (often with PowerPoint slides) from relevant departments and an opportunity for online participants to interact with real-time questions.
Digital Marketing Techniques to Develop Long-term Relationships with Parents
Digital communications can effectively and efficiently keep parents connected throughout their child’s education journey, from the initial exploration stage to matriculation, graduation and beyond. The earlier that this interaction can begin, the better the chances of successful recruitment. Phone and electronic correspondence to new prospects can attempt to begin engagement with parents by asking if they’re available to say a quick hello – also make an application support email and helpline easily accessible.
Offer a variety of parent-friendly resources on your website (translated into the prospect’s language when possible), such as an updated academic calendar, prominent admission/registration/payment deadlines and a timeline of important dates, and a handy “parent guide” PDF that summarizes contact and community information, campus maps and other key data. A series of webinars can help guide parents through admissions processes and providing ongoing support, as can a YouTube channel or playlist and podcasts aimed at orientation, easing the transition and explaining student services.
If parents identify themselves as such when requesting information or otherwise sign up for email lists, automated email nurturing campaigns can address this segment directly with customized messaging. CRM technology for schools enables elaborate tracking and follow-up to student or parent inquiries via email or instant messaging. Campaigns can be segmented according to country, program of interest or other variables, sending relevant multi-lingual messages and complementary supporting content (blogs, brochures, infographics) for each stage of the enrolment journey.
Parent e-newsletters can be developed for the admissions process and for current students, providing a mix of news, guides, important dates, parent involvement resources and fun facts. Here’s a good example from the University of Toronto, a monthly update for parents that’s well organized with helpful links:
Content marketing and social media are other ways to provide a more connected experience to international parents. Interspersed with content addressing your other personas could be blogs answering top concerns of your target audience in an interesting and insightful manner. You could interview parents of current or former students to reveal their insights into the student journey, pride in being a parent of a successful student, or advice for other international parents. Alternately, encourage parents to write a guest blog for your website, editing for best practices of formatting, SEO, visuals, etc.
Social Media Marketing to Prospective Parents
Social media groups are effective online communities dedicated to the interests of students, parents or alumni. Your school could establish Facebook, Google+ or WeChat groups for parents or specific subsets (grouped by age, nationality, student’s program, etc.) or ask to participate in groups that already exist. For instance, Circle of Moms is an influential WeChat group consisting mostly of mothers of Chinese students who are interested in sending their children to education institutions in the United States.
These groups are great support networks for parents, providing reassurance for parents of students leaving for college or university and opportunities to share experiences or connect with peers for personal guidance. You can add them to your list of social media sites in a management platform like Hootsuite, to more efficiently manage the regular sharing of helpful resources and success stories from your website and around the web.
Keep on the lookout for opportunities to showcase family involvement in your community, such as homecoming, special parent/student days or graduation. Encourage students and parents at these events to discuss their happy memories with your school or students’ gratitude for their parents’ support throughout their education journey.
Making the most of these touching moments with social media contests or video compositions can strengthen their connection with your school while providing persuasive testimony for other parents seeking a warm and welcoming education community for their child.
What are your favourite digital marketing initiatives for connecting with parents?