A well-constructed student persona can shape the direction of a school’s digital marketing initiatives across a number of channels. Painting a clear picture of the background, ambitions, and needs of your typical students, a persona can help bring your recruitment objectives into focus to better guide your resource allocation, messaging, and strategy.
However, developing effective personas is becoming increasingly challenging in today’s global education market. When your typical students can apply from almost anywhere in the world, speak a number of possible languages, and possess worldviews taken from a diverse range of backgrounds and cultures, are they really typical anymore? And how can you ensure your personas are truly representative of your audience’s diversity, yet still focused enough to provide your school with actionable insights?
If you’ve been having trouble creating student personas for international recruitment, read on for some useful tips to kick-start the process.
Where to Start When Developing International Student Personas
Your starting point for creating personas for international student recruitment will largely depend on your school’s current activity and success rate in the global marketplace. Institutions that already have a significant international student base will have more resources to draw on than those who are in the early stages of seeking to expand the reach of their recruitment efforts.
If you are in the former category, looking to your current international students is likely to be a good first step towards developing more concrete personas. Assessing your international cohort by location, age, gender, financial means and other demographic attributes will give you solid working framework to build your persona upon.
From there, you can create surveys to gain more in-depth qualitative information about what attracted them to your school, what they have been most satisfied with during their time there, and what parts of the experience have fallen below their expectations.
Example: A sample student survey created on SurveyMonkey, which can be a great tool to help you create and distribute custom surveys.
Speaking to your admissions staff can also be helpful during this stage of the process. Drawing from their experience dealing with new applicants and inquiries, your team will provide insights into what questions they frequently face during the enrollment journey, what selling points and follow-up approaches leads typically respond most to, and what obstacles are most likely to lead to dropped applications.
If your school uses agents, consulting with them can also be a good idea. As your school’s representatives on the ground, they will come face-to-face with your prospective international students on a day-to-day basis, gaining firsthand insights into the global perception of your institution.
If you are looking to step up your efforts in a particular region or country, or supplement your agency recruitment with digital marketing to attract more direct inquiries, your agents may be able to help you assess just how viable your goals are, and how best to go about achieving them.
Identifying New International Student Markets
While these are all excellent sources of information, they may not get you too far if your current international student base is very small. Even you do have something of an established presence in certain countries, it’s important not to limit your ambitions to markets where you have already experienced success. The chances are that if you are aiming to create new international student personas it’s because your existing operations could be improved, and it’s crucial to explore every possible avenue to achieve that.
It may be that you are overlooking untapped markets where your school has yet to establish a real presence, but could prove very fruitful. Your specific commercial and educational objectives may also require you to look further afield. For instance, many language schools purposefully look to foster a diverse student body from all over the globe in order to avoid situations where visiting students communicate with one another in their shared language outside of class, as it limits how immersive their experience is.
Example: Many language schools, like ILAC in Canada, highlight the diversity of their student base as a selling point. Creating unique personas for different markets can be key to establishing and maintaining a healthy mix of nationalities.
There are a number of sources that can help you identify new markets. First, you can gather plenty of information about growing international student recruitment markets from online sources. Popular industry sites like ICEF Monitor offer a wealth of helpful articles, reports, and other resources that can help you identify and assess your school’s chances of gaining traction in new regions and countries.
Paying attention to what your competitors are doing can be useful, too. If schools in nearby locations or with similar program offerings are visibly targeting a particular market, it could be a sign that there is a large potential audience there.
You should also pay attention to any government initiatives targeted towards attracting international students. Many countries have now developed regional and national education strategies which entail investing a lot of resources into advertising and promotion. These are often directed towards specific countries that they have chosen to prioritize, and aligning your schools targeting with that of these wider government initiatives could help you reap their benefits.
Example: A Facebook post from government-run destination marketing organization Study in Australia promoting an event in the Philippines. Paying attention to the countries organizations like this are targeting can help you evaluate possible new markets during the persona development process.
In addition, your school can delve into your existing online data to identify any countries or regions where you may already be attracting some engagement. A significant amount of web traffic from a particular market may be an indicator that there is potential for growth there, and that targeted digital marketing efforts could yield results. The Location Report in Google Analytics is a great place to find potential new opportunities.
Example: This Location Report shows engagement from top international markets like India and Malaysia, among others. Seeing where your web traffic is coming from could alert you to new opportunities.
Researching your school’s rankings in search results in specific regions can also help to determine just how much visibility you are already receiving in potential new markets. At a more general level, conducting keyword research using Google AdWords and other tools will also help you determine just how many web users in specific markets are searching for your course offerings, or have expressed interest in your location as a study destination.
Developing International Student Personas by Location
Once you have identified the locations you wish to target, you can then begin to create specific personas tailored towards them. However, this can challenging if you are looking at a diverse range of different countries and regions. Ideally, you will want to have as few personas as possible in order to keep your campaigns focused and consistent, but attempting to lump wildly different students into the same broad, general persona can limit the effectiveness of the technique.
As a result, deciding how to segment your personas for international student recruitment will be crucial to their success. There is no right or wrong way of doing this, and many schools take different approaches. Some will choose to group students from countries with geographic or demographic similarities.
For example, it might be helpful to create a persona specifically for prospective students in South American countries. Likewise, many of the international student recruitment markets in Southeast Asia share a number of similarities in terms of demographics, economic status, and level of education, so creating a single persona for this region would still allow your efforts to maintain a certain level of focus.
The difficulty of grouping students from a number of different countries together arises when those countries have broadly different demographic makeups. For instance, a language school in the UK may need to use very different tactics to recruit South American students than it would for students in Italy, as their spending power and motivations for learning English may be drastically different.
Another possible approach is to limit your student personas to a few key target markets. The more narrow your targeting is, the more specific you can be, and this will often result in far more personalized, strategically focused messaging and campaigns.
Example: This blog from Kaplan International shares the experience of a Saudi Arabian student who studied English in order to pursue a university degree in the USA. The blog is perfectly pitched towards the typical motivations of students from this market, who tend to be more driven by educational and career ambitions.
The downside is that you may not be able to aim for quite as diverse a recruitment strategy. Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that personas can always be revisited, and that new ones can be created at a later date to expand your marketing efforts.
Other Bases for International Student Persona Segmentation
Of course, it is possible that location may not be the defining factor in your segmentation process at all. Depending on your specific situation, you may find that your prospective students have similar demographic attributes across most of your target markets, but differ in other ways.
For example, you may find that students of different ages have very different expectations of your school, or different kinds of people are more likely to be interested in particular programs. Master’s and bachelor’s level international students at a university, for example, may need to be segmented into separate personas. A bachelor’s student may be younger, and far more interested in student experience.
Meanwhile, a master’s student could be older, have some employment experience and even a family, and be more focused purely on the educational aspect of their course and what they will gain from it.
Considering the execution of your digital marketing campaigns might also change how you think about segmentation. For instance, if you are planning on creating multilingual campaigns, it might be helpful to segment your personas by language. This will allow you to ensure that the characteristics of all students who are likely to be targeted in a specific language are taken into account. Just be careful that you account for the differences of students from different countries with shared languages, too. A student from Spain is likely to have a very different set of priorities to one from Mexico, and the same approach may not work with both markets.
Similarly, the internet habits of different countries may change how you approach persona creation. For instance, China’s wildly different internet landscape necessitates schools use the country’s native online channels, like WeChat, Baidu, and Sina Weibo. This could mean that creating a separate persona for Chinese students is worthwhile, as it will allow you to better account for the practicalities of a Chinese digital marketing campaign.
Example: A persona specifically created for the Chinese market. Considering the country’s importance for international student recruitment and its vastly different online ecosystem, giving prospective students from the nation specific focus may be the best approach.
Special Considerations for International Student Persona Development
Once you have created a basic profile of your main personas, you can expand upon it to paint a more detailed picture of their common traits, interests, motivations, and pain points. While this process will be similar in many ways to student persona development for domestic markets, there are certain things you may need to provide special consideration for when dealing with an international audience.
Both the native language of your audience and their grasp of your own language will need to taken into account when developing international personas. A school offering courses taught in English, for example, will find that some international markets are more receptive to English language marketing than others.
Even if their English levels are good, students in particular countries expect online resources or follow-up to be provided in their own language. Your persona’s language proficiency will also dictate the tone and style of your content, as you may need to use simpler, more straightforward language to engage with them. In addition, you will want to consider that international students could be apprehensive about completing a course taught in English, and need reassurance that they will be given the support they need to succeed.
It’s important to take into account that the family situation of international students may be very different from that of typical domestic applicants for the same courses. For instance, while domestic undergraduate students are usually single, international students may be more likely to be married, and even have children.
There are a few reasons for this. Because it can take time to get equivalent qualifications, bring their language skills to the requisite level, and prepare financially to study abroad, international students will often have a slightly older average age than their domestic counterparts. They may also come from cultures where it is more common to marry younger.
As a result, their priorities will be quite different, as they will need to consider their choice of school from the point of view of their whole family. They may be eager to find out whether their spouse can work, what kind of childcare facilities and schools are available in your location, and how much it will cost to find suitable family accommodation rather than traditional student residences.
Example: Vancouver Island University offers resources for international students with families on its website. Taking this factor into account in your persona development can be crucial.
In addition, even if a prospective international student is unattached, cultural ideas about the role of families can vary from country to country. Schools may find that leads from certain locations are more family-oriented, and likely to involve their parents in the decision-making process. Given the cost of international study, it is also likely that a student’s parents could be helping to fund them, meaning they will need to be convinced that your school is the right choice.
While even domestic students can have trouble adjusting to life at a new school, it is a much more common occurrence among international students. Leaving behind their family and friends can leave them without the immediate support network they need, while adjusting to a country which may have drastically different cultural and societal norms can make it even more challenging.
Making international students feel as though they will be welcomed and accepted should be a principal component of your recruitment messaging, and this starts by factoring it into your persona development process.
Consider how the lives and culture of students in your key target markets differ from those in your country. Do they have different religious beliefs or political ideologies? What are their eating habits like? What do they do for fun that they might not be able to do in your country? And might they be fearful of any kind of discrimination or intolerance?
Asking these kinds of questions will allow you to step into the mindset of your prospective student base, and better align your messaging to allay their concerns.
Example: This article on Wittenborg University of Applied Sciences’ website asked international students how tolerant Dutch people were, attracting a number of positive responses. Content like this can help you assuage concerns students from abroad may have about being treated differently.
Attitudes to education
Another surprising difference you might notice between your domestic and international students is their attitude to education. Universities may find, for instance, that domestic students are more interested in the experiential aspects of college life, such as participating in clubs and societies, socializing, and personal development. International students may approach their education more practically, placing higher importance on future career outcomes, or the school’s global reputation.
This may carry over into the types of programs that interest them. Students from large international markets like China and India are known to be more interested in STEM subjects and other courses that are likely to provide a clear path to sustainable careers.
Many domestic students, on the other hand, may be more interested in studying arts or humanities subjects. Different international student markets may also have disparate priorities. In the ESL sector, for instance, students from developing economies are more likely to be seeking English courses in order to improve their education and career prospects.
Conversely, there is a large market of students seeking English language education in the UK and Ireland from developed countries in the EU who may not have as high an immediate practical need to master the language. While they are often looking to further their careers, they may also be motivated by personal development, or by the desire to experience life in another country.
Example: In this blog on the Atlantic Language website, a Spanish student talks about her experience studying in Galway, Ireland. Detailing her motivations to study there, the student mentioned that the experience of living in Ireland was a huge factor in her decision as she was ‘captivated by its landscapes and culture.’
It’s also worth considering what plans your prospective international students may have once they graduate from your courses. Are they seeking skills to better their prospects back home, or do they have ambitions to stay in your country and seek work? If they do plan on staying, how easy will it be for them to obtain a visa after graduation? This aspect of your persona development will dictate how you present your location as a potential study destination.
Finally, it’s worthwhile considering the financial situations of your typical international applicants when developing personas. Even though many top international student markets are countries which are currently experiencing sizable economic growth, prospects may still find the cost of living and studying in North America, Europe, the UK, or other more developed economies a bit daunting. Evaluating just how much of a concern financing is likely to be among your personas will ensure you give the subject adequate attention in your promotional efforts.
You should also evaluate how likely your prospective international students are to be seeking financial support such as scholarships, loans, employer or government funding from their own country, or even help from their parents. This will allow you to direct them to any resources or support they may need in this area.
Putting International Student Personas into Action
Developing strong student personas will allow you create a messaging strategy which aligns with the most prevalent values of the majority of your prospective international applicants. You can create key recruitment messages which speak directly to their shared goals, and that serve to overcome their most common barriers to enrollment.
Your personas can also serve to guide your digital marketing efforts, helping you decide what channels to focus on, determine the resources and budget you will need, and create impactful content that will foster a sustainable online presence in your target markets.
Of course, however thorough you are in developing your personas, it is always possible that things will not turn out the way you expected. Certain markets may prove to be less viable than you thought, and prospects in particular countries may not respond in the way you had hoped to certain marketing approaches. Likewise, you may find that different countries or demographics you had discounted turn out to be more receptive to your school and course offerings than initially estimated.
The key to ensuring success is to treat your personas as living documents, to be tweaked and improved over time as your prospective student base interacts with your school online, allowing you to learn more about their preferences, values, and needs.
Monitoring the success of your digital marketing campaigns through Google Analytics, CRM and marketing automation reporting, social media analytics tools, and other data sources will give you a good idea of just how accurate the personas you have created are. Delving deeper into specific metrics and key performance indicators will help you determine anywhere you may have went wrong.
With a bit of trial and error, your school should be able to develop personas that truly reflect your international audience, and aid your entire team in reaching the widest, most diverse audience possible, wherever in the world they may be.