Up until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, recent years had shown a steady growth in worldwide student mobility. The OECD estimated that the total number of international students worldwide would exceed 8 million by 2025, a number that sat at 5.6 million in 2020. However, with travel restrictions preventing international students from crossing borders to attend universities and other higher education institutions over the recent academic years, international student mobility has been significantly impacted. 

As restrictions ease and international travel becomes feasible once again, it’s more important than ever for higher education institutions to have a plan in place to attract international students. Rather than scaling back on international recruitment campaigns, it’s imperative that institutions take advantage of the suppressed demand, and enhance them to reflect the current climate. Yet, in this time of budget cuts and unforeseeable circumstances, achieving such goals is no straightforward task, and for most higher education institutions, resource efficiency is increasingly a necessity.

With the increasing reliance on technology and growth in digitization brought on by the pandemic, there is a growing understanding that emerging digital marketing techniques can deliver effective results in terms of international student recruitment. By embracing these mediums and adopting new strategies for international recruitment, colleges can better control their communications and branding, reducing reliance on external agents while developing more flexible and customized management of the admissions process.

Implementing these types of initiatives successfully requires a willingness to adapt to rapidly shifting student engagement expectations, understanding not only the continuous advances in available technological tools but the cultural nuances of various target markets. No small challenge!

Going global takes more than just talking the talk – many higher ed institutions passively court foreign students with little more than an international page on their website and perhaps some “one-size-fits-all” attempts at social media or PPC ads in other markets. While this might be enough for super-brands like Harvard, the vast majority of colleges and universities with international enrollment increases cite active recruitment as the reason for their success.

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Fostering a Global Culture to Recruit International Students

Making internationalization a true priority means taking a longer term, bigger picture view of its role in enhancing your institution. More and more universities are publicly declaring internationalization a key component of future success, embedded in strategic plans or elaborated upon in high level documents.

Example: The University of Leeds is one of many institutions that increasingly market themselves to international students. The university’s international admissions pages stress the diversity and global orientation of their institution, and highlight the extensive range of services they offer for students coming from abroad.

ppc for international student recruitment

Expanding strategic international partnerships, research collaborations, exchange and study abroad programs, and alumni relations can greatly enhance a university’s educational capabilities, student opportunities and participation, brand reputation and much more. For example, the University of Leeds advertises themselves as one of the universities belonging to the World Universities Network, consisting of research intensive institutions which work to address globally significant issues.

Colleges can strive to improve the experiences of incoming international students, thus growing valuable word-of-mouth referrals among other benefits, by broadening orientation services and retention tactics. Promoting internationalization means providing the pathways for growth, including resources for increasingly culturally diverse students (and staff) on campus to learn from each other.

These are all long-term projects demanding visionary leadership – but what can schools do right now for more immediate results?

Feeling out Markets with PPC for International Student Recruitment

A good international student recruitment campaign begins with establishing and communicating clear goals for the number and types of students desired, and leveraging enrollment data to forecast trends and develop realistic targets.

Focus initial efforts by choosing markets with the best potential for your institution – likely typical leading countries of origin (China, India, South Korea) but sometimes smaller nations that have an established presence at your school. Also consider focusing marketing efforts according to preferred academic discipline and degree type.

Unique cultural and language considerations add an extra layer of complexity when going global – choosing appropriate keywords is not simply a matter of direct translation. Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising is a tremendously cost-effective method of revealing insights about potential markets, since expense is only incurred when prospects actually click your link. As a result, it can be a great way to learn which search terms are popular and which ads convert better, letting you see which combinations of keywords and messaging are more effective in a particular market.

Google AdWords has a free Keyword Planner tool for searching keyword and ad group ideas, but keep in mind that Google isn’t the most popular search engine in several important source countries. For instance, any school looking to utilize PPC for international student recruitment in China will need to conduct campaigns on Baidu, the country’s dominant search engine.

Before launching a PPC campaign, it is essential that ad copy fits the requirements for the applicable platform, landing pages have been created on your website and analytics tracking has been established. Landing pages must meet expectations created by the ad copy and concisely convince prospects to take the next steps, such as completing an application or “request information” form.

Example: The University of Georgia has a custom Chinese landing page for its Intensive English Program to increase the likelihood of generating inquiries from prospective students from China.

ppc for international student recruitment

Search and Mobile Trends for International Student Recruitment

Over the past decade, there has been a continuous increase in education-related search volumes, confirming that the student decision journey has indeed moved online. Non-branded search queries by prospective students uncertain of which school they wish to attend have also risen. Google’s internal tracking revealed that queries including geo-specific keywords generated strong click-through conversions. Increasing specificity by promoting particular degrees and academic programs in specific locations is recommended for better results.

Going mobile has been another top priority for higher education marketing in the last few years, but with significant worldwide increases in mobile phone usage since the onset of the pandemic, it’s become even more important. Optimizing for mobile-device usage is even more crucial for international recruitment, since a majority of users in several source countries are mobile-exclusive. Given that a negative mobile experience on a website is enough to make users 62% less likely to make a purchase, ensuring that your school’s website is compatible with mobile devices can reduce the odds that your prospects leave your website and move on to the next potential college on their list. Make sure you have your most important bases covered when developing for task-driven mobile searchers – top selling points of your school, programs and admission info, videos and application forms are among the most popular features to include. Shorter forms are far more likely to convert. International students will also want to know things like financial and study permit details.

Optimizing Your Website for Recruiting International Students

One of the biggest challenges of internationalization is developing your website to appeal to multiple markets and languages. There are many ways you can design the international sections of your website, such as using a top-level folder on the same domain as your other content, a subdomain for specific languages, or developing a microsite for specific countries or regions. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, and much will depend on the needs of your school. Check out our blog on International SEO for a good primer on the differences between the three.

Example: The University of Michigan uses a subdomain for each of the different language versions of its website. Subdomains make it easier for search engines to index your content and allow you to have a local IP address, but require a separate SEO strategy from your main site, and may not be as trusted by local users as addresses in their own region.

recruiting international students

Keep in mind that search engines won’t give your pages the same value if they think it’s only an auto-translation (or if content is out of date), and to avoid the issue of duplicate content you must create the proper links between translated content to alert them if it’s a translation. Alternate hreflang link tags let search engines know how content should be prioritized.

Right-to-left languages like Arabic require the appropriate fonts and additional “rtl” tags at the top level block element. Content using Chinese characters and other logographic languages presents the additional challenge of modifying the page layout and structure to accommodate the unique condensed properties. While providing content in multiple languages can be complex, it can go a long way to effectively communicating with foreign prospective students and, perhaps even more so, their parents. Ensure that users can easily navigate between available translations – the clearest way is to prominently display the language name written in that language at the top of the webpage:

international recruitment multi-language website

Even if you have multiple international websites, avoid auto-directing based on a user’s IP address as it will irritate prospects and inhibit Google’s crawlers from discovering your sites.  

Content and Social Media Considerations for International Student Recruitment

When developing any content for international audiences, it is vital to understand your target market as much as possible, including the local language (in the way that prospects actually speak), cultural norms and expectations, and priorities in education search. Try using student assistants to help develop or translate content and always test with various groups to ensure that messaging is clear.

Social media can be a valuable tool for discovering more about prospect groups through online conversations, informal surveys and the types of posts that receive greater interaction. Communication on these networks can serve to filter unqualified prospects and reveal insights about language proficiency, interests and your brand perception. It is an opportunity to showcase different sides of your institution and reinforce alumni successes.

Additionally, it’s important to tailor your content and social media strategy to reflect the current climate, where students who’ve been confined to their home countries during the pandemic are seeking new opportunities across borders once again. Research shows that during the pandemic, the amount of social media usage by students from many target countries has increased significantly. Thus, it’s important for higher education institutions to formulate content and messages which attract these students, as they’ll be more likely to engage with it. 

Keep in mind that the social media landscape of many international countries is drastically different. Schools recruiting international students in China, for instance, need to establish a presence on the country’s hugely popular domestic social networks, such as WeChat and Sina Weibo, in order to connect with prospective students.

Lead Conversion Tactics for Recruiting International Students

It is important that inquiries from all prospects, domestic or international, are addressed effectively and promptly. Students expect a quick email response, even if it is initially an auto-response with some helpful links – Hotcourses Abroad found that if given two similar universities, students from China, India, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore would choose the one that responded fastest. Prospects prefer personalized responses signed by a staff member they can continue correspondence with.

Best practices:

  •          Address the student by name
  •          Answer the question personally and in detail
  •          Provide helpful additional information, including social media and relevant links

Email drip marketing campaigns can efficiently track and manage large quantities of inquiries for the entire student life cycle, automatically triggering customized messages based on specific conditions that provide effective resources while minimizing staff requirements. Instead of leaving it up to prospects to continue correspondence as many colleges do, be persistent and frequent in your responses, varying the types of follow-up messaging and addressing potential concerns with multimedia supplemental information to increase the odds of making a connection.

Using Virtual Campus Tours and Zoom as Part of Your International Student Recruitment Strategy

A campus tour is a big part of most students’ decision processes, providing the opportunity for them to envision if they can really spend their next four years there. International students rarely have the luxury of visiting a prospective campus ahead of enrollment, but virtual tours can help bridge the gap, emphasizing a school’s strongest features and providing a glimpse of campus life. Many US-based universities, such as the University of Miami and the University of North Carolina, have already developed 360-degree tours using virtual reality technology, while Google Maps Street view also offers interior virtual tours of some schools.

international student recruitment
Example: The University of British Columbia offers virtual tours for each of their campuses, enabling prospective students to start exploring from anywhere in the world.

To get better personalized interaction despite the distance, more colleges and universities are adopting web-conferencing via easily accessible tools like Zoom. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education institutions have invested in the use of digital face-to-face tools in order to deliver virtual courses and more, and these tools can also be used to engage directly with international students. Admissions counsellors can turn to this equipment in order to clarify solutions using whiteboards, share documents or slideshares, and guide prospects through relevant web pages via co-browsing. To make the most of these opportunities, school personnel should develop and rehearse a script to work from and test all equipment many times beforehand.

More International Recruitment Ideas

Digital marketing is advancing all the time, providing new tools for schools seeking a competitive edge in reaching prospects across the globe. Here are some innovative ideas for colleges and universities looking to access the world:

  • List with international portal sites
  • Develop apps featuring application tips, sample lectures, campus videos/pictures
  • English-language training (online modules and/or collaborations with other training facilities) or online language exchange
  • Reach out to international alumni (through internal networks or tools like LinkedIn) to support recruitment activities

Whichever initiatives you pursue, improving your international student recruitment strategy can best be accomplished when you have a thorough and accurate picture of your web activity. When managing several social media and other student marketing channels covering various markets, it becomes even more essential to have a clear system to reveal what is working where and monitor your ongoing reputation – software and student assistants can help. Google Analytics can help you to understand your student mix and top source countries so you can track and monitor your progress while effectively segmenting and customizing communications.

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*Editor’s note: This blog was originally published on 9th January 2017 but has been updated to reflect current trends