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international student recruitment

A recent World Education News & Reviews (WENR) report revealed some very compelling trends amongst Millennial international students.  With a focus on these students’ online behaviors and the ways in which they influence one another, the findings are yet another reminder of how important it is for schools to develop an online international student recruitment strategy.

On a global scale, the mass movement of international students has skyrocketed from 2.1 million in 2000 to about 5 million in 2014.  Here’s a look at how this trend has played out in Canada:

International Students in Canada from 2003 – 2013

International students in Canada


And here’s how the dramatic up-tick in international student mobility has impacted US enrollment:

International Students in the US from 1953 – 2013

international recruitment in the US


There is little doubt that the international education market will continue to grow. For its part, Canada has pledged to double its international student body by 2020 – spending 5 million a year on branding initiatives in high priority emerging markets like China, India, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. And this is not strictly a North American phenomenon – education institutions all over the world are targeting audiences beyond their own borders, eager to attract the revenue (and cultural diversity) international students bring.

Which begs the question: is your school, program, college or university ready to capitalize on this expanding market? What strategies do you have in place to attract, engage and enrol the increasingly mobile Millennial?

 Ask yourself these six questions and find out if your international recruitment plan is up to par.

1. Have You Defined Clear Goals and Set up Tracking?

Deploying digital marketing initiatives without doing some analysis, defining personas and establishing metrics is like flying blind. Step one is to determine from which countries the majority of your students come using Google Analytics:

International Conversions by Country

international student recruitment analysis

To pin down which channels international audiences are using to find your institution, map their journey using Analytics. This will give you a clearer sense of which initiatives to invest in, and a way to track the effectiveness of those tactics over time:

International Traffic by Channel

international recruitment by digital channel

With a clearer picture of where the majority of your international students are coming from, it’s easier to determine what they’re looking for when they visit your school online.  This step is key to ensuring your international marketing efforts align with your personas’ online behaviors, motivations, and concerns:

Align User Goals with Marketing Initiatives

align persona goals with marketing initiatives

And of course, to maximize the ROI of each marketing initiatives, it’s essential for schools to gather data on how well they’re performing. Set up goal-tracking in Google Analytics to measure page traffic, clicks and conversions. This way, you’ll know exactly where to make adjustments:

Goal Set-up in Google Analytics

Google analytics for tracking recruitment goals

By taking stock of your unique web ecosystem (website, microsites, social media channels, CRM, education portals, etc) and establishing data-based methods of tracking engagement and conversion across the system, your institution is much better positioned to launch an effective international recruitment strategy.

2. Have You Identified Relevant International Keywords?

Schools who track traffic to their website by channel typically discover that organic search accounts for the highest number of international visits. Given that this is the case, it’s surprising how many institutions neglect to optimize their presence for international. In order to boost visibility in search engine results, it’s important to use keywords that align with the motivations of your international personas. Not sure what these keywords should be? Google Adwords has a free tool higher ed marketers can use to make this process easier.  Just enter words that describe your school and select the locations and languages you are interested in targeting:

Google Analytics Keyword Search

You’ll be able to see a list of related keywords in the market you selected, ranked by popularity. This example shows keywords connected to business training, in India, in English, with the number of searches per month:

international SEO keywords in Google Analytics

Once you’ve defined your international keywords, you can use Google Webmaster tools to chart their performance:

international keyword performance on Google Analytics

3. Have You Developed Multi-Language Content?

Strategically adding multi-language content to your school’s website can be helpful in connecting with international personas in meaningful and authentic ways. Not sure where to add content in different languages? First, narrow down your target languages according to your most valuable personas. Then, consider asking current students or alumni to create video testimonials in those target languages. These can be integrated into your existing content where international prospects are most likely to see them – request information pages, interactive brochures, housing information, etc – just refer to the User Goals (as defined in question one) to determine where this multi-language content will be most effective. The Canadian College of English Language uses this approach on their homepage:

multi-language content for international recruitment

And here’s an example from John Cabot University where a graduate talks about her success following graduation, in her native tongue – great for providing social proof and personalized connection with applicants from the same source country:

YouTube video

4. Have You Optimized Existing Content for International Personas?

The same WENR report we mentioned earlier revealed that a somewhat astonishing 83 per cent of Millenials sleep with their cell phones. The study also confirmed that 56 per cent use mobile devices to search for and apply to US universities. Clearly, most international students are heavy consumers of online content. So, it’s essential for schools’ to ensure their website is optimized for mobile in order to capture these queries and conversions. You can use Analytics to analyze traffic to your institution from mobile devices:

mobile responsiveness for international recruitment

Schools can also use Analytics to quickly see how prospective students from abroad are interacting with certain key pages, leveraging the results to make changes where they will be most impactful (in this case, a “thank-you” page is highlighted):

website interaction from international prospects

And you can even trace students’ pathway from one page to another, and get a more refined view of how effective your international conversion funnel is:

international student website interaction

Gathering data this way will help schools determine where to enhance their existing content (perhaps with multi-language material) in order to better connect with – and convert – international audiences.

5. Have You Taken Advantage of International PPC?

Schools who want to expand recruitment into international markets should definitely consider a globally-oriented Pay-Per-Click initiative.  PPC marketing for higher education has several benefits:

Pay-per-Click for international student recruitment

Schools can set up and track their campaigns with Google, starting with targeting desired countries using Adwords:

PPC student recruitment by country

Adwords will also help you select the languages of the websites on which your PPC ads will appear:

Multi-language PPC web pages

It’s wise to monitor your paid search by country, as not all regions will convert equally:

PPC international student conversion by country

For PPC campaigns with a budget of over $1000 per month, it’s smart to A/B test the ads and landing pages to truly maximize ROI.

6. Are You Engaging International Students on Social Media?

One of the key findings of the WENR report was that Millenials around the globe are unprecedentedly willing to share their opinions and experiences with others online. Whether posting a review or sharing photos from a recent campus visit, international students are particularly focused on joining online communities and expanding their own circle of influence.

This conclusion is just one of many higher ed marketers have reached about the growing importance of social media in international recruitment. It is an absolutely vital component of any international recruitment plan. As a starting point, schools can use Analytics to gauge the amount of traffic coming to their website via social platforms:

Social media traffic from internationals students

In order to grow traffic from social media, institutions should consider how they are reaching out to international personas. The multi-language video testimonials we touched on earlier are ideal media for sharing on platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Vine. Whether you’re sharing blog posts, curating content from around the web, or posting student-generated material, the objective is to make international prospects feel welcomed into your online communities. Speak their language and anticipate their concerns. This should be the driver of your school’s social media marketing initiatives for international audiences.

And of course, Analytics can help schools determine where to focus their community-building efforts online by tracking international traffic by platform:

international social media traffic by platform

And crucially, Analytics reports can also help institutions track the number of international conversions coming from social media:

international conversions from social media

Is your college, university, or program already participating in some (or all) of these international student recruitment initiatives? Let us know how things are going by sharing your observations or questions.

Attract More International Students to Your School