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International students

Diversity can be very important to your international student recruitment initiatives. Attracting prospects from a range of different countries and regions prevents your school from becoming overly dependent on a particular market, and thus less vulnerable to economic fluctuations and student mobility trends. It also ensures that your educational community is enriched with a range of different cultures, languages, and voices.

However, prospective students in different places can have very different needs and goals, online habits, and even decision-making processes. As such, it’s important to be able to adapt your approach and tactics when dealing with potential applicants in several markets, rather than simply adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.

Keep reading to learn how to develop a flexible international student recruitment strategy that can help you get results in all of your target markets.

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New vs. Existing Markets: The Tactical Differences for Schools

One of the key questions to take into account when tailoring your strategy towards different markets is how well-established your school is in each particular location. Depending on your previous activities and their success, you may have already cultivated a reputation in certain countries and regions.

This can make generating more inquiries much easier. Your school can build on its existing online visibility and established tactics in order to improve your results. What’s more, if you are already attracting a healthy amount of applicants from a certain country, you can highlight your current students and alumni from that location in your marketing materials as proof of your track record and success.

Example: The SUNY New Paltz Institute for International Business uses its Instagram account to showcase some of its international alumni. This carousel slideshow profiles a student from Sweden.

recruit international students

However, targeting a market that is new to your school can be a different ball game. Unless your institution is very well-known worldwide, it is unlikely to have the same brand recognition, and you may need to be more aggressive with your approach in order to gain a foothold.

Delegating bigger advertising budgets, researching the best tactics for attracting students in that region, and prioritizing their particular motivations and concerns ahead of your other targeted audiences may all be necessary if you want to build a truly steady flow of new applicants.

A good way to determine just how much reach you currently have in a market is to look at your online traffic data. You can analyze your Google Analytics reports to see how often web users from the region you are interested in find your site, and use CRM reporting to see how many leads you are generating by location. Keyword tracking tools like Moz will also allow you to monitor your average positions for certain search terms by location, which can help you to measure your overall online visibility.

Example: The Moz dashboard for a school tracking its rankings in Russia, Vietnam, and Korea.

Regional Differences in International Student Decision-Making Processes

Applicants from different countries can have very disparate socio-economic backgrounds, incomes, education levels, and cultural influences, all of which can impact what they value most when choosing where to study. A student from Italy, for example, is likely to be looking for a rather different experience than a student from India.

Of all these factors, income level and ability to finance education is perhaps the area where the most obvious difference is evident. This chart from the 2018 QS Applicants Survey shows the disparity in how much financing affects the choices of master’s candidates in different regions:

international student recruitment

Source: QS

As you can see, funding is likely to be of least concern to applicants in Western Europe, with just 45% of respondents rating it as a motivator, most likely due to their comparatively higher average income levels. At the other end of the scale, it is high on the list of influencing factors for those in Africa and the Middle East, as well the Asia Pacific region. Schools looking to target potential leads in these markets would do well to highlight any financing options they offer to reduce the monetary burden of studying.

Example: Middlesex University includes information about scholarship and funding options on its welcome page for Vietnamese students.

university international student recruitment

What international students want from their education also varies greatly depending on where they come from. The same survey, for instance, shows significant differences in how much personal interest plays a role in choosing a school for prospective undergraduates:

recruiting international students

Source: QS

These results are possibly also linked to income. The regions with the lowest scores – Asia Pacific and Eastern Europe – tend to be home to lower income countries, where applicants may value opportunities to secure a stable career or develop practical skills over pursuing their personal passions. In Western Europe, on the other hand, students may be feel more secure about their futures and the choices available to them, and thus are more likely to choose a course or study destination based on their own particular interests rather than future prospects.

Latin America, interestingly enough, is something of an anomaly in these results in that personal interest tends to be a high motivating factor, while areas like finance and career progression are lower than average, despite the comparatively low average income of the general population.

QS has suggested that this may be due to the wide wealth gap in the region, with those from lower income backgrounds unlikely to have access to higher education in any form. However, they also note that “Latin American students at all levels of study place greater importance on exchange opportunities than the global average,” suggesting that the lack of top quality institutions and links to a global community fuels the appetite of students to seek education abroad for the experience itself rather than anything else. With that in mind, emphasizing the opportunities your school offers for students to experience a different culture and lifestyle could be very important if you are recruiting international students from Latin America.

Example: This Facebook video from GEOS Languages Plus features ESL students from Brazil and Mexico, among other countries, visiting various tourist attractions around Victoria, BC.

Downtown Victoria by our Students

Video entirely produced and edited by our student Masato Higuchi with the participation of students from Japan, Mexico and Brazil: Karla, Valeria, Juan Marcos, Kisaki, Yuka, Kanako and Masato. #iamwithgeos #esl #studyabroad

Posted by GEOS Languages Plus – Victoria on Thursday, October 18, 2018


In addition to having different motivations, the decision-making process of international students in different regions can also vary greatly, according to a very insightful study from Educations Media Group. The report found that applicants in certain regions, such as Northern Europe, were more likely to choose which country they wanted to study in as a starting point, before focusing on particular schools or programs:

international students


With that in mind, placing your location front and centre of your promotional strategy could be a good move if you are trying to attract students from this region.

Example: ESL school Centre of English Studies regularly posts blogs which emphasize the advantages of its various locations, like this one about Dublin.

recruiting students

In other parts of the world, things are markedly different. Students in Southeast Asia, for example, were almost twice as likely to prioritize choosing a specific program ahead of a country:

student recruitment


Program was also the top choice in North America, South America, and Western Europe. In each of these cases, digital marketing campaigns focused on your programs and courses, with your location as a secondary concern, may be a more advisable approach. Notably, school was the least common decision driver in all regions surveyed, suggesting that an institution’s overall branding and name recognition isn’t as big a factor in attracting students as you might anticipate.

So how can schools that are targeting students in more than one of these markets ensure that they cover all their bases? In most cases, the answer is simply to create a range of different content that addresses the principle motivations of prospects in each region.

For example, you can develop a regular blog content calendar that the addresses the needs of prospective students in different regions on a rotating basis, so that there will be something for everyone on your site.

Example: English Studies Institute, an ESL school in California, features a good mix of blog content which appeals to the various motivations of different international students, covering everything from its location and American culture to academic tips and insights.

language school recruitment

This approach can be replicated on social media, in other areas of your website, and even in email marketing. By devising a well-rounded, frequent posting strategy across your digital channels, you can curate a digital marketing mix that casts a wide net.

Web Usage Variations Across Different International Recruitment Markets

Another way that international recruitment markets can differ is in how prospects use the web. For a start, because internet penetration and usage rates differ around the world, potential applicants in certain countries may still be more reliant on offline sources than others.

For instance, a 2015 QS report entitled Students Online: Global Trends  found that while 66% of global respondents rated both online and offline resources as equally important, 16% of Asian students favoured offline resources, higher than the average of around 6 to 10%. By contrast, African students placed much more importance than most in online resources, with 33% favouring them in comparison to the global average of 24%.

Information like this can be vital when determining the best avenues into new international markets, and how much you should invest in digital marketing versus establishing a presence on the ground using international recruitment agents.

How students in different regions access the internet can be significant, too, as certain countries and regions have much lower smartphone penetration than others. On the other side of the coin, in countries in which widespread internet adoption happened later that most, ownership of desktop and laptop computers is less common, and net users often tend to favour mobile above all else.

To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at two key student recruitment markets: Brazil and China. According to Hootsuite’s most recent We Are Social report, internet usage in the South American country skews mostly towards desktops and laptops:

international recruitment

Source: Slideshare

In comparison, the same report reveals that China’s online landscape is dominated by mobile:

recruit students

Source: Slideshare

Using responsive web design should ensure that your school’s site is optimized for users regardless of device, but paying attention to differences in device usage could be vital in planning advertising campaigns in different regions, especially on platforms where you can target by device or use different ad formats for mobile or desktop.

Differences in connectivity are also important to consider. In the case of the above two countries, China has an average internet speed of 63.69 megabits per second (mbps) on fixed connections, and 32.52 mbps on mobile connections, whereas Brazil has an average 17.86 mbps fixed connection speed and 16.37 mbps on mobile. That means Brazilian connections are generally just over half as fast on mobile, and almost four times slower on fixed lines than those in China. Schools looking to provide a satisfying user experience to international students may therefore need to pay attention to their overall page speed, and possibly opt for simpler, less elaborate designs.

Example: A stylish but simple site like that of ASC English may be optimal for schools looking to attract students in countries with relatively slow internet connection speeds.

ESL international recruitment

The Social Media Habits of Students Around the World

Social media is also an area where usage and trends can vary quite a lot depending on what country you are in. ComScore’s Global Digital Future in Focus whitepaper illustrates some of the disparities in usage of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat across various countries:

student recruitment abroad

Source: ComScore

From here, you can see that some social networks are far less popular in certain countries than others. A school looking to use Snapchat to recruit international students, for instance, would have far more luck targeting France than Mexico, India, or even nearby Germany. Likewise, based on these figures, it could be argued Twitter’s value as a recruitment channel is minimal outside of North America and the UK.

Regional social networks may also come into play. China, of course, has its own unique social networks like WeChat and Weibo, which are essential for any schools looking to gain visibility in the country online. Other popular regional sites include Cloob in Iran, and VK and OK in Russia, though these do not have nearly as big an audience as their Chinese counterparts.

Example: Swinburne University maintains an active presence on WeChat to attract students from China.

international student recruitment wechat

One way to maximize the reach of your social media strategy when attempting to recruit students from different countries and regions might be to focus mainly on sites with universal popularity. Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have all established themselves among the top most-visited sites in all but a few countries around the globe. As a result, they may prove the best channels for schools looking to reach a wide range of students.

Example: CAIS Boarding Schools in Ontario posted this video on YouTube about the international student experience it offers. Because the school attracts students from all over the world, using YouTube to appeal to potential applicants is a good strategy that allows it to cast as wide a net as possible.

YouTube video

However, it can still be worthwhile trying to attract international students through other social networks. In many ways, knowing that you are appealing to a smaller segment of your international audience on a particular platform can allow you to focus your efforts more clearly on their specific needs, and could help you gain more traction. The key is to be aware which students are likely to visit which sites and tailor your social media marketing content accordingly.

Another area which shows even greater usage disparity across different countries and reasons is one which is becoming increasingly central to international student recruitment: instant messaging. The We Are Social Report provides a telling view of the most popular IM apps across the world:

instant messaging for international student recruitment

Source: Slideshare

You can see that the two Facebook-owned platforms, WhatsApp and Messenger, are by far the most dominant. However, the most popular app varies greatly by region, with WhatsApp dominating South America, a large part of Asia, and most of Africa, while Messenger is stronger in North America, Australia, and North Africa. Europe is quite evenly split between the two. Elsewhere, other apps have established niches in particular countries, such as Telegram in Iran, Line in Japan, and of course WeChat in China.

These differences can be important for schools. Because of its low cost and ease of use, instant messaging has become an increasingly popular channel for prospective students to communicate with international institutions, and many will expect this option to be available for them.

The solution for schools looking to recruit across different regions is perhaps to simply establish a presence on all platforms which are popular in their target markets, in order to give students the option of communicating through the app they are most familiar with.

Other Challenges of Recruiting International Students in Different Markets

There are many other aspects of your international student recruitment campaigns that may need to be adapted and adjusted for different countries and regions. For instance, the need for multilingual content may be greater in some markets than others, while even if you are marketing in your own language, you may need to simplify your content if the proficiency levels of prospects in particular countries or regions are not high.

Example: Canadian ESL pathway provider CultureWorks produce simple, easy-to-read content for prospective students.

recruit language school students

Regional variations can influence budgets, too. Certain countries, particularly large source markets like China, may require more investment than smaller niche markets, while the strength of local economies can also influence the average prices on ad platforms and other online channels.

While breaking down your international student recruitment strategies by different regions and countries isn’t easy, it can be necessary in order to properly optimize your efforts and achieve the best possible results. With schools investing more and more in tapping into new markets around the world, a more flexible, versatile approach could be the difference between success and failure.

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