Launched in 2009, microblogging site Sina Weibo has long been an important channel for student recruitment in China. Historically one of the most welcoming Chinese sites when it comes to international organizations, the platform quickly established itself as the ideal starting point for schools looking to connect with prospective students online.
While the increasing popularity of WeChat has caused Weibo’s influence to wane in recent years, it still remains a valuable tool for schools. The site has almost 300 million monthly active users and a number of unique options for schools looking to raise awareness of their brands, build targeted ad campaigns, and increase engagement with potential leads.
Read on to find out why Weibo could be more important than ever to your Chinese student recruitment efforts.
The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Weibo: An Overview for Recruitment Pros
Often called the ‘Twitter of China,’ Sina Weibo emerged almost immediately after internationally popular sites like Facebook and Twitter exited the Chinese market for regulatory reasons. While Weibo cooperated with the Chinese government to comply with its strict censorship laws, it still managed to quickly become a popular public forum.
By 2013, the site has amassed an estimated 600 million users. Not only that, but many western companies, celebrities, and universities established a presence on the site, encouraged by its brand-friendly philosophy and the fact that an official account could be set up without a Chinese business license, which was often demanded on other sites.
However, WeChat’s entry into the market caused a massive shift in the Chinese social media landscape, with the newcomer’s more wide-ranging functionality attracting millions of users from Weibo and other historically popular sites like RenRen. By 2016, Weibo’s user base had dwindled to just 176 million.
But while the likes of RenRen faded into the background, Weibo adapted to remain relevant. The site carved out a niche for itself as the go-to social network for breaking news and entertainment stories, added new features, and monetized more effectively by offering excellent value for brands. Within a year, it had regained over 100 million users.
Ironically for a site once dismissed as a Twitter clone, Weibo is now worth more than its western counterpart, and has arguably responded much more proactively than Twitter to the similar problems it has faced.
What Opportunities Does Weibo Offer for Student Recruitment in China?
While Weibo has a much smaller audience than WeChat, it offers some strategic advantages over its competitor. For instance, a 2016 report released by Tencent’s Penguin Intelligence revealed that people who were active on both sites spent more of their social media time browsing on Weibo than anything else:
This suggests that, although WeChat has evolved from a messaging app into a more comprehensive social network, the Weibo platform stills offers a preferable interface for users looking to search for and discover new things.
Weibo’s user demographics are also favourable for schools. It is estimated that around 80% of the site’s users are between 18 and 33 years old, while Weibo has also revealed that the number of users on the platform born in the 90s or later has increased from 37% to 49% over the last three years.
Indeed, there have been signs that teenagers are increasingly beginning to prefer Weibo. Many have adopted the site as an alternative social platform due to the increasing number of older users on WeChat, just as platforms like Snapchat and Instagram have taken younger users from Facebook.
Magnet CEO and Chinese social media expert Aw Guo noted that most teenagers’ “parents are all on WeChat (because WeChat is so popular), so they’d feel much “freer” on Weibo.” This means that Weibo could become even more important for schools looking to target the next generation of students in the coming years.
One other important advantage of promoting your school on Weibo is its historic reputation as a platform where international organizations have an established presence. Unlike WeChat, many top universities, language schools, and other institutions have been active on the site for many years, and prospective Chinese students are likely to make it one of their first ports of call when researching schools for that reason.
Unique Weibo Features that Schools Can Use to Recruit Students in China
Initially, Weibo’s format was virtually identical to Twitter’s. You could create 140 character posts, follow other users, and keep track of trending topics using hashtags. Over time, however, the site has evolved and introduced a number of new features, and is now a very different and unique proposition.
For a start, Weibo tends to be a far more media-rich experience than Twitter. Video and photo sharing is more common, and the site also offers extra features like animated emoticons, music, and customizable page layouts that users can add to make their posts and pages more engaging.
Example: The University of New South Wales Weibo page makes use of animated emoticons, moving images, and embedded videos.
This is in contrast to its Twitter page, which while effective, is far more formal and static.
Weibo also got rid of their 140 character limit more than a year before Twitter did, and long-form posts are more common and accepted on the site.
Example: The University of Michigan take advantage of Weibo’s relaxed character limit to produce longer posts like this one.
Another additional feature which may be useful for schools looking to recruit students in China is the ability to create polls in your posts. While Twitter also offers polls, they are much more widely used on Weibo, and tend to attract higher amounts of engagement from users. Polls could be very useful for schools looking to gauge prospective students’ interest about crucial motivating factors. For example, you could poll your Weibo followers to find out what areas of study they are most interested in, or what is most important to them in an international study destination.
Weibo is also easier to navigate. While Twitter users have to browse ‘mentions’ in order to see replies to their Tweets, individual Weibo posts have tracked comments, much like Facebook or Instagram, making it easier for schools to start conversations among their online community.
Example: A comment thread on a Weibo post from the University of Liverpool. As you can see, it is structured similarly to Facebook’s comments section. This particular post has attracted 251 replies, which would be very difficult to obtain on Twitter.
It’s also far easier for users to find trending topics on Weibo as it has has a page known as the ‘Board of Fame’ listing the hottest trends, although most of these are celebrity and entertainment-oriented and therefore may not be of much use to schools. However, the site also has a feature called Micro Topics, where it compiles all the posts related to a certain topic on one unique page to make it accessible to users. This can be a great way for schools to boost their visibility on the site, especially during key periods in their calendar like the run up to application deadlines, or during graduation season.
Example: Weibo’s dedicated page for the micro topic ‘graduation season.’
Weibo also allows users to create private groups on the site, and publish posts that are only visible to them. Schools could potentially use this feature to send messages to small groups of prospective students, such as those who are attending an upcoming recruitment fair or open day, to engage them in a more personalized way.
In addition to these features, Weibo has also kept an eye on the latest trends from other social networks around the world, and updated its functionality accordingly. Live streaming can be integrated into posts using the app Yizhibo, while earlier this year the site launched Weibo Story, which functions the same way as the social media stories features that have become popular on sites like Instagram and Snapchat.
Sina Weibo Advertising Options for Schools
Advertising on Weibo can also be a good option for student recruitment in China, allowing you to enhance your organic campaigns on the platform and build your visibility more quickly. The site offers a versatile and effective ad suite with plenty of different options to drive engagement, and a variety of formats, including:
Fan Headline– This format is similar to the ‘boost post’ function on Facebook, and places your post at the top of your followers’ or potential followers’ newsfeeds for 24 hours. The price of promoting your posts will depend on how many followers you have.
Fan Tunnel– This is similar to Fan Headline, but allows you to target a much wider range of users, and can be used to promote individual posts, apps, or accounts. Fan Tunnel ads can be purchased either on a Cost-Per-Mille (CPM) or Cost-Per-Engagement (CPE) basis, meaning your school can choose the most effective option for reaching your goals.
Banner Ads– This is a display advertising option that appears within the Weibo feed on both its desktop and mobile sites. Schools who want to link to their own website rather than their Weibo page may prefer this scheme. Banner ads are charged either on a CPM or daily basis, depending on the format.
Search Engine Promotion– Weibo also allows brands to display ads within their search feature, displaying the results similarly to paid search ads on Google. These ads can be targeted towards specific keywords, and could be a great way for schools to increase their visibility among prospective students who are searching for particular programs or study destinations.
Weibo offers a fairly comprehensive range of targeting options for its ads, and you can build audiences based on age, gender, location, interests, device, and their follower relationship. The platform also offers a number of options to make it easy to track the progress and results of your campaigns.
Measuring Student Recruitment Success on Weibo
How big a part Weibo should play in your Chinese digital marketing efforts will depend largely on how much your target audience is using the platform, and you should be careful to monitor your account and ad performance regularly. Weibo analytics used to be fairly rudimentary, but in 2015 the site launched a more comprehensive suite, Weibo Data Center, making it much easier to get a clear picture of your interactions, engagement, and ROI.
While WeChat should be the first stop for schools who are interested in international student recruitment in China, those that are truly serious about gaining traction in the market should definitely include Weibo in their wider campaigns. Despite some recent setbacks, the site has proved that it has real staying power in what can be an uncertain digital market, and has managed to carve out a niche that should ensure its relevance for years to come.