China has long been established as the world’s largest market for international student recruitment. With a growing middle class and increasing openness to westernized education, the number of students studying aboard has increased every year, with the latest data from the Chinese Ministry Of Education showing an incredible 459,800 students entering programs abroad in 2014 alone. Many colleges and universities have done exceptional work in targeting their marketing towards the country, offering Chinese versions of their websites, admissions services with native speakers, and establishing educational partnerships with Chinese institutions.
However one area that Western schools have struggled to get to grips with has been social media marketing. The implementation of The Golden Shield Project – often nicknamed “The Great Firewall of China” – has meant that the largest global social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, have all been banned since 2009. In their place, a vast number of Chinese-based sites have thrived, creating a radically different and unfamiliar social media landscape for recruiters to navigate.
In this blog, we explore some of the most popular and relevant Chinese social media platforms for student recruitment, to help you better understand what’s required to successfully build your social media presence in this important market.
Chinese Social Media Marketing Basics – A Primer for Schools
The first thing that recruiters will notice about the Chinese social media landscape is how quickly it changes. While the larger western sites have established a somewhat stable global market share, the Chinese market is in a comparatively earlier stage in its development, and is a lot more competitive as a result. The popularity of social networks tends to fluctuate wildly, with new platforms emerging and gaining users from other sites all the time. As a result, recruiters need to keep a close eye on developments to keep their social media presence relevant.
In addition, there are a number of important differences in how Chinese internet users consume social media, and any school launching an international student recruitment campaign needs to ensure that they develop their pages to meet their audience’s expectations. For example, while QR codes died a quick death in the Western market, they are essential in China, and scanning them is the preferred method used by social media users to add connections.
Another important difference is the range of functionality users expect from social media. While western sites tend to be built primarily around one function, such as Instagram’s photo sharing, Chinese platforms typically offer all sorts of different services, often incorporating games, online shopping and even financial services. Chinese social media is heavily tailored toward the mobile experience, as 61% of users access social media on their mobiles.
Lastly, schools must inevitably consider censorship when targeting prospects in China. While some aspects of Chinese internet policy have become more relaxed in recent times, schools do need to be mindful of posting any controversial content. The social media sites that have thrived in the country have done so by cooperating with the government, actively policing their sites and banning users.
QQ & QZone- How Universities Can Reach 800 Million+ Chinese Users
With almost 1 billion active monthly users, media conglomerate Tencent’s QQ is one of the world’s largest social networks. QQ itself is essentially an instant messaging app not unlike Skype, but also incorporates a number of built-in services, including popular Facebook-like site, Qzone, which has 659 million users. Despite its ubiquity, western companies have long been hesitant to invest in marketing on QQ, as the platform’s users are perceived to be mostly quite young with limited spending power.
Universities, however, may find that both QQ and Qzone have potential for education lead generation in China. While QQ is generally used more for one-to-one contact with close friends, the QQ groups function allows users to include anywhere from 200 to 1,000 people in chats, depending on the level of their subscription. The app could easily be leveraged to send targeted promotional materials to interested Chinese students, in a similar manner to the way many schools currently use WhatsApp.
Qzone, meanwhile, presents endless possibilities. Colleges can use Qzone to share photos and videos just as they would with any other social media site, but it is also very popular for blogging, with many users posting regular long-form blogs or using the ‘diary’ function to keep a journal on the site. Schools could easily repurpose their own college blog articles on the site, translating the content to Chinese. They could also invite current Chinese students to contribute content, perhaps turning the ‘diary’ on the college’s Qzone page into the diary of a Chinese student’s experiences.
Example: While most Western universities aren’t very active on Qzone, you can get a few ideas by looking at the practices used by Chinese Institutions who have a presence on the site, such as Anhui University. As you can see, the layout is not too dissimilar from a Facebook page. Anhui use Qzone in much the same way, sharing regular updates, as well as answering student enquiries through the ‘message board’ function, which you can see in the left corner.
WeChat- The Next Big Thing in International Student Recruitment?
Often dubbed the “WhatsApp of China” due to their similar look and basic functionality, WeChat (aka Weixin) actually offers a whole lot more. Users can send voice, picture, text and video messages with no restrictions on file size, while the app ‘moments’ section functions like a mini-social network, allowing users to post status updates among friends.
WeChat includes games, functions as a dating app, and has an E-commerce section, WeChat Wallet, where users can shop online, or even order a cab like they would on Uber. WeChat is also owned by Tencent, and while it currently has fewer users than QQ, its popularity is rapidly growing, with the company reporting 650 million users as of November 2015, a 39% increase on the previous year.
So how can recruiters take advantage of a platform that offers so many possibilities? Many schools have already set up official accounts, attracting followers by sharing their QR Codes on their website and other social media pages. As prospects must follow your school’s account to receive your communications, cross-platform promotion is essential to gain exposure.
Example: The University of Nottingham heavily promotes the WeChat page of its Ningbo, China international campus. Notice how prominently the QR codes for the pages are featured, due to their popularity amongst Chinese users. Schools should promote their WeChat QR codes on all online and offline material and even set up a page on their website with all WeChat links (featuring ‘WeChat’ in title description and tags) for maximum SEO benefits.
The messaging service can be used to answer queries from perspective applicants, as well as communicate with existing Chinese students on campus. With no file size restrictions or character limits, it’s also worthwhile to post as much content as possible on your school’s Moments page.
For instance, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee posted informative guides to their programs, departments and professors directly on their WeChat page, rather than asking users to navigate to their website, no doubt ensuring their posts were read by more people as a result. Like Facebook, WeChat has been slowly introducing advertising into its Moments news feed so this could be a strategy worth pursuing to expand your WeChat presence.
Sina Weibo- Still a Reliable Social Media Marketing Channel for Schools
By far the most well-known Chinese social media site in the west, microblogging platform Sina Weibo has experienced something of a decline recently. In 2013, the site boasted an estimated 600 million users, but just two years later the company counted their user base at just 176 million, with the rise of WeChat fuelling the exodus.
Nonetheless, the site maintains some strategic importance for international higher education marketing. Weibo remains the first port of call for breaking news stories and topical content, and still has the most visible western presence of all Chinese sites, with many international celebrities and brands posting regularly. Furthermore, with many schools already active on the site, it’s likely to be one of the first places prospective Chinese students go to research institutions.
Example: The University of Michigan has worked hard to establish itself on Weibo, and now has over 20,000 fans, posting content developed specifically for current and future Chinese students. The school’s Communications Director spent years working in Asia, and brings that experience to bear to connect effectively with Chinese students.
Weibo is very similar to Twitter, and schools should approach it in a similar way, posting regular updates with informative content that will appeal to the Chinese audience. While Weibo has recently gotten rid of their 140 character limit, posts should still be kept short with a good mix of photos, videos and text. Again, it is desirable to have someone who understands the Chinese language and culture to help run the account. Some schools will employ current students to help with the task, although this should be done with some degree of oversight from administrators, to keep your message focused and targeted.
It’s also worthwhile keeping an eye on the latest developments with Sina Weibo, as the site is constantly changing and improving. While Weibo’s basic functionality is similar to Twitter, it offers a lot more flexibility with how you can present your page, with plenty of customizable options.
Example: The Hague University in the Netherlands makes good use of its Weibo account, customizing it with a scrolling image slideshow, and displaying its QR code prominently on the page.
Sina are also a very brand-friendly company. They recently introduced video advertisements to the site, and are one of the most advanced Chinese sites when it comes to offering analytics tools, having partnered with Czech company Socialbakers to launch a program similar to Facebook Insights last November.
RenRen- Exciting Opportunities to Reach an International Student Base
Launched in 2005, RenRen is one of the oldest social networks in China, but its popularity has dwindled significantly in recent years. While the site still claims 195 million users, it has fallen far behind its competitors, and struggles to be profitable.
However, RenRen is still very much a worthwhile platform for recruiters to investigate. Originally known as Xiaonei – which means schoolyard – the site was targeted towards people who wanted to reconnect with former classmates, and has maintained its popularity amongst students in 2nd and 3rd tier cities despite its declining user base. It’s specific user base is regarded as the platform for university students.
Although Renren has recently become more of an online gaming portal, the company has also invested in a number of finance based services which open up intriguing possibilities for universities. The company rolled out RenRen Fenqi in late 2014, an online student shopping service that bills in installments. Even more promisingly, RenRen has invested significantly in Social Finance, a company which provides student loans and financing solutions.
Developing a presence for your school on RenRen is relatively straightforward. The site provides a full service for business accounts, complete with paid advertising options and in-page analytics. As you can see from the page of international applications specialists ChaseFuture below, the interface bears more than a passing resemblance to Facebook:
However there are a number of key differences to how the site works. For starters, RenRen users tend to write much longer posts than average, and also earn “points” and virtual currency for being more active on the site, which allow them to have access to customizable options, such as profile skins and special gaming features. With that in mind, it’s probably important that school’s posting on RenRen keep their site updated regularly, in order to keep pace with its very active user base.
Launching Chinese Social Media Campaigns
Despite the numerous challenges, the sheer number of potential students on Chinese social media make it a marketing channel well worth investigating – for example, the number of internet users in China is twice the total population of the United States. In 2010, Brock University became one of the first North American schools to actively recruit on Chinese social media and in less than a year, over 1,600 Chinese students expressed interest in Brock and 37 were accepted admission. Two student representatives that spoke Mandarin would spend about two hours per day answering questions and informally chatting on Renren and QQ.
Providing oversight and support to Chinese student ambassadors from your campus is a great way to manage the all-important direct communication that is so valued by Chinese prospects. As the Chinese are particularly influenced by their immediate social circles, developing solid relationships early can deliver long-term benefits. To encourage real-time interactions despite time zone challenges, try offering convenient Q&A hours on your Chinese social media pages as Bristol University has done.
When operating social media accounts in China (or anywhere, for that matter), be sure to link back to your website and other social platforms, use consistent branding and frequency of content creation, adapt engaging content according to each social channel’s norms (cartoon-style content is apparently very popular in China), be responsive, and adopt a test-and-learn approach to grow your presence over time.
As social media becomes more competitive and fragmented in China, colleges and universities that are serious about investing in international student recruitment here should plan for reallocating resources to capitalize on emerging opportunities. For example, video apps Meipai and Pitu are on the rise and could be used for initiatives similar to those used on Vine or Instagram. Youku remains the dominant video sharing platform in China but there are several other popular players in the market that could be considered for your school’s video content. Staying on top of these shifting trends is no small challenge but many schools are finding that their perseverance is paying off.