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Using WeChat for student recruitment in China

Imagine an app that combines all the functions of Facebook, WhatsApp, Amazon, and Uber into a single easy-to-use platform. Imagine that you can also use it to order food, dry cleaning, cinema tickets, and even to pay bills at restaurants and shops. Not only that, but it functions as an online dating app, gaming platform, and news site.

For the people of China, this is exactly what WeChat offers. Originally developed primarily as an instant messaging platform, the app’s functionality has grown to the point where it more closely resembles a full-scale mobile operating system. The app’s versatility has seen its popularity grow at an exponential rate, and it now boasts over 889 million active users.

For schools, this means that establishing a presence on the site is becoming increasingly essential in order to create opportunities in the world’s largest international student recruitment market. Read on to find out how to get started.

The Rise of WeChat: An Overview for Schools

WeChat is owned by Chinese tech giants Tencent, who also run the country’s second largest social media platform QQ, which itself has over 868 million monthly active users. The app was originally launched in 2011 as a basic instant messaging platform for mobile phones, quickly gaining popularity due to the fact that SMS messages in China are relatively expensive.

As time went on, however, it became far more than that. Tencent began introducing new features to the app at an incredible rate, quickly equipping it with just about every function you could think of.  At the time, the Chinese app ecosystem was far less developed than it is in the West, where people are more accustomed to using a number of different applications for different tasks.

As a result, WeChat’s multifunctional nature was welcomed by eager mobile users who liked the convenience of having everything in one place. Indeed, many experts have commented that Chinese users find the combination of different apps required to get the functionality of WeChat in other countries primitive.

By the end of 2016, WeChat had surpassed QQ as the country’s most popular social network, with 50% of users spending over 90 minutes per day on the app. Even more crucially for schools, 65% of WeChat users were born in the 80s or 90s, while 14% are aged between 17 and 21. With most of their users based in China’s 1st tier cities, this makes them the ideal demographic for international student recruitment.

How Can Schools Get Started On WeChat?

In order to start promoting your school on WeChat, you will need to set up an official account. This can be difficult for organizations outside of China, and you may need to go through an intermediary with a Chinese business license unless you have a registered office there. HEM offers this service through its Chinese partners as part of our Chinese digital marketing package.

Once your account is set up, you will be given a unique user ID, and can also create a QR (Quick Response) code for your account. This is a barcode-like label that will allow users to automatically follow you by scanning it with their phones. This is the most popular method of following accounts among WeChat users, and you should feature your QR Code heavily on any pages of your website which are likely to attract prospective Chinese students.

Example: The University of Surrey in the UK provides its QR Code and WeChat user ID on its website.

Surrey university WeChat

WeChat users mainly discover new brands through messaging and the site’s ‘Moments’ newsfeed rather than search, so attracting a lot of followers will be crucial to your success. Encouraging your current Chinese students to follow your account is good way to do this, as they can share your content and help you build your brand visibility among their peers. You could also target alumni, who may have returned to China after graduating from your school and are likely to use the app on a regular basis.

Example: Kings College London has a WeChat account specifically dedicated to alumni engagement. The university encourages followers to invite their friends to join and regularly posts about alumni events happening throughout China.

Kings College Alumni WeChat

Tips for Using WeChat to Engage Prospective Students from China

WeChat’s incredibly versatile functionality can make it seem daunting when you first attempt to use the app to connect with prospective students. For the most part, however, you will be focusing on just a few of the social and messaging features. Here are some of the most useful:

Instant Messaging- The site’s original function is still one of its most popular features and can provide schools with a valuable channel for initiating direct contact with prospective Chinese students. In contrast to some Western IM apps, where organizations sending unsolicited messages to users might not be welcomed, WeChat users expect engagement from official accounts through this channel, making it extremely appealing for schools.

Example: Many schools, such as RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, send automatic greetings to WeChat users as soon as they follow them.

RMIT University WeChat

Group Chats- WeChat allows you to create group chats with up to forty different members, which can be extremely useful for schools. You could create a group chat to alert your prospective Chinese students of your presence at a recruitment fair, for instance, or a particular online event that might interest them.

Some schools with a large Chinese presence also use group messaging to engage with current students, alerting them to important campus announcements and utilising the app during their orientation process. This can be a great way to make your Chinese student base feel welcome.

Customized Menus- Official accounts can create custom menus which appear at the bottom of your followers messaging screens. The menus can contain three first level links and up to 15 second level links, and can either link to web pages or trigger automatic messages to your followers.

Example: Dorset College in Vancouver, which offers a range of academic preparation and university transfer programs for international students, created a custom menu for its WeChat followers. The first level links are labeled as ‘Introduction,’ ‘Campus Information’ and ‘Q&A,’ and each option has a number of second level links too. Each option triggers an automatic response message.

Dorset College Student Recruitment WeChat

Auto Replies– You can also set up your account to send automatic reply messages to users who type in certain keywords, which can contain audio, video, images, or links. Like customized menus, they can be very useful for schools looking to provide information quickly and easily for students. For instance, you could set up an auto reply for the keyword ‘apply’ which would include a link to an application form for your school.

Moments- Moments is WeChat’s in-app social media site, and is similar to Western sites like Facebook and Twitter. You share content on your feed such as articles, images ,video or status updates, which will then be visible to your followers, and can be liked, shared, or commented on. Moments is the best way to grow your following on the site, and you should make sure to post regularly with informative, relevant content that will attract shares from users.

Example: Swinburne University in Australia posts frequently on its WeChat Moments feed with Chinese language content.

Swinburne University WeChat social media

WeChat also offers a number of other features, such as Walkie Talkie, which allows you to record and send voice messages directly to users, and Shake, which allows users to connect with other people nearby by shaking their phones. While these functions are less likely to be a part of your regular strategy, they can still be used to engage students in creative ways from time to time.

Example: During an orientation meeting, Michigan State University encouraged its new Chinese students to find each other on WeChat using the Shake feature.

Michigan State University WeChat Social Media

Is Advertising on WeChat an Option for Schools?

In addition to promoting your school organically, there are also a number of paid advertising options on WeChat that can be effective. The most visible are Moments Ads, which display in a user’s Moments newsfeed. The ad will include your school’s name and WeChat profile picture, a description up to 40 characters long, up to 6 images, and a CTA which can link to a WeChat account or a web page. Here is what a typical Moments Ad looks like:

WeChat moments ad


You can also create a video ad, which can contain between 6 and 15 seconds of video in the ad itself, while the click-through video can be between 30 and 90 seconds. Video ads are approximately 20% more expensive than ads with images.

Moments Ads are charged on a Cost-per-Mille (CPM) basis, meaning that you pay for every thousand impressions. Unfortunately, they are not cheap, with a minimum budget of 50,000RMB required, which equates to around USD$7,200 or CAD$9,870. However, WeChat has been gradually lowering the minimum budget over the last few years, so even if your school cannot currently afford this outlay, it may become more accessible in the future.

The other main method of advertising on WeChat is through Banner Ads. These ads appear at the bottom of WeChat articles, and contain a logo, account name, headline, and CTA. As you can see from the example below, Banner Ads can be used for a number of purposes:

WeChat banner ads

Source: Walkthechat

Unlike Moments Ads, Banner Ads are charged on a Pay-per-Click basis. Bidding can start at as low as 0.5RMB (around USD$0.07) but you must still commit to a minimum budget of 50,000RMB. In addition, you must have a Chinese business license to run a banner campaign and it can be very difficult for foreign organizations to set one up. However, this may change as WeChat continues to expand and court international business.

Moments and Banner ads use the same targeting system, which allows you to target users based on location, gender and age, industry, marital status, and education level. You can also target groups of users based on certain WeChat behaviours, including users who already follow your account and those who have shown interest in your previous ads.

WeChat also introduced two-way banner ads—or Key Opinion Leader (KOL) advertising—last year. This system allows users to enter into direct agreements with specific WeChat Official accounts to show their ads. However, this can be very expensive and beyond the price range of most schools.

Measuring Your Student Recruitment Efforts on WeChat

If you do consider WeChat advertising at any point, you will be pleased to find that the platform offers a fairly comprehensive analytics suite to measure your performance, which includes data about various Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) such as impressions, clicks, interactions, and shares.

WeChat Ads analytics

Source: Sekkei Studio

WeChat also offers in-app and web analytics tools to track your overall account performance. WeChat’s web analytics interface is somewhat similar to Google Analytics and allows you to view data on up to 40 different KPIs, including page views, downloads, and even shares on external sites like QQ and Sina Weibo. Each KPI can be viewed as a line graph over a 7, 15, or 30-day period.

WeChat analytics

Source: WeChat

Another recently launched analytics tool which might be useful for schools is WeChat Index, which allows users to search for trending keywords over 7, 30 and 90-day periods. This can allow you to optimize your WeChat content to improve engagement.

WeChat index analytics

Source: Ogilvy

What’s Next for WeChat? How the App’s Future Will Affect International Student Recruitment

At this point, there is little argument that establishing a WeChat presence is a must for any school looking to recruit students in China, but it may soon become important in other markets too, with Tencent eager to expand the platform’s reach.

So far, efforts to target other Asian countries and South America with high-profile ad campaigns have been largely unsuccessful, but the app has gained something of a foothold in Africa. In particular, the company has rolled out features previously only available in China, such as WeChat Wallet, in South Africa. It now has over 5 million users in the country—almost 10% of the population.

Schools can also expect WeChat to continue to consolidate its position in its home country. One of the few areas of the Chinese digital landscape which the app does not currently dominate is search. As you may know, Baidu is the number one search engine in the country, controlling approximately 70% of the market.

However, Posts from WeChat accounts only show up in the results pages of rival site Sogou, which is part-owned by Tencent. While Sogou currently has a market share of just over 10%, this could increase as WeChat becomes even more ubiquitous, and schools looking to optimize their websites for internet search in China would be wise to continue monitoring the situation. WeChat also continues to improve its in-app search function and this could become more important as time goes on.

In addition, WeChat is impacting the way other major internet players do business. The recent endeavours of Facebook to introduce e-commerce functions and social media features into apps like Messenger and WhatsApp is believed to be at least partly inspired by WeChat’s model, and it would not be surprising if more social media apps begin to integrate more versatile functionality in a bid to replicate its success.

With that in mind, familiarizing your recruitment team with WeChat’s far-reaching capabilities and functions could have even greater long-term benefits to your overall digital marketing strategy than you think, helping to prepare your school for the more integrated online landscape of the future.

Looking to Recruit More Students in China? We Can Help!