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How is international education embracing social media?

The rules of the game in social media: be there in the virtual world; be transparent; enable a dialogue; encourage activity/viral traffic/recommendations through creative use of channels.

Want to know more?… You won’t be the only one. According to industry experts, the study abroad sector has been fairly slow to hone its approach to marketing across digital channels such as social media. Most companies realise they need to be active in social media, but many don’t really know where to focus, after having possibly set up their own Facebook page.

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The use of social media offers an opportunity to present and promote to a large audience at “very low” expense

This is despite the fact that the target audience of the international education sector is often a young demographic – precisely the demographic, in fact, which spends the most time on social networks, sharing views and forming opinions. According to Francisca Jofré, Marketing Manager at Condor Idiomas in Chile, the use of social media in the language travel market, especially on the schools side, needs to increase.

Not doing it is a marketing sin

“Not doing it is a marketing sin,” she says, attributing the lack of effective social media marketing on the part of many language schools to the fact that “most school directors might be in their 50s and don’t understand the needs of the new Facebook generation”. What’s more, she says, the use of social media offers an opportunity to present and promote a company to a large audience at “very low” expense.

Despite this, many marketers in the study abroad sector are only now formalising their approach – if indeed there is one at all – to social media. In fact, according to Emma Harradine, Marketing Communications Manager at Twin Group in the UK, most are “bumbling along, trying to learn as they go.”

Twin has a Facebook account and Harradine says she uses Twitter every day from a corporate point of view, in order to follow what other schools are doing and to keep up-to-date with industry trends. “We have a news feed on our corporate site and we write articles about the industry,” she explains.

“It’s about gaining something but it’s about giving something back, too. Twitter is more and more so a useful channel, although the target audience has to be a member of Twitter for a start – and there aren’t many Chinese or Brazilian students on there, for instance. And it’s not necessarily a channel for product comparison, although that’s changing. It’s not a selling tool. It’s more about brand and reputation, thought-leadership. It’s not about pushing your message, but engaging.”

It’s more about brand and reputation, thought-leadership

James Crimp, General Manager, Language Schools at STS in Sweden, says his organisation created a formal social media policy last year. Currently the strategy is centred around Facebook, although in China, where Facebook is banned, STS leverages other social media platforms, such as Xiaonei. Crimp says that his organisation is also active on YouTube and that in the future he predicts participation in photo-sharing site Flickr and potentially on Twitter, too.

STS is innovative in this domain; for example, hosting a party for clients and potential clients and allowing them all to “check-in” on Facebook and declare to their own social circle just which company’s party they are attending.

Word of virtual mouth

Each STS country office and product has its own Facebook page and Crimp adds that these provide a forum for interaction with, and between, customers often up to 12 months prior to participation on programmes. “Around one third of our bookings come from recommendations so getting former customers to share their experience is very valuable,” he says. “Social media and the internet has allowed us to grow fast through word of mouth where previously we would have needed huge brochure send-outs to penetrate a market.”

He advises, “Allow complete transparency and stand by your product as customers can write whatever they like as long as it’s an opinion.”

STS currently uses Facebook for its direct sales offices rather than via its agents around the world and Crimp adds that the organisation is currently talking to its agents in order to avoid “undue concern or miscommunication” about its presence on such sites. The fear of perhaps being perceived as stepping on agents’ toes is one that is shared by others in the industry, although in many ways it is unfounded.

Why social media won’t replace agents

Indeed, as Chris Nolan, Head of Partnership Development at LAL Language Centres, explains, clients are still looking for the endorsement that an agent offers, even after significant online research. “You need to reinforce your brand via these channels, and that helps agents too,” he says. “Customers need to be able to touch your brand through a variety of channels.

“You need to reinforce your brand via these channels, and that helps agents too”

“Previously we’ve focused too much on sales and not enough on the marketing engine behind it. We have hired new people in our marketing function to develop this as we see it as key in the future,” he admits.

Education agencies, too, are getting involved in the social media space, with significant success in some instances. For example, the study abroad giant in Brazil, STB, has actively used social media for the past two years. Santuza Bicalho, CEO of STB, explains that last year they ran a programme called STB Discover, encouraging their potential customers to post a video entry online to become the winner of the competition and receive $3,000 per month to travel the world for a year. This followed a similar STB Ambassador project the previous year.

“We had 7,000 people placing their videos [online], and 3.5 million page views in less than one month,” reports Bicalho – staggering results in terms of reinforcing brand identity.

Bicalho backs up Crimp’s assertion that transparency is key – complaints have their place in the social media sphere, as the new reality is to move from a managed media message to an open dialogue. “We have that on Twitter,” relates Bicalho.

The new reality is to move from a managed media message to an open dialogue

“We read ‘I called STB 20 minutes ago and nobody returned my call!’ And then I have a team dealing with Twitter, who will ask, ‘ok which office did you call?’ We put people in contact: “Oh thank you very much, you are the best’.”

Nolan points out, too, that not being active in this space represents a significant business risk. “It’s even more important for the youth market. Our target audience are people who work with these channels on a daily basis. Your end clients are on these types of social media,” he explains.

If you choose to leverage social media in your marketing campaigns – and the chances are you should be – you need to recognise that you can’t always control it and you might well turn off your target audience if you appear to be trying to do so. “It’s not about a ‘push’ approach,” warns Matthew Ansell, Head of Marketing at Study Group UK. “It would be a mistake to try to rein in the content. The normal rules of marketing production don’t apply in the social media space. There’s not a normal sign-off process.”

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