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What the past can teach marketers about China’s future 

With visa and mobility issues dampening Chinese student numbers, it’s easy to lose sight that there is an actual proven approach to successful student recruitment in China.

"Now, there is more need to migrate prospective students to owned channels"

Living in Covid-19’s “new normal”, it’s easy to lose sight of the very real logistical challenges still dragging at Chinese student mobility.

Visa delays and quarantines continue in China – and are sharpening desire for travel. Since March lockdowns, the word (pronounced rùn) has trended among Chinese netizens. Rùn (which originally relates to something wet; moist or damp) has become a way to subtly signal the desire to “run” overseas on highly-censored Chinese social channels. Immigration-related search surges on Baidu and WeChat have coincided with successive lockdowns.

China is expected to remain the biggest source of international students globally into the foreseeable future. China’s universities still can’t meet domestic demand. This shortage is especially pronounced in the hard tech fields – like artificial intelligence and biotech – highlighted for investment in China’s development plans. Multiple sources show interest in majors related to these areas is booming. Global institutions will play an important role in meeting this need. 

China’s deep and broad demand for international education is well documented. A recent British Council survey showed 13% of Chinese students reporting a household income above RMB 20,000 were definitely planning to study abroad – over half said it was something they were seriously considering.

Demand doesn’t necessarily equal enrolments – at least, at a university-level. Universities must bring their message to students. Field studies show China’s Gen Z have little interest in exploring the open internet even when they’re given tools to bypass restrictions. And they demand online communication: surveys show almost seven in 10 Chinese Gen Zers prefer to socialise via messaging apps, and six in 10 admit to avoiding phone calls. 

But connecting with Chinese students isn’t straightforward. China’s digital firewall is stronger than ever. Unapproved VPNs are illegal in China and have become technically more difficult to access. 

In addition, new China personal information laws have created one of the strictest regulatory landscapes in the world. Crucially, universities everywhere are legally responsible for the way data is handled on their behalf within China. The onus is on universities to ensure vendors and third parties are compliant. 

While the hurdles to China digital marketing can seem overwhelming, from our experience running multiple China campaigns, the higher education sector is well placed to adapt. There’s a natural alignment in goals. With hyper targeting no longer possible, marketing priorities have shifted. Now, there is more need to migrate prospective students to owned channels. This means more emphasis on quality content and user experience. And creating transparent privacy policy isn’t just important for compliance: it’s part of a school’s duty of care and builds trust.

“The schools we’ve seen succeed share one core similarity”

Good China digital marketing becomes part of a school’s service offering, as well as its growth. This strategy can fuel a virtuous circle: great digital marketing attracts more, high calibre students who have a better experience and in turn advocate for your school. 

But it doesn’t happen overnight. The schools we’ve seen succeed share one core similarity: they take a long-term view. They build a robust digital presence, run iterative digital campaigns, learn from real-time analytics and insight, and keep the needs of their Chinese students top-of-mind. This approach allows marketing teams to better map the student journey to understand the real impact of each channel, rather than chase vanity metrics. While we may see digital China channels, and student numbers, wax and wane, this more responsive, student-first approach can be expected to endure.

About the author: This is a sponsored post by Nicolas Chu, CEO and founder of Sinorbis, the award-winning MarTech platform that lets universities manage their own China digital presence. Sinorbis will be joining a panel on the future of China student recruitment at the PIE Live: North America on Friday, October 14. 

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