'Paint the dream' in Chinese characters

Reach would-be students via made-in-China sites, UK institutions are advised. Sarah Cunnane writes

June 23, 2011

Social media are still relatively new concepts to most universities, although increasing numbers are using sites such as Facebook to market themselves to prospective students.

However, if institutions in the UK want to make the most of such tools to lure fee-paying students from China, they will have to become more sophisticated in their approach.

That was the message at a conference in London last week, titled Using Social Media to Engage with Students and organised by higher education communications consultancy Discovering Futures.

Delegates heard that while popular social-media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube offer great opportunities to interact with much of the world, they are banned in China. However, Alicia Liu, account manager at public relations firm 93 1/2 Communications, said that canny institutions could get around this problem by transferring marketing initiatives to Chinese sites such as RenRen, Sina Weibo and Youku.

These are similar to the social- media platforms that are best known in the West, she said, meaning that marketing departments could simply adapt their existing content.

"Make use of the parallel social networks," Ms Liu advised.

"You have to be clear about your target market and choose the right channel to make sure you are talking to them."

The advice will be of particular relevance to institutions seeking to increase their overseas student intake, since more students come to the UK from China than from any other non-European Union country.

Ms Liu told conference delegates that it was also important for universities to think about who in China they were targeting, rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.

"(Chinese) cities are almost like little countries of their own," she said. "In the north of China, (students') values are actually slightly different from those in the south."

She also advised universities to exploit the wider attractions of their regions, citing the example of Leeds, which has been chosen to host a training camp for the Chinese team ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

"It's amazing how many parents (in China) have already started talking about how Leeds must be a good city to study in because it's been chosen by the Chinese Olympic team," Ms Liu said. "If you can absorb what is going on in your city, you can use that."

She added that it was better for universities to engage with, rather than sell to, students.

"In China, there are so many marketing messages that people have information overload," she explained.

"They have a dream of studying with you; you need to paint that dream for them. Tell them about the cool things happening in your university that they can't read about and that will make them curious ... (but) tell them the truth - even if that means letting them know that your course is not the right one for them."

sarah.cunnane@tsleducation.com.

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