The findings are detailed in a report by the British Council, Student Insight: Online Marketing to a Global Student Audience, and are based on the largest survey of its kind, involving 1,000 prospective students in 13 countries.
It reveals that websites, search engines, Facebook and other social media sites have largely replaced printed prospectuses.
To reach the growing international market of 3.5 million students, universities are investing in an increased online presence; Facebook and Twitter links, for example, are now commonplace on websites.
However, according to the report’s author Elizabeth Shepherd, “universities need to develop an in-depth knowledge of internet and social media usage in each of the countries they are targeting and tailor their digital marketing accordingly.”
For example, while Facebook is by far the most popular portal for social networking in many countries, claiming 750 million active users, the most popular in China is Tencent’s QQ portal which claims to have 812 million active users.
In many countries, particularly the Far East, prospective students are more likely to use their native language than English for web surfing, the report adds.
The British Council survey also found that students considering studying abroad are increasingly likely to attend education exhibitions online rather than in person.
But Pat Killingley, the organisation’s higher education director, said that “prospective students are still not ready to rely purely on information gathered online to make their final decision on where to study. Intelligent online marketing is a must, but it not yet a substitute for being there in person to offer information and answer questions.”
But some institutions may be behind the curve of the explosive growth in social media. Ms Shepherd, research manager at the British Council, said that many of the people who had talked to her in the wake of the report’s release this month were trying to figure out how to get started in social media, not necessarily make strategic adjustments.
And she warned: “Having a not very well-kept or a not very interactive social media presence can be more of a negative than a positive.”