Developing an effective targeted marketing strategy is critical for universities looking to attract and enroll international students. With increasing global competition, having a strategic and nuanced approach to international student recruitment and retention can give universities a competitive advantage. This article provides actionable tips on how to develop a data-driven and culturally-responsive marketing strategy tailored specifically for international students.
Understanding Your Target Audience
The first step in developing a targeted marketing strategy is conducting in-depth research to understand the motivations, behaviors and needs of prospective international students. Given the diversity within the international student population, it is important to segment your audience into subgroups and tailor messaging accordingly. Here are some key considerations when researching your target demographics:
Analyze enrollment data trends. Review current international student enrollment data and identify which countries and regions most of your students originate from. This can help focus your marketing efforts on those high-yield geographic regions. Track enrollment increases or declines over time to identify blossoming or saturated markets.
Identify key decision-making motivations. Surveys and focus groups can provide insights into what motivates different segments of international students to study abroad or choose your university. Some may prioritize academics and research opportunities, while others may be swayed more by scholarships or post-study work visas.
Understand expected student experience. International students have unique needs and expectations around areas like language support, cultural assimilation, academics, housing, and student life. Gather feedback to understand pain points and ensure your messaging accurately reflects the lived experience.
Evaluate brand perceptions. It is critical to understand current brand perceptions and reputation among international students. This can be done through brand studies, focus groups and third party research. Identify existing brand strengths to emphasize and perception gaps to be addressed.
Consider the student journey. Map out the end-to-end journey and decision-making timeline for international prospects. Identify key influencers, pain points and decision factors at each stage in the funnel. Tailor messaging and touchpoints for each stage.
Segment audiences. Group international prospects into segments by geography, academic interests, language needs, and other attributes. Develop targeted messaging and campaigns for each priority segment. Track effectiveness over time.
Identify key stakeholders. Beyond prospective students themselves, identify key influencers like parents, counselors, academics, alumni and government entities. Consider motivations and messaging for each stakeholder group.
Regularly updating your audience research ensures your messaging continues to resonate as demographics, preferences and market conditions evolve.
Crafting Your Marketing Message
Once your target segments are clearly defined, the next phase is developing compelling and culturally-nuanced marketing messages tailored to the needs of each group. Here are some best practices on crafting targeted international student messaging:
Highlight reputation and rankings. International students are highly motivated by metrics like global rankings, research output, and graduate employability. Emphasizing strengths in these areas can capture student attention.
Showcase career outcomes. Given job prospects post-graduation are a key driver, showcase career services, internship opportunities, alumni networks and placement rates. This messaging can strongly appeal to career-minded students.
Tout alumni success stories. Profile international alumni who have achieved leadership roles, awards or research breakthroughs after graduating from your university. This helps attract students aspiring for similar success.
Address affordability concerns. Make financing options, scholarships and cost of attendance information readily available. This messaging helps alleviate a key pain point for budget-conscious international prospects.
Emphasize language and cultural support. Ensure international students feel supported through areas like ESL instruction, cultural clubs, buddy networks and immigration advisors. Describe support services and student testimonials.
Leverage current students and alumni. Use authentic student stories, photos and videos to showcase academic resources, campus life, housing and cultural experiences. This helps prospects envision their future experience.
Localize content. Consider language-specific websites and materials translated or tailored for key target countries. Localized content shows commitment to prospective students’ native cultures.
Focus on student-centered language. Use inclusive and supportive messaging like “Join our global community” rather than touting institutional strengths. Student-focused language better resonates emotionally.
Conduct message testing. Use A/B testing of email nurturing campaigns, social ads and website content to identify messaging that generates the strongest response among target segments. Refine over time.
Tailoring messaging to address the motivations and concerns of international prospects requires deep cultural understanding and nuance. Regularly testing messages allows data-driven refinement over time.
Leveraging Digital Marketing Channels
With the rise of digital media, leveraging online channels and platforms is essential to engage today’s internationally mobile youth. A strategic and integrated digital marketing approach allows universities to connect with prospects globally.
Optimize website experience. As the primary hub of information for international prospects, ensure your website is mobile-friendly, technically sound, and optimized for organic search in key countries. Prioritize high-value landing pages.
Focus on SEO. Work with experts to improve search engine optimization in key markets through tactics like keyword optimization, link-building and localization. This expands organic visibility among students searching online.
Utilize paid search. Programmatic digital advertising through search engines allows granular targeting by geography, keywords, and demographics. Retarget high-potential site visitors through search remarketing campaigns.
Leverage social media. Build engaged followings on popular international student networks like WeChat, QQ, Instagram and Facebook. Foster user generated content and manage global social community growth over time.
Cultivate student influencers. Identify and collaborate with influential international student bloggers, vloggers and social media personalities to expand branded reach and credibility among peers.
Run nurturing campaigns. Use marketing automation platforms to deliver personalized, sequenced emails to prospective students tailored to their stage in the decision journey and interests.
Develop creative digital content. Produce engaging and culturally-resonant content like videos, podcasts, blog posts and infographics tailored to international audiences and distributed across digital platforms.
Promote virtual events. Host digital open house events, webinars, and informational sessions accessible to international prospects to build engagement. Feature faculty, alumni and current student participation.
Analyze performance. Track digital analytics and attribution modeling to identify the media channels, creative assets, websites, and campaigns driving the highest conversion rates among target segments. Optimize accordingly.
An integrated digital strategy enhances brand visibility and enables personalized student engagement throughout the online journey. Advanced targeting capabilities make digital channels efficient and measurable.
Building Relationships with Prospective and Current Students
Beyond digital media, relationship-building through in-person events, campus experiences, and community-building are equally important when marketing to international students. Here are some top relationship-focused strategies:
Host in-country recruitment events. Participate in international student fairs, information sessions at local high schools, and university roadshows focused on key target markets. Ensure senior admissions staff representation.
Offer campus immersion programs. Bring key prospective students to campus through organized campus visits and short summer enrichment programs. Experience drives engagement.
Conduct in-person school visits. Admissions officers should frequently visit feeder schools and academic partners in target countries to build relationships, provide application support, and identify promising candidates.
Activate alumni networks. Engage alumni in top markets for student referrals, hosting events, supporting recruitment trips, and mentoring current applicants. This provides credibility.
Partner with education ministries. Government entities like education ministries often influence student mobility. Develop partnerships to co-host events, secure endorsements, and navigate policy issues.
Provide personalized admissions support. Designate application counselors for top-tier applicants who provide significant guidance and assistance throughout the admissions process. VIP treatment can help yield students.
Welcome new students. Facilitate airport pickups, welcome packages, orientation events, peer mentor pairings and cultural acclimation resources to help new international students feel immediately supported.
Develop student clubs. Support international student clubs, cultural organizations and activities on campus. This helps build a sense of community and belonging.
Track student satisfaction. Regularly survey international students and assess their campus experience, feelings of integration, and satisfaction rates. Address any gaps.
While digital marketing is important for initial attraction, high-touch personal experiences and community building are key to international student retention over time. Investing in meaningful relationships and support fosters student success.
Developing an effective targeted marketing strategy is crucial for universities looking to thrive in the increasingly competitive global education marketplace. By deeply understanding cultural nuances, crafting tailored messaging, leveraging digital channels, and building meaningful relationships, institutions can attract and retain high-quality international students over the long term. The strategies outlined in this article can serve as a roadmap for developing a strategic, integrated and data-driven approach to international student marketing and recruitment. With proper execution, an international marketing strategy can yield gains in global brand prestige, diversity, and financial sustainability through tuition revenue for universities seeking global engagement and impact.
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