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Marketing Mistakes Education Institutions Make in China

Having worked across a number of professions within international recruitment and education in China, one aspect that intrigues me most is how international institutions market themselves in China.

Understanding the China of today seems to be a key issue here. Though there are some fantastic marketing campaigns out there which have managed to break through the ‘Great Wall’, mistakes invariably do occur. I’ve whittled them down to four key areas… (1) Minimum requirement: be accessible

Though a lot of ideas generated by international institutions can be translated and understood by Chinese students, the channel of delivery can sometimes be way off. Like a horse running the wrong way around a track, hosting Chinese marketing content on inaccessible websites is wasted effort and never going to work.

Many websites are blocked in China. Time and time again I sit at my computer in China frustrated, seeing the grey screen of death on China specific recruitment pages with subtitles like ‘Ling’s Four Years as a Freshmen’. Hosting videos on websites accessible to those inside and outside of China is key here. As a general rule of thumb, Western social media, blogs, and video websites are all blocked in China.

(2) Website vs. mobile

Firstly, independent Chinese websites and Chinese versions of websites are fantastically useful and should be promoted. An area which institutions generally neglect, however, is mobile-friendly sites. With the level of smartphone usage in China at astronomical levels, institutions need to do more. Even with the thinnest of fingertips, navigating a complex website on a smartphone that is not mobile-friendly can be a challenge.

Moreover, I have noticed an interesting technological ‘leap’ – with China’s blazing economic progress, a percentage of the population never learnt to use a personal computer, and instead use their phones to surf the internet. Generally speaking, these include three important market segments for international recruiters:

(a) Millennials (target market), due to the prevalence of mobile phones and perhaps family restrictions on PC usage

(b) The older generation (decision makers): Older Chinese may be unable to use ‘pinyin’ (the system of using the roman alphabet to write Chinese). While they cannot use a keyboard, they use a phone to write out individual characters

(c) Populations in rural areas (diversification): Economies in rural areas are developing later than cities, therefore smart phone usage is more prevalent than computer usage.

(3) Translation: double check

If an institution’s name is translated poorly, no matter how big of a marketing budget exists, the reputational damage is inconceivable – being passed down business class to business class, alumni to student, as an example of bad cultural awareness. One example of this, amongst many, is the University of Western Ontario. Translated into西安大略大学 (西 = West, 安大略 = Ontario, 大学 = University).

Seemingly no problem, until you realize that Chinese characters do not use spaces.

Therefore, 西安大略大学 read by the Chinese is 西安大略大学 which means: 西安 = Xi’an (a place in China), 大略 = A place name, 大学 = University. Therefore, the University of Western Ontario is most likely to be read as an non-existent university in North Eastern China with the name Xi’an DaLue University. Having a native Chinese person look over final drafts is essential.

(4) Social Media: have it so use it

WeChat, QQ and Weibo dominate the Chinese social media scene. Having these accounts is a good way to interact with Chinese students – it’s on their level and in an environment which they feel comfortable. However, having an account is not the same as using the account. Having and not using or updating is arguably a lot worse than not having. These ghost town accounts set up by international institutions on Weibo, whose last response was in 2012 referencing Obama’s campaign, send out a message that the institution is out-of-date or doesn’t care about its Chinese presence.

Keeping content up-to-date and responding to questions and comments in a reasonably timely fashion should be considered minimum requirements when setting up accounts. The reason why is that these discussions are viewed by potential applicants so can essentially be seen as marketing and feedback.

As published on The PIE Blog - December 9, 2016



eduFair China is a free online platform dedicated to international education and recruitment. Its platform connects millions of Chinese students with first-hand information while helping institutions recruit qualified students digitally. eduFair aims to give students a more empowered, holistic approach to international education so that they can succeed during their journey abroad.

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