male student using phone

Featured article from Digital Jungle


University recruiters must make their presence known in the busy lives of Chinese high school students and one good way to do this is through social media marketing. The potential of this medium is endless as it can reach users anywhere and at any time, so it’s not surprising that Chinese students are also turning to social media platforms during their university selection process.

This, then, is a wonderful opportunity for foreign universities. Gone are the days where multimillion dollar budgets are needed to engage with potential overseas students. In the past, many universities needed recruiters in country to talk with potential students and they would often support their recruiters by running multimillion dollar advertising campaigns. However, social media can cut costs and allows the university to continue actively interacting with potential students.

Over the last decade, the average household disposable income in China has risen from 9421 RMB to over 24,000 RMB and with this increase more and more families are selecting foreign universities over domestic ones for their children to attend.

According to the BBC, “In 2010 alone more than 284,000 Chinese went abroad to study, most of them privately funded.” In 2013, the number increased to 339,700 students.

As the number of Chinese students going abroad increases even further, more universities are investing in digital marketing in China. But what are they actually spending their advertising dollars on? What has worked in the past and, more importantly, what will work in the future? Digital Jungle has worked with many universities and we will take a look here at some of the insights gained from running successful social media marketing and digital campaigns in this country.

A decade ago, digital marketing in China was almost non-existent, but as the Chinese internet developed and more citizens gained access, social networking sites started to flourish and digital marketing took off. According to Forbes, in 2004 there were 17 million active Chinese internet users: “The China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) reports that the number of active Chinese Internet users was 111 million by Dec. 31, 2005, up from 94 million a year earlier.”

The low number of active users meant that marketers had very few options to engage in digital marketing practices. Baidu was just getting started and offering PPC & PPI, but overall, universities were restricted to using traditional marketing techniques, the most common being recruiters and trade shows.

During these days, several universities started creating a Chinese-language landing page on their website and this was considered revolutionary at the time. Some engaged in email marketing, but most had little or nothing set in place in terms of a digital strategy.

However, throughout the 2000s, conditions started to change. In 2005, RenRen was founded and became the first popular social media networking site in China. Over the next few years, other sites and platforms started to emerge and marketers were quick to follow.

The first step for any university therefore is to set up social media accounts on these popular Chinese social media sites, including Sina Weibo, RenRen, and Douban.

One school that has implemented this quite well is Duke University by creating “chats” on Sina Weibo and RenRen to address the potential questions and concerns of Chinese students. In the article linked just above, Duke posted a picture of a recent chat they held on Weibo and this is a great example of using a social platform to do more than broadcast a university program or to just post pictures.

During this session, Duke University answered 80 questions in Chinese from 150 potential students in one hour and found that it was a very efficient way to connect with many potential students and to provide real value to their lives. This is an excellent example of how universities can go beyond “Chinese content” and arrive at “Chinese conversations.”

However, along with making their presence known in social media, universities must also provide content. But what is the best content to post? It must be localized, relevant, and interesting. Information about the university’s surrounding areas, student life, and current Chinese students are all relevant topics.

Additionally, students may want to know about the restaurants, parks, museums, nightlife, and other areas of interest at the university before enrolling for four years. They’re also interested in life on campus and the services available to international students. Too many universities often push information too early in the process about specific degrees or programs, which can lead to students becoming bored with a Weibo page or BBS post.

Universities should provide interesting and amusing posts about the university so as to create interest before pushing academic specifics. It’s important to remember that many students are using Weibo to research universities for the first time and are unsure about which specific programs they may be interested in during this exploratory stage.

Social media continues to be an integral part the lives of Chinese students. Universities should embrace the opportunity to meet prospective students on the platform they so frequently use and feel most comfortable on. Remember to also treat each platform individually, providing content that is not only informational but also interesting and unique. Let prospective students really get to know who the university is and how they could most comfortably fit in.


unnamedAlthough a native of Australia, Dr. Mathew McDougall has been involved in the Chinese Internet and media industries for nearly nine years. Dr. McDougall is currently the CEO and founder of Digital Jungle, a leading Chinese social media marketing agency.