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New Twists in Online Recruiting of International Students

Bangkok—International students are often in an online wilderness as they search for universities to apply to. They run into confusing Web sites, search ads that can make shady institutions look genuine, and “contact us” pages that may not effectively connect them with admissions counselors.

An India-based company, Erudient, had students send Facebook messages to 162 universities in eight countries, including the United States and Canada. Only 51 percent of the universities responded within three days. Often when the universities did respond,  the responses weren’t relevant. Some universities just referred those submitting inquiries back to the university’s Web site. (The company has an interest in the survey’s results: It has an app that helps universities track their Facebook metrics.)

“Facebook is an ideal place to foster interaction, but universities are not doing it,” says Madan Padaki, the CEO of Erudient, a division of Manipal Global Education, best known for its international network of universities.

In a session on “Using Data-Driven Strategies to Reach More Students” last week at the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education, speakers discussed ways that institutions can refine their online recruiting strategies by using metrics and making their use of social media more sophisticated.

Clay Hensley, director of international strategy and relationships for the College Board, spoke about an analysis of how international students use the site the organization has built for them, and what those metrics mean for institutions interested in improving their international recruiting strategies.

A key lesson, said Mr. Hensley, is that universities need to take programs and majors into account when trying to reach students. Universities also need to drill down inside large countries to check metrics for students in different provinces and states. Forty-seven percent of students from the eight most-populous provinces in China who created accounts on the College Board site said they were interested in a specific major. Those majors varied significantly across provinces, though, Mr. Hensley said. In the province of Sichuan, for example, the second most popular major was “architecture and related services,” apparently due to the post-earthquake reconstruction there.  Engineering was more commonly in second place, after business management. Biology and biomedical science were usually third, and mathematics and statistics fourth.

Mr. Hensley said that universities should consider search-engine optimization for their strongest programs with international appeal, so that the programs, not just the institutions, will pop up in search results. Universities also need to pay attention to the search engines themselves, of course, with Baidu being the top search engine in China. Universities that want to analyze the countries that Web visitors are coming from will find lots of free tools on the Web, including some at alexa.com.

Chinese social-media users are much more apt to create and share content than U.S. users, previous surveys have found, with 76 percent of users creating content such as posts and uploads compared to 24 percent of U.S. users. Universities can take advantage of that: If Chinese students attending a university outside China create content about their university experience, that content will probably have an authentic ring.

Video is particularly popular among Chinese students, Mr. Hensley said, because it is hard to censor.  The take home for university marketing departments: Have existing students talk about their university life and education in Mandarin or Cantonese and post the video on their own sites or pages. The university should then link to the students’ videos. (The big caveat here, of course, is that universities need to work on the students’ experience  first, and worry about marketing that experience later.)

In other research done by Erudient, the company contacted Indian students who were actively searching for U.S. universities to apply to. Company representatives called the students each day to ask them what steps they had taken. About 70 percent of the time, says Mr. Padaki, the students said they were trying to reach out to people, such as Indian students already in the United States, alumni of particular universities, and admissions counselors. But universities, he says, are are treating  Facebook as if it is a Web site with an e-mail feature rather than feeding the hunger for interactivity and networking.

Universities can make better use of Facebook in recruiting international students, by benchmarking themselves against appropriate peers, by using metrics to check how their Facebook pages are used, and letting students apply to the university straight from Facebook, so that their personal information loads automatically.

One appropriate metric, he says, is the balance between the number of posts by  staff members on a university’s Facebook page and the number of posts by others. Too many posts by staff members, he says, is the equivalent of authoritarian rule. Too many posts by non-staff, he says, is the equivalent of mob rule.

Anyone can compare the performance of two university Facebook pages by going to Erudient’s own Facebook page and clicking on “social profiling.” Once the social profiling page has loaded, clicking in the phrases on the bar along the top, such as “reach,” or “post quality,” yields different data views. Two universities can be compared, for instance, by the total number of posts on their Facebook page, the number of times those posts got shared, commented on, and “liked,” yielding an “interaction index.”

As universities go deeper into online metrics, Mr. Padaki and Mr. Hensley maintain, they also get more strategic. And they may give  international students a compass in the online wilderness.

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