Open goal for universities in China

Web searches and social media are so important in China due to an expressive culture based on demonstrating and sharing information

By Ryan Woodley-Mitchell, commercial executive, Qumin

For the last decade the number of Chinese students journeying to study abroad has grown 20% year-on-year, and in 2014 half a million will venture to more than 160 countries to pursue higher education.

For universities wanting to attract Chinese students there is plenty of competition. The United States remains the preferred destination to study with Canada, Australia and mainland Europe also being popular, plus there are domestic UK rivals. However, it is possible to gain significant advantage in the marketplace by being one of the few higher education establishments anywhere to talk with the Chinese student audience on its terms – through Chinese digital media.

Creating a good web presence with supporting search and social media marketing in China can have a dramatic effect for two reasons. Digital media has an all pervasive presence in modern Chinese life. Far more than in the West, and the student demographic is locked into using web based information, and making decisions based on social media recommendations. The second point is that very few universities anywhere use digital marketing in China. This presents an open goal opportunity.

The reason that web searches and social media are so important in China is due to an expressive culture based on demonstrating and sharing information. Social media recommendation is the key influence in nearly 40% of all purchasing decisions, and internet searches are more frequent and far more thorough than almost anywhere else. This makes them extremely powerful marketing tools.

For example, a few years ago a fish and chip shop in Brighton received a recommendation on Chinese social media. Much to the consternation of the owners it started getting a steady stream of Chinese tourist customers that continues to this day.

When first planning a digital campaign in China the initial step is having a Mandarin website that is not only registered and hosted within the Great Chinese Firewall, but also built from the ground up with the Chinese user in mind. If a domain is not based within the Firewall the chances of it being found in web searches is slim at best, and even if it is discovered the download times will be extraordinarily slow.

An Internet Content Provider (ICP) licence can only be obtained by a Chinese company, but a good web agency will handle this while ensuring the domain ownership and IP rights remain the property of the client.

Websites in China ordinarily carry more information than the Western eye is used to, and frequently seem overly cluttered and badly designed. This is changing as Western brands exert more influence, and younger audiences in particular appreciate cleaner and more sophisticated use of layout and function.

Search marketing in China works to the same principles as Google, but technically the search process is very different. Baidu, the Chinese counterpart of Google, which receives 70% of search traffic, uses different algorithms to Google, and consequently websites have to be built around the behaviour of Baidu’s search robots. Also, there is a lot of legacy technology in the web environment in China. A large number of browsers still run on IE6, which was ruled out of consideration in web building within the UK many years ago. What these two factors mean is that it is not possible to adapt an existing platform from the UK and change it through the use of translation.

The good news is that a search friendly website enhanced by search marketing, or search engine optimisation (SEO), will create significant standout for any UK university. Lack of competition is a major benefit that can be combined with effective search practice.

Website design in China is behind the West, but social media is significantly more advanced, and is the most powerful marketing medium for the Chinese student demographic. It is normal to try to describe social media in China in like for like terms with Facebook, Twitter etc, but this is an inaccurate convenience. It is too different.

For example, social e-commerce is extremely widespread and has facilities such as bank accounts that allow purchasing from vending machines by swiping QR codes.

When compared to the UK, social media also plays a much greater role in the daily life of all consumer groups in China, including students. There are social platforms for special interest groups ranging from furniture to sports watches, and they can have participants in the tens of millions.

A key element of social marketing is the engagement of specific user or interest groups through KOLS (Key Opinion Leaders). KOLS frequently have massive user followings, and their status is based on knowledge and trust. Feeding them with insights enhances their position, but more importantly key messages can be passed through KOLS as authoritative and influential information. It is an extremely effective way of connecting with large numbers of individuals seeking reliable information on given subject areas.

Pay per click advertising (PPC) should be considered only by those with deeper pockets. Web design, search marketing and social media marketing should come first. However, if budget does allow for paid advertising the benefits are similar in China to the West – money will allow a first page appearance in searches.

When deciding this route it is possible to get increased value for money. Baidu has appointed partners in every country, and they are given special status that allows them inside information when monitoring bidding in key word advertising. For all others the bidding is blind, but Baidu affiliates can see exactly who is bidding for what words and how much. Working with such an agency is a very useful benefit.

It is obviously important to know what messages work best in attracting the attention of Chinese students. Academic success rate and the types of degree on offer are the two biggest factors, but showcasing the opportunity to learn and integrate with the local community, travel links and shopping are also important attributes.

All of this and more can be conveyed in context through digital marketing in China, and what is more there is a receptive audience that is hearing little information from elsewhere. For the next few years at least there will be a great opportunity to take advantage of this vacuum and create a positive presence in China that can be used to become known in the short, medium and long term as student friendly institution.

Qumin is Europe’s only full service Chinese digital marketing company. It has offices in London and Shanghai.

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