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Effective Marketing Strategies for International Education Institutions

The role of international students in the financial standing of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) cannot be overemphasized. In fact, these global learners provide much-needed support not only to the educational sector but to a country’s financial well-being as well, being actively contributing members of the economy.


It is thus an understatement to say that it is in the best interest of HEIs to attract international students to their campuses.


At a quick glance, this does not seem to be much of a problem during the pre-pandemic era. More than 5.3 million international students enrolled in 2017, a massive jump from the 2 million recorded for 2000, and the progression since 2011 is encouraging.

MSM Research Reports_Migration Data Portal
Source: Migration Data Portal

About 50% of these students are concentrated in just a handful of countries, namely the US, UK, Australia, and Canada, and that has concentrated the overall economic impact to these countries. The US, for example, has reaped the financial rewards, taking in $45 billion from international students in 2018. However, studies show that even a slight 2% drop in international student enrollment can result in a loss of more than $100 million annually. 


The number of international students also represents a significant percentage of their student population. In Australia, one in four students in higher education is a foreigner. In Canada, the ratio is 1 in 4. 

Source: Statista

However, it should be noted that these are overall numbers, and while impressive, the number of international students are spread over many HEIs in host countries. In the UK, there are 271 universities in the UK. In Canada, there are 1,551 DLIs  or designated learning institutions, which allow students to apply for Post-Graduation Work Permits (PGWP), which arguably makes them more attractive. In Australia, there are 515 CRICOS registered HEIs. 


The competition for attracting international students in the HEIs in these top host countries is intense, more so for HEIs in less popular countries. Given the many benefits of having a good number of foreign students in an HEI, an effective marketing strategy is critical to an HEI’s continued personality in the world stage. 


Some HEIs have worked hard at this, and top universities often manage to have a significant percentage of international students. The University of British Columbia, for example, had 18,323 international students out of its 66,747 total student population in 2019, or 27.45%.

MSM Research Report-University of British Columbia
Source: University of British Columbia

However, even smaller and lesser-known institutions can compete for the market if they employ the right marketing strategies. The question is which ones would give them that advantage. Below are some of the marketing strategies that have worked over time in many HEIs.

Invest in agents

The key to recruiting students in other countries is having boots on the ground. You need to have representatives in your target countries to spread the word about your institution, and be the point person for processing applications. 


But what do agents exactly do? They are the ones who actively recruit students and, oftentimes, provide assistance to those who have no clear idea how to go about applying for student visas, or even applying for educational programs, for that matter. This helps a lot in shoring up the possibility of international enrollment for they help overcome barriers that some students find difficulty facing.


Managing recruitment agents in diverse geographic areas can be challenging, but there are service providers that specialize in doing that for educational institutions. 


Leverage your website and social media

In this Internet age, the need to have an active presence in social media is already a given. However, this is more of an ancillary medium than your primary one–your website, which is actually the best way to provide potential enrollees with the information they need.


To that end, you need to make sure that your website is not only mobile-optimized and attractive, but also updated and optimized for search engines. It should be easy for students to understand and navigate, bringing them to the pages they want in just one or two clicks. 


When designing your website (which you need to redesign every two years, at the very least), make sure the following sections are prominent:


  • International admissions
  • Scholarships and/or financial aid options
  • Visa application information
  • Contact information (preferably as call-to-action buttons)
It is also important to note that most (64%) college-age people researching HEIs prefer articles and other text-based content for information. This means that while video and images still attract people to the site, you will have to focus more on crafting articles with in-depth information designed specifically for your target market. It should answer common as well as uncommon questions they might have that would demonstrate your understanding of a particular culture or social construct. 

Create compelling content

Blogs are crucial for sending information about your institution out there, and not only from an optimization perspective. Your blog can highlight the benefits of enrolling in your institution, such as pre-departure assistance, extended student services, financial aid, internships, and work programs. 


You can also create content that keeps students updated on the job market, policies on international students, and other relevant information that could encourage them to consider your institution and your country as their preferred destination.

Use visuals creatively and effectively

While what you say is important, you need to break up the space with visuals to break up heavy text blocks as well as illustrate what you are saying more effectively. Adding images, charts, and infographics are among the easiest ways to rank high in search engines as well as engage your audience. 


However, your visuals have to be relevant to your message and they should look professional to improve your credibility. Stock images, meaningless charts, and sloppy infographics can only have a negative effect on perception, so if you cannot be bothered to invest in professional work, do not use them in your content or website or, at least, use them minimally.

Look into virtual tours

Even without the current restrictions to travel that apply during the pandemic, college tours for international students are not practical. However, technology is available to create a virtual tour of your campuses without much trouble or expense, and it can make all the difference in the world when it comes to your prospects’ (and their parents’) decision-making.


A virtual tour is especially important for anxious parents, as it can show them the situation of the campus as well as the available facilities for the students. It is also rather a cool feature for your institution, which is not going to hurt your branding at all. 


Take note that virtual tours have become quite popular in many schools. Find some samples of virtual tours here to give you an idea of what it would be like. 

Deploy reviews and testimonials

Positive reviews are crucial for many businesses, and this is true for HEIs wanting to attract international students. Most people will have little to no idea of the reputation of a particular school when it comes to their support of foreign students, so they will take reviews and testimonials very seriously. Current and past students can act as your ambassadors, especially for prospects from their home countries. 


Of course, that is assuming your students will have only good things to say about you, so make sure you treat them with the respect they deserve, and they will reciprocate with testimonials and reviews. Use them on your website, in your blog, and social media.

Conclusion: Always be Ready to Pivot

Student recruitment in the international education space is changing rapidly, and the competition is becoming more intense. HEIs have to be able to pivot and adapt to the changing circumstances. 


These marketing strategies are nothing new, but HEIs tend to lack the urgency in embracing these concepts with any degree of meaningful investment, and that may be a costly mistake. Educational institutions need to be more agile, and using these marketing strategies are proof positive of this agility. (SUNEETHA QURESHI)


#PartnerForLife #InternationalEducation #InternationalStudents #MSM

Suneetha has more than 10 years of experience in the international education sector. As the Vice President of MSM Global, she leads MSM’s extensive back-of-the-house operations, including MSM’s human resources, financial management, information technology, and marketing, communications, and social media activities. 

She has an impeccable track record of successfully launching the representative offices in Asia and Africa of many North American and European higher education institutions. Her key strengths include hiring, training, and developing teams as evidenced by the successful results of the dedicated in-country college and university client teams.  

Suneetha also has taken the lead in developing several initiatives at MSM, including building robust standard operating procedures, the Rise ‘n Shine team engagement platform, and the organization’s data analytics and audit segments. 

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Data Sources

Chaffey, D. (2013, September 09). How popular are Infographics? [Infographic]. Retrieved December 30, 2020, from https://www.smartinsights.com/digital-marketing-platforms/infographics-marketing/popular-infographics/

Economic Impact of International Students. (n.d.). Retrieved December 30, 2020, from https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Open-Doors/Economic-Impact-of-International-Students

Government of Canada. (2020, December 29). Designated learning institutions list. Retrieved December 30, 2020, from https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/study-canada/study-permit/prepare/designated-learning-institutions-list.html

Higher education providers. (n.d.). Retrieved December 30, 2020, from https://www.hesa.ac.uk/support/providers

Migration Data Portal. (2020, June 9). International students. Retrieved December 30, 2020, from https://migrationdataportal.org/themes/international-students

Schaffhauser, D. (2017, May 15). U.S. Colleges Face Potential Loss of $250 Million from Drop in International Enrollments. Retrieved December 30, 2020, from https://campustechnology.com/articles/2017/05/15/u.s.-colleges-face-potential-loss.aspx

Stoner, M. (2017, November 09). Teens, Video, and Your .edu Website: The Results Might Surprise You. Retrieved December 30, 2020, from https://www.mstoner.com/blog/content-and-writing/teens-video-edu-website-results-might-surprise/

Study in Australia. (n.d.). Institution search results. Retrieved December 30, 2020, from https://search.studyinaustralia.gov.au/institution/search-results.html?institutiontypeid=8%2C3%2C4

Related: Top 5 Countries with the Most International Students


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