How US Universities are Using Social Media to Attract Chinese Students

Dr. Mathew McDougall, CEO and founder of Digital Jungle explains how social media makes the difference.

Globalization has seen many US organizations actively seeking Chinese students who not only pay overseas fees but also tend to work exceptionally hard and thrive academically. Dr. Mathew McDougall, CEO and founder of Digital Jungle explains how social media makes the difference.

In the past, many universities needed recruiters in country to talk with potential students and often universities would support their recruiters by running multimillion dollar advertising campaigns. In China, these campaigns were effective but only major universities could afford these recruitment strategies. Over the last decade however, social media networking sites have equalized this industry. Now, any university can effectively recruit potential students with the proper social media strategy.

Universities including the University of Iowa (UI) are actively engaging in Chinese social media marketing. The UI has recently created a new position titled ‘Global Relations Coordinator' and the university is cultivating relations through Chinese social media platforms. According to Iowa Now, "The number of Chinese students studying at the UI has surged in recent years, reflecting a national trend, and the UI is a leader nationally in using these Chinese social media platforms."

The article shows a graph of the increase in the number of Chinese students from 2007 (537) to 2013 (2,266). According to China Daily studying abroad can cost 200,000 RMB ($32,630) to 600,000 ($97,770) RMB a year, including tuition and living expenses. To put this into a financial perspective, the UI has created nearly $40 million dollars per year, (2,000 students x $20,000 tuition and living expenses) through the use of social media and refocusing their efforts on the Chinese market.

According to US News, "More international students are studying in the United States—and are increasingly relying primarily on their own funds to do so." This example illustrates the value of social media marketing and digital marketing in China but what are these universities actually doing?

Obviously, the first step for any university is to setup social media accounts on popular Chinese social media site such as Sina Weibo, RenRen and Douban. Duke University has been creating "Chats" on Sina Weibo and RenRen to address potential Chinese students' questions. Duke University has posted a picture of a recent ‘Chat' it held on Weibo which provides a great example of using a social platform to do more than broadcast university programs or post pictures. The university answered 80 questions in Chinese, from 150 potential students in one hour.

Another university that is active on Weibo is the University of Michigan.  It has been using Weibo to actively recruit students by advertising and pushing their events in China. According to Inside Higher Ed, "In the past, when the University of Michigan (U-M) hosted a reception in Shanghai for admitted students and their families, about 80 people attended. Last year, the university used its profile on the popular Chinese microblogging site, Sina Weibo, to promote the event and 200 people showed up." Through the use of social media the University of Michigan was able to increase its event participation by 120 attendees.

Michigan State University is also actively using Chinese based social networking apps. According to Tech in Asia, "On November 17, the WeChat account MSU伴侣 warned overseas Chinese students about the possibility of tornadoes and severe winds near Michigan State University's campus in East Lansing. Earlier this year, the school also used WeChat to calm students' nerves about a reported shooter on university grounds." This approach is less about recruitment and more about student services.

WeChat is a mobile social app that allows branded pages similar to Facebook. Users can follow brands and share content that has been posted. Michigan State University's approach might not be directly related to recruitment but when students share university content all the students' contacts, mostly in China, will see the content. This commitment to WeChat shows that Michigan State University is looking to provide high quality student services and improve the quality of life for international students. WeChat currently has 271.9 million active monthly users with the majority of users from mainland China. This reveals an emphasis on the international community on campus and especially the Chinese students, which will go a long way when recruiting potential students in the future.

Overall, US universities are becoming more aware of the importance of Chinese students to the growth of their university. And social media is one cheap, effective way to speak to attract people from around the world.


Dr. Mathew McDougall, CEO and founder of Digital Jungle