Try to compare international student recruitment in 2004 with international student recruitment just a few years ago. The conclusion reminds me of the old adage about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire: She did everything he did, except she did it backwards and in high heels.
The challenge in 2004 for international student recruiters is the same as it's always been: To effectively communicate your message to your target audience. The big difference now: Deciding when, where, how and why to use the ever-evolving array of communications tools at our disposal, and at the disposal of affluent, globally-mobile students around the world.
Online elements certainly play a key role in this dynamic industry, where prospective students are quite literally moving targets. Fifteen months ago, for example, mass-broadcast eMail campaigns were all the rage, and companies were eager to sell their lists of 15- to 19-year-olds. On the scale of effectiveness, eMail has slipped considerably as an initial point of contact (primarily due to spamming issues and privacy concerns). But that doesn't mean that all non-personal eMail correspondence should be eliminated from a communications plan. We've found that very focused eMail messages yield impressive response rates, for example, when we extract particular students from our database and invite them to an event in their own region.
So, if eMail doesn't work (any more) as an initial point of contact, what does?
Not surprisingly, it depends on your individual campus objectives and your current promotional campaigns. If you're looking to expand your online executive education programs, then it may be wise to launch an online pay-per-performance campaign via Overture.com. During February 2004, 89,167 users searched for the term MBA on Overture affiliate sites (including Yahoo!, MSN, AltaVista and cnn.com at the time). The good news is that you're only charged when a user clicks on your ad; the bad news is that the top bid (for top placement) for MBA is $5.01 per click. (Overture currently serves Australia, Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.)
If you can hone in on specific campus objectives (in most cases, centered on academic strengths), there are some real bargains in the pay-per-performance arena. For example, one urban university in the Midwest was interested in boosting enrollments in their Health Sciences / Perfusion program. Only 1,092 searches were conducted via Overture.com affiliates for the term perfusion in February 2004; consequently, the top cost per click was only 11 cents -- for very targeted leads.
If you want to attract Spanish speakers from Spain, you may opt for Google.com's language and geographic filters with key phrases such as universidades de Estados Unidos -- which costs less than 40 cents for placement in the top three results.
At the moment, a targeted pay-per-performance campaign is a good deal in international student recruitment. However, it won't last forever; there are some real vulnerabilities in the system, including the rising savviness of click fraud engineers who develop software to automatically click on competitor's ads, in attempts to deplete their accounts. Someone is bound to build a better mousetrap -- which prompts major changes in the way internet users seek and find the most relevant results to their inquiries.
Who knows what they'll come up with next?
Further down the enrollment funnel, for example, mass-broadcast text messages (to handheld devices) are very appropriate to send to interested students a few hours before a U.S. education fair held in their city.
Another innovative online technique: A student advising office in Asia developed an effective online tool from a dating match-making software program. The study abroad version pairs prospective students with Taiwanese students or alumni from U.S. institutions, to tap into a broad range of people with different experiences to provide personal responses to questions.
Aah, personal responses. Word-of-mouth. How can we capture and formalize the phenomenon? The answer: word-of-mouse.
International student recruiters recognized long ago what some marketing gurus are only now discovering: That the word-of-mouth component is the most effective, least expensive form of promotion. Now, the challenge is to empower people with influence: Anyone who is familiar with your campus, who would recommend it to their friends, relatives and colleagues. Think of your domestic students and faculty who participate in study abroad programs; your administration who travels overseas; your international student alumni; parents of current and former students... In many cases, a simple, physical token to empower a referral source is extremely helpful. We've seen success with business-card-sized promotional pieces solely designed to drive interested parties online. These pieces fit nicely into a wallet or purse, and may be distributed readily in any number of situations. Contact me if you'd like a few samples of our successful pieces.
Another simple way to nurture the power of word-of-mouth online: In every eMail message you send, encourage your reader to forward it to friends, relatives or colleagues who might also be interested in your campus.
Seth Godin uses the word-of-mouth concept as the foundation of his famous eBook, which has been downloaded by more than a million people worldwide: Unleashing the Ideavirus. Here's a summary: Marketing by interrupting people isn't cost-effective anymore. You can't afford to seek out people and send them unwanted marketing messages, in large groups, and hope that some will send you money. Instead, the future belongs to marketers who establish a foundation and process where interested people can market to each other. Ignite consumer networks and then get out of the way and let them talk.
The 'net is no longer a novelty, but rather a knowledge tool with enormous potential for communicating around the world. Though we've only seen the proverbial tip of the iceberg, we do have the luxury of history (albeit a short one). What we've learned (from corresponding with hundreds of international admissions colleagues around the world each month) is that online mechanisms must be fully integrated into a communications plan (in each major step of the international student recruitment funnel) that outlines specific goals pertinent to individual campuses.
Funding Figures: A Favorite Filter in the Funnel
It's absolutely imperative to implement some sort of filtering mechanisms (via If-Then Statements embedded into online forms) for initial inquiries. None of us have time to waste on prospective student inquiries that are irrelevant (according to your own definition of irrelevant). Yet it's important to respond to every eInquiry, as a matter of courtesy. Via technological advances such as Automated Responses, re-direct the prospective students who do not qualify for your programs; for example, if the student does not have adequate funding, suggest links to scholarship sites or other less expensive academic options such as short-term courses. Mountains of eMail messages are manageable, with the proper tools in place.
These filtering mechanisms need to be implemented at every point of entry at the widest part of the enrollment funnel -- embed them within your own .edu domain, as well as all other sources of initial inquiries such as the U.S. Journal of Academics. At the very least, define your parameters according to degrees, academic programs, and minimum financial requirements. Funding filters will only increase in importance, as more students from less developed countries gain regular internet access. (Only about 10 percent of the world's population has regular, online access -- and it's safe to say that that 10 percent is more affluent, better-prepared academically, and more globally-mobile than the other 90 percent without internet access.)
Fully Integrate Online and Offline Activities
To develop or refine a recruitment strategy, tap into the data available on the internet and elsewhere. Todd Davis' Atlas of Student Mobility is a remarkable resource. (Did you know that 52,845 students from Greece studied abroad last year?)
Follow the stats from IIE's Open Doors. If you're a small liberal arts college with an excellent math / computer science curriculum, you might want to ride the wave of high-volumes of Indian students entering the U.S. Target your message accordingly.
Pay attention to trends (Stamats.com is another great resource). For example, you've probably noticed that students are more demanding than ever. They want to dictate when, where and how they communicate with you. So, experiment with some user-driven online mechanisms, such as chat and bulletin boards. These mechanisms don't have to be expensive; try ICQ for free.
According to Stamats' Annual TeensTALK Research, college-bound students use the internet as their number one source to search for colleges. The web is not going away any time soon, so it's critical to stay abreast of broad trends in the industry. And take heed in the fact that the objectives of international student recruiting are the same as they've always been... except that now we need to do it backwards and in high heels.
International eRecruitment is a dynamic market, to say the least. We're dedicated to keeping our finger on the pulse of the industry; the U.S. Journal of Academics has been leading the way in online international student recruitment for years. We would be delighted to assist you in enhancing your global promotional efforts. Call us at 570-339-4731, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
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