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Reading the minds of international students

Conor Lawless Students

Claudia Civinini drills into new data from over 35,000 overseas students to find out the factors behind their decision to learn abroad

What would be the international student recruiter’s ultimate dream? A mind-reading tool revealing what goes through the minds of students in their target market. What motivates them to learn abroad, who they really trust in their decision-making, what their goals are, what time they check their emails and are active on social media. Knowledge, after all, is power.

In 2015 students fair organiser FPP EDU Media and digital marketing firm International Education Advantage (Intead) paired up to move closer to this vision. Surveying all 807,000 students in the FPP EDU Media database, 35,000 responded within two days, and it is on this sample that the ‘Know your neighbourhood: international recruiting fuelled by regional insights’ report is based, highlighting similarities and differences between approximately fifteen source markets.

Besides the detailed local insights gathered by the survey and its focus on diversification, another element underlines its uniqueness: China and India are missing. The reason, according to Intead CEO Benjamin Waxman, is not just logistics – FPP EDU Media has not entered the Chinese market yet – but also curiosity, as ‘there is already plenty of research on China’.

There are a number of marketing insights to gain from the results of this survey. Some might be new or surprising: the family has a limited impact on the decision-making process, and students start dreaming of studying abroad much earlier than previously thought. However, the most important message, that the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work in international recruitment, should already be a given. But in some cases it is not. As Waxman told the Gazette, the survey was motivated by ‘deeper marketing questions that the industry needed to ask’.

The authors explain in the report: ‘In student recruitment, the university that succeeds is the one that best delivers its message in the way the target audience wants to receive it. Messaging that might work well in Brazil is not necessarily going to be effective in Vietnam. How well you anticipate and honour those differences in your communication efforts may determine your success at driving international student enrolment.’

Indeed, cross-cultural communication is a ‘wonderful challenge’ that must be faced at every level of marketing, without forgetting that English is not everyone’s first language. ‘We always advocate local language use in marketing material,’ Waxman told the Gazette. ‘It’s all about sharing – this is key in digital marketing.’

Here are some of the insights from the survey.

Who do students trust?

‘Trust is clearly an important issue,’ states the survey. There are six major figures that can influence a student’s decision: recruiting agents, admission representatives from the university, a professional in the chosen field, academic advisers, students already living in the target country and, of course, the family. But not every student trusts the same figure.

Admission representatives seem to have greater influence in Latin America and in the Middle East, and far less in South East Asia – except in Malaysia. This is the opposite for recruiting agents. The hypothesis behind this is that in Asian countries students seem to perceive agents, who represent more than one university, to have a more impartial view than admission representatives working for one institution specifically.

Professional testimonials are particularly trusted in Italy and Spain, where the second most trusted figure is a student in the country, and also in Peru, together with a university admission representative.

Academic advisers also play an important role in Asian countries, except in Vietnam. Student testimonials also have a big influence on all source markets, especially Indonesia, Chile and Brazil. Families, on the other hand, seem to play a marginal role. A huge 96 per cent of all students said studying abroad was their own idea. As the report advises, students ‘want to be addressed as decision-makers – empowered and in charge’.

Motivations and goals

Nearly three quarters (74 per cent) of all students reported that past international travel experiences fostered their interest in studying abroad. Four in ten of them started dreaming about it very early, between five and fourteen years old.

 The reasons for studying abroad vary across the source markets. To get a good education and achieve important things were popular across the board, whereas only Malaysian, Thai and Indonesian students seem to pursue international education in order to honour their families. A different lifestyle is a popular reason in Malaysia and in the Philippines, less so in the rest of the market.

In terms of the goals that students want to achieve by studying abroad, speaking English fluently was the most popular – except in the Philippines, Malaysia and the Middle East, where only a third of the students chose it, the main goal being to achieve an advanced degree. For Italian, Spanish and Vietnamese students the main aspiration is to have a satisfying and interesting career – more than half of the students in these countries chose this goal.  Surprisingly, only 19 per cent of students in the sample chose the idealistic ‘making a difference in the world’.

What students evaluate

Geography and rankings had a low influence on the factors that students deem important when choosing an institution abroad – the most important factors are academic programmes and scholarships (see graph below).

Emails and social media

Students are generally most likely to check non-personal emails in the morning or evening, with some differences across countries and regions: Latin Americans prefer reading non-personal emails in the late evening, and so do Vietnamese and Thais. The same tendencies hold true for social media browsing, except in Spain and Italy, where non-personal email are generally read in the late morning and social media browsed in the late evening.

Overwhelmingly, students said that the preferred subject has to do with their academic interests more than their reason to study abroad. Waxman told the Gazette that institutions should try to catch their potential students’ attention by mentioning their best programmes on offer.

The full report is available at http://info.intead.com/know-your-neighborhood

Pic courtesy: Conor Lawless Students