Marketing methods employed by study travel agencies over the past year were wide-ranging, from web, TV, radio and print advertising, to brochure distribution, seminars to student fairs; targeted mailings to media PR, and also include use of student ‘ambassadors’.
For many agents, past experience is the main guide to the way future marketing is planned. Successful methods are used again, while those that are less so are cast aside. As Miguel Varela of Colombian agency, Global Studies, explains, “We keep an eye on the way our clients find us, [in order] to keep the strategies that work.” However, he adds, “[This] doesn’t mean that we aren’t willing to try different ones, as the market evolves every day”.
At STS Language Schools and STS Student Travel Schools, a combined agency and language school operation based in Sweden, this approach has been finely tuned, with the use of marketing codes, “which,” explains General Manager, James Crimp, “allow us to see which campaign provided good leads”. The company also uses web-based analysis tools such as Google Analytics to track the conversion of interest into leads and, finally, into bookings.
First, understand your market...
What experience has shown is that the success of different marketing methods depends to a great extent upon the target market. The choice of the right medium is, therefore, a crucial decision in any marketing campaign, and, in Sweden, STS has employed external marketing and research companies to investigate the way in which interest to purchase is generated for language programmes.
It has come up with some interesting findings, as Crimp reveals. “What is so unique in regard to our junior courses is that often one person creates the interest (juniors), but another person decides and purchases (parents).” As he explains, “This means two hugely different parties that have different needs in regard to focus marketing campaigning. Trying to stimulate one can often affect the other and not always in the best way,” he points out.
The company’s research shows that you cannot use the same means to reach both parties. While MTV has proved effective in reaching juniors, morning radio or morning papers are more successful with adults (see chart illustration on page 34). “The marketing mediums are getting further and further apart,” Crimp observes.
The company, which operates a study travel agency business alongside its own language schools, carries out marketing through three channels, which it categorises as “own”, such as its brochure and web presence; “purchased”, including banners, Google ads, TV and magazine advertising, and “other”, such as word-of-mouth, reviews and recommendations.
“What we can establish,” reports Crimp, “is that juniors/teenagers react well to purchased marketing channels such as Google, Facebook ads, web banners, billboards and adverts in youth magazines, which help to get contact with the STS brand, and then they recall the brand more through TV and further web advertising. But then more external marketing that we don’t directly influence becomes apparent through recommendations from a friend or other neutral reviews or endorsements.
“Parents, on the other hand, also react well to brand recall through TV advertising, [and] also newspapers and more passive marketing. But then, when moving on to the brand appraisal and brand action, they are completely word-of-mouth-orientated by the [recommendation of] a friend, online quality searches and other review sources.”
According to Crimp, whose company has been working in the industry for over 50 years, the same is also true of different geographical markets. As he explains, “The Scandinavian markets are comfortable about purchasing products directly online, without face-to-face meetings with a representative from STS, as our brand is so established.” However, he says, “In southern Europe, customers still want to look you in the eye when they agree to purchase one of your products.” Therefore, the company’s marketing and the materials produced will often reflect that fact.
...then set your budget
While understanding of the target market is one key factor in planning a marketing strategy, budget is, of course, another major influence. According to Loredana di Bernardo of StudiareinAustralia, an Italian web-based agency, the cheapest methods are Facebook and the maintenance of its own website, while the most expensive is seminars for potential students, and the most cost-effective is web marketing. Also relatively costly are TV and print advertising and the traditional brochure.
Given their varying target markets, it is not surprising that agencies have mixed views about the marketing methods that have worked best and least well for them over the past year. Nevertheless, there are a few main contenders.
Reflecting the comments of Crimp, print advertising in particular is seen as less effective by many in reaching young people i.e, potential students. According to Silvia Mendoza of Escuelas del Mundo agency in Peru, “Advertising campaigns in newspapers and magazines are extremely expensive and their effectiveness is zero. Unless the campaign can be sustained,” she adds, it generates no recall.” Chairman, Ottó Lazló Nagy, at IHH in Hungary, meanwhile reports that his company has stopped using newspaper advertising, because of the low response rate.
Untargeted direct mail is also proving to be less effective than in the past for Eric Lee of IEUM Uhak in Ireland. “It looks like spam mail,” he comments, so he now sends e-mailings only to those who want to be contacted in that way or to those who he has already counselled.
Meanwhile, brochures are found to be of diminishing value by Lucia Mellone Torres, Commercial Director at Cosmoeducación in Mexico, as she comments that her company focuses increasingly on the less expensive database mailings and Facebook communication.
However, for many, brochures remain an important element in the marketing mix, with Mendoza reporting that these are distributed widely among clients and also given to the staff in various colleges for distribution among their students.
There is, nevertheless, a subtle change underway, as Crimp observes that Internet information has led to changes in the way in which his agency uses brochures. “Previously we sent 1,000,000 brochures per year to our potential customers directly in the post, but now people want to be ‘inspired’ by any printed material they receive through the door, as the base facts of the product they can always find online at our webpage. That is why we changed to sending teasers instead,” he explains, “so that they can inspire interest and are considerably cheaper.”
For most, it is probably true to say that the agency website has become the staple marketing tool, as well as a key source of bookings. Use of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, all stem from this and contribute to the company’s overall web image.
Indeed, use of social media has spread rapidly among advisors, and is proving extremely successful in many cases. According to Katherine Thay, Marketing Manager at UK-based Cactus Worldwide, “We are using all social media platforms, and have a great following from teachers and students all over the world.” Meanwhile, at Global Studies in Colombia, Varela notes that social media channels are used to disseminate information on day-to-day promotions. Current and past students can interact with potential clients and give them feedback on their experiences, she explains. Meanwhile, the company keeps in touch with clients, even sending them birthday wishes.
The drawback of Facebook marketing is the amount of time required in order to do it properly, comments Magda Nagyova of Slovakian agency, EuroTrend21. However, the return on the investment has proved well worthwhile for STS, where, observes Crimp, “Social media is now massive for us, with more questions often coming via Facebook than via email or telephone calls in some countries. With five products to sell and many country offices around the world, the company maintains about 40 Facebook pages. This is, of course, time-consuming, as he admits “as people won’t wait for an answer via social media; they expect an answer within the hour.”
However, the pay-off is plain to see. “We can see that our social media campaigns have created a lot of interest, and the amount of leads obtained increases every year,” he says. “We have partnerships with organisations that work in tandem with us to create an interest, such as film companies or sports brands.” One good example is a recent Facebook ad, in which STS offered free cinema tickets to students booking a language course. This ad created 1,119 “likes” in four days, Crimp notes, and was shared 77 times. “That’s good marketing for limited costs.”
Internet advertising, via sites such as Google, Facebook and Spotify are all increasingly being used, while e-mailings to past students and those who have been in touch requesting information, are a cheap and, often, effective means of promotion.
“Over the past couple of years, Internet advertisement and marketing has become our number-one source of new clients,” testifies Lawrence Morello of All About Languages in Spain and the USA. He reports that the company has a strong mailing list of past students and others who have been in contact for information in the past, and targets them with what is generally a bi-weekly mailshot. Nagyova concurs on the effectiveness of direct mail, commenting that a regularly updated webpage and direct mail have proved to be the most effective marketing tools for her agency.
For Mendoza, another effective method is the media release. “Depending on how the news is focused, [this] can create sales, or, perhaps, just recalls. Anyway,” she says, “it is cost-effective.”
Providing seminars or talks to companies, potential students or to parents is another route used by many agencies to find new clients. Di Bernardo at StudiareinAustralia is one who has found that this is becoming less effective when targeting potential students, and reports, “Although the attendance is always fairly good, the number actually booking a course is growing fewer, with most interested only in collecting information.”
Escuelas del Mundo in Peru also gives targeted talks about its programme portfolio in schools, and Mendoza notes that those targeting parents are more fruitful than those targeting potential students themselves. “When we give talks to parents, the results are optimal,” she observes.
Attendance at education fairs is another popular way of making face-to-face contact with potential students. However, views are again mixed on how useful they are. For Mendoza, participation is “highly expensive” and, similar to di Bernardo’s comment on seminars, tends to attract those interested in collecting information, rather than serious clients. Nevertheless, Ketsara Labpornsirikul, Manager of Target Education Company in Bangkok, Thailand, which has attended two such fairs in the past year, declares this method to be the most successful for her over the past year, alongside the company’s Facebook presence. For the coming year, she says that it is likely to focus more on building its presence at quality events.
In the midst of changes brought about by the growing sophistication of what can now be achieved via a web platform, it is, however, important not to lose sight of the perennial value of word-of-mouth recommendation by past students. It is also important to recognise the role that agents themselves can play in maximising this valuable assistance.
At STS, for example, Crimp reports that former students act as paid ambassadors, promoting its programmes on a commission basis. This is in addition to the opportunities provided by social media, such as Facebook, to put potential students in touch with those who have studied at the school previously.
“The best thing with our Facebook pages is that they are an interaction between our customers, often up to 12 months prior to participation on our programmes, so their experience begins earlier through that interaction...Around one third of our bookings come from recommendations, so getting former customers to share their experience is very valuable,” he underlines. Most would agree that word-of-mouth remains the best means of recruitment.
Marketing expenses for study travel agencies can be considerable. However, most of them, it seems, receive some contribution to their costs from one or more of their educator partners.
According to feedback received from both agents and educators, the way this generally works is that agents solicit their partners’ help. Loredana di Bernardo of Italian agency StudiareinAustralia explains that she normally presents a marketing plan in support of her bid. However, she comments, “only one university out of 11 provides a contribution,” and the amount never exceeds e500 (US$649) a year.
Similarly, says Ketsara Labpornsirikul, Manager of Target Education Company in Thailand: “Marketing support from our educator partners is very important and helpful to our business. However, as a small agent, there are just a few educator partners [that] contribute their budget to support our marketing activities.”
As Lucia Mellone Torres, Commercial Director at Cosmoeducación in Mexico, points out, it is to schools’ benefit if they contribute towards agency costs, as it advertises their brand and leads to sales. At the same time, financial and other contributions on the part of educators are an incentive to agencies to work hard on their behalf. “We try to work with institutions that support us and see us as strategic partners in our country,” comments Miguel Varela of Colombian Agency, Global Studies. “We always have goals to reach when they invest with us in marketing strategies. In this way, our relationship grows.”
Not all marketing support comes in the form of monetary investment. Canadian language school group ILSC offers a variety of back-up, such as fam tours, webinars and agent seminars to train its partners on new developments at the school, and often co-participates with agents at fairs to offer support and knowledge, says spokesperson, Mara Muller. “We also co-brand with many of our UPath partners, and agencies can leverage on their linkage through ILSC to many reputable UPath partners.”
Where there is a financial contribution on their part, educators need to be sure that their investment is going to pay off. At Babylon Idiomas in Spain, Sales Director Linda Sandberg says that they do not volunteer contributions, since agencies receive a commission on their sales. However, she comments, “Some agencies ask us to contribute to student fairs, to their printed brochure or website, or to offer free courses as prizes for competitions.” She notes that this type of arrangement can work well, as long as the offer is made on guaranteed terms, as is the case with Babylon’s arrangement with Egitmal in Turkey.
At fellow Spanish language schools Enforex and Don Quijote, President Antonio Anadón, confirms that they too offer help and support to partner agents. The exact nature of the support given depends upon the market and the relationship that exists with the agent in question, he notes. However, it may include support towards obtaining a booth at fairs, training agents in promotion techniques to help build market share, providing printed materials for distribution, and mentioning partners in marketing materials, as well as contributing towards having their own name mentioned in agents’ materials.
St Giles International believes strongly that there are mutual benefits to be gained from agent support. Where the school’s logo is featured on its agents’ promotional materials, says Sales Manager, Hannah Lindsay, “This allows for a win-win situation, whereby both the agency and the school are promoted to a local audience, and so are we. Not only are we supporting a trusted partner and strengthening our relationship with them,” she points out, “we are also getting local promotion, which we would not have otherwise been able to get exposure to.”
As she further notes, “Even if agencies do not directly promote St Giles International in their marketing, ultimately, it is often still worth supporting, as their growth will result in further growth for us. Our marketing contribution will make a difference to them, and they will remember this.”
Direct bookings battle
For marketing to be judged a success, expressions of interest must be converted to actual sales. However, one perennial source of dissatisfaction among study travel advisors is the number of students who seek their advice and then book directly with their chosen school, resulting in no commission being received.
Of course, some educational institutions take trouble to ensure that their agent partners receive commission on bookings they receive directly, and they reap the reward for this in the form of greater commitment from their agent partners in the future.
At Peruvian agency Escuelas del Mundo, two of its partners pass on requests from students in their market, reveals Silvia Mendoza. “This gesture on the part of both schools is highly motivating for us as [their] agents, as we work hard, and we do not always feel supported by schools.”
Lucia Mellone Torres at Cosmoeducación in Mexico, corroborates, “Our most loyal schools send me the requests they receive from [our country], and those are the ones who we focus on in our sales.”
However, because this is the exception rather than the rule, agencies need to focus on ensuring that the interest that they have created is converted to actual bookings through their company. For Eric Lee of IEUM Uhak in Ireland this means demonstrating the added value he can offer them. “I show them what I will [do to] help them when they come through me service, even price, etc, so they don’t do it.”
At Swedish agency, Student Travel Schools (STS), this problem does not arise with its junior programmes, which it owns and sells itself, but, with the adult programmes that are part of it product portfolio, explains General Manager, James Crimp. “We offer great service, advice and assistance, which our customers value, linked to an established brand.” His company also uses former students especially in the case of academic year courses to support its efforts, and notes that this really helps, “as our potential customers get to personally meet them and that advice is invaluable.”