October 2013 issue

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Social media: a marketing tool

International educators have a client base spread across the entire globe – a globe getting smaller thanks to social media: a marketing tool that is largely free to use. Potential students – especially within the key 18-to-25-year-old demographic – use this medium not only to research institutions, but to interact with them in an instant and honest way that traditional marketing methods do not offer. The extent to which educators and agents are utilising this platform to its full potential, however, varies. Claire Twyman reports on the ways in which an effective social media marketing strategy can be achieved.

There is no doubt that since its very recent inception, social media has completely changed the way in which international students communicate with potential institutions and their agent partners. Social media can be used to entice students by posting relevant information in an interactive way – in the form of text-based messages, photos and videos – which is especially important in an international context as students are often unable to attend school open days. “Social media allows us to provide a more dynamic insight into the student experience,” affirms Mikael Karlsson from LSF Montpellier in France. “With frequent updates, we can give potential students a better idea of what life at the school is like. It allows us to communicate with past, present and future students in an informal way, and provides a way to show more of our personality than would otherwise be possible.”

The vast majority of the industry realise that social media marketing is an important aspect of their overall sales campaigns, according to Wojtek Lapacz from Social Media & Marketing in Travel and Education (SMMITE) – a Poland-based marketing consultancy offering market intelligence on social media usage specifically for the study abroad industry. In a survey of language schools he recently conducted, he found that more than 98 per cent of participants think this way. However, while the industry understands the importance of social media, “not many schools show any tactics or strategy”, he says. This is a shame, as the prime demographic of 18-to-25-year-olds tend to use this platform religiously.

One problem is that it is hard to measure the return on investment social media offers. “Of the Facebook ‘likes’ we currently have, a very small proportion represent students we actually have in our school, or have had,” relates Jackie Cook from Target Language School in the UK. “Our ‘likes’ seem to come from students who might, at some point, come to study with us in the future.” This, coupled with the time, effort and knowledge needed to create interesting content can be off-putting.

However, as Ian Pratt from Lexis English in Australia and the newly-opened Lexis Korea highlights, the platform should not be used to encourage a hard-sell. “Social media is not there to replace traditional websites and brochures, but is a key means of supplementing that marketing message,” Pratt relates. “With this kind of opt-in marketing, potential students are not looking to be sold to, but they are very open to a more passive marketing message.” Indeed, as Lapacz highlights, a minority of social media followers will see posts due to factors including time-decay (although Facebook has recently introduced a feature in which popular but older posts gain prominence on news feeds). So what should a passive marketing message entail?

Driving engagement

As Jeanette Kramer from Canada-based agency Latitude International Education reveals, providing an active online presence is half the battle. “It isn’t enough to just open a Twitter or Facebook account, businesses need to provide relevant information regularly and engage their followers daily,” she explains. For some organisations, this might involve employing a member of staff or team solely in charge of social media. However, as Lapacz asserts, it is important to get the balance right and not bombard potential students with messages.

Sharing news, informing students about upcoming events and posting videos are some activities that can be carried out to drive engagement, Lapacz adds. And doing this in a way that will appeal to the student demographic is key. “Students, in common with most people, will look at a photo with a short comment, rather than commit to reading a long passage about how to study vocabulary,” explains Cook.

The younger generation is characterised by a curious nature, short attention span and love for visuals, which provides international education organisations with plenty of opportunities to get creative. Into University Partnerships, for example, uses YouTube to its full advantage, according to Tony Lee at the organisation. “Videos enable students to really dig deep and explore different aspects of their decision – they are reliant on this to act as an open day,” he says. This is especially important at higher education level, as students are giving a big financial and time commitment. The IntoTV YouTube channel, with around 0.5m subscribers, includes video interviews from staff offering pre-departure information, as well as student testimonials and reports on different cultures.

Into has also created a smart-phone app that currently has around 6,800 active users, allowing previous students to upload photos of their favourite spots on campus. As Lee explains, the app’s success is down to the fact that students, and indeed most social media users, are much more likely to trust their peers over a marketer. “When students become brand advocates, this greatly advocates demand,” he says. Indeed, as Lapacz observes, posts from personal Facebook accounts are much more visible on news feeds than a post from a business Facebook account, making the use of brand advocates all the more powerful. Encouraging current students to post content on the school’s social media page also gives prospective students a sense of community, which is likely to affect enrolment numbers in a positive way. “Self-generated content is a must in producing a good social media plan,” relates Gavin Eyre from IH Cape Town in South Africa. “Getting students involved can be challenging to say the least, and I think this is one of the biggest challenges we face.” However, as Into demonstrates, this can be achieved by keeping the student audience in mind.

As Sarah Gallagher from Lila* in the UK asserts, it is also important that social media sites maintain the same image as the organisation itself. “Social media should be closely monitored and maintained as it can also be used as a platform for negative images and feedback.”

Creating an open dialogue

The fact that social media can provide an open forum for negative feedback can be disconcerting for some, but as Pratt highlights, “The reality is that the conversation will be taking place online whether you are part of it or not. What you can do is contribute to the conversation, and from a marketing point of view at least, move the discussion in directions that highlight your strengths.”

According to Lucas Bertoli from ILSC, managing feedback online can take a great deal of time and energy, “But this is really an opportunity to show the strength of your customer service by being proactive in your responses,” he says. “It’s a way to show the world the real personality of your company, what your customers [students] mean to you, and how you find mutually beneficial solutions to problems. If you’re handling it right, social media can be an incredible tool to learn from your customers, and can be a catalyst for growth as you listen and adapt to their changing needs.”

Around the world, agents and educators alike are reaping the benefits of this ethos. Santuza Bicalho from STB Brazil, for example, reports that the agency is a market leader partly because it takes great care of its brand, and a large part of this is providing good customer service on social media websites. As she asserts, social media allows businesses to provide instant assistance in a public forum, which customers are grateful for.

Offering a fast and useful customer service on social media is good practice for businesses in all sectors, but for the international education industry it is especially important since the target demographic use social media daily. According to Adam Crabb from Anglia Ruskin University in the UK, the international office has a daily presence on Facebook and Twitter “because the time zones around the world are so different and we want to make sure everyone receives that interaction”.

Cracking different markets

It is also important to cater for varying markets when using social media – to serve students from countries that supply a large number of students and/or to attract students from new markets. “One of the challenges of using social media with an international audience is that it is not enough to speak only English,” asserts Laura Lippert from Kings Colleges. “Of course, users who want to learn English want to speak and be spoken to in English, but using local languages to interact with them shows respect for the culture and a willingness to interact with those still not proficient in English.”

With this in mind, Bertoli from ILSC explains that language-specific Facebook pages are in operation for Latin American and Korean audiences. Smaller, independent schools and agencies may not have the resources to do this, but as Erica Wedes from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Tutorium in Intensive English www.uic.edu/depts/tie in the USA relates, some cultures are able to read social media in English from a younger age. The fact that Facebook also allows geo-focussed advertising is also a big help, says Claire Bradshaw from London Metropolitan University in the UK.

Some may want to consider joining local social media websites, such as the Chinese Sina Weibo – used in place of global social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter that are banned in the country. Indeed, as Oscar Gamell from Delfin English School in Ireland and the UK highlights, “The Chinese market is one of the biggest ones – 1.35 billion people is a big source of potential students.”

As Iona Meng, in charge of Sina Weibo marketing at Into, relates, it is important to bear the Chinese audience in mind when posting on the website, which she says has a functionality crossed between Facebook and Twitter. “We do not post social sensitive information, such as photos from parties,” she explains, adding that this is generally unacceptable in Chinese culture. “However, overall, Chinese students have similarities to students from other countries – they are curious about studying abroad, like entertain ment, fashion and shopping brands and are attracted to visuals, meaning that messages do not need to be tailored a great deal.” While it is beneficial to post in Mandarin, it is not always necessary, she says, adding that if an institution verifies its Sina Weibo account it is then recognised by the Chinese government, meaning that information provided is considered valid by users.

Strengthening relations

Meng also touches on the fact that parents are also a key consideration in social media marketing strategies – although they tend to be less active on the platform. “Given that it’s often the parents who choose the course and school for their children, tone and content need to be modulated to [also] engage a more mature audience,” Lippert adds.

Agent-educator relationships can also be strengthened using this medium, with many educators explaining that the information they provide, regarding new courses for example, is posted to inform potential students and agents alike. “Schools and agents can interact together as a team on social media: we try to follow all our partner agents on Twitter and like their pages on Facebook,” adds Virginie Courau from Accent Français in France. “As reciprocity, many of our partner agents are re-tweeting our tweets and sharing our posts on their own pages.”

At Lexis, Pratt explains that the line between marketing and normal social contact is blurred when using social media to engage with agents. “We tend towards making long-term relationships and quite genuine friendships with our agents, and a lot of the time we’re just keeping in contact with each other’s lives,” he says. “So, from Lexis’s point of view, agent marketing on Facebook etc. tends to be very passive at best.” Into University Partnerships, on the other hand, has octarate Facebook and Twitter accounts for students and corporate partners, including agents.

In conclusion, Kramer comments that “social media allows agents and businesses to engage their demographic where they are at, which is online, in front of their smart-phones and computers”. Barring advertising opportunities, since this is a platform that is completely free to use, social media marketing is bound to gain more and more popularity in the international education industry in coming years. claire@hothousemedia.com

Is social media replacing the role of agents?

As was the fear when internet usage became widespread, some industry insiders argue that when international educators use social media to engage with students, they are stepping on their agent partners’ toes. Claire Bradshaw from London Metropolitan University in the UK, for example, relates that social media shows students that direct bookings are possible, while Oscar Gamell, from Delfin English School in the UK and Ireland, admits, “We are limited [in our social media usage] by partners who work with us and sell our courses.”

Their agent counterparts that have contributed to this article, however, are largely supportive of schools who use social media, confident in the fact that the online platform can never replace the services they provide. “These days, most students prefer going online on different sources to find the information they need,” says Khaila Al Ameri from Education Zone agency in the United Arab Emirates. “However, that doesn’t mean that they can find enough or learn enough to make a wise choice. Here is where we, as educational agents, come into action.” Indeed, social media is also a tool that agents can utilise. “It helps in keeping up with the latest information, for staying ahead of competitors and for keeping up with the information and knowledge that educators are gaining from participating in online communities with peers.”

The vast majority of international educators, too, are of the opinion that social media usage does not damage agent relations.“Instead of viewing it as an overstepping of boundaries, social media usage by institutions should really be appreciated for what it is: a powerful tool that assists agencies in student recruitment,” comments Lucas Bertoli from ILSC Education Group. “Most recruitment agencies would agree that it’s easier to promote institutions when they have strong marketing materials. An institution’s strong social media presence helps agents promote them more easily. Being on social media helps legitimise an institution in the eyes of potential students, and that makes the jobs of our international recruitment partners that much easier.” Meanwhile, Anna France from Langports in Australia relates that schools use social media, brochures and advertisements to create brand awareness, rather than to offer agent services, such as help with visa applications. “We believe that agents are a very important part of the language course booking process, as good agents give valuable information to students,” she says.

The differences between some of the main social media platforms:

• Facebook is used for posting pictures, answers to questions, information and advice or even starting extensive campaigns. It is basically a more detailed version of Twitter

• Twitter is quick, and straight to the point. It is faster paced than Facebook and opens a forum for discussion. Adding a hashtag before key phrases, e.g. #ELT, facilitates the grouping of similar messages, making it easier for students to find related discussions

• LinkedIn is a professional platform used to manage a school/agent’s professional identity, while allowing networking with peers

• Instagram and YouTube has its own way of interacting with students. Instagram is a platform from which organisations and students can upload and edit photos taken from their smart phones, and YouTube is a video channel. Arguably, students are more likely to remember visual content over what they read on Facebook/Twitter

Advice from Khaila Al Ameri, Education Zone, United Arab Emirates.

Which social media websites do schools use?

Facebook 100%
Twitter 74.2%
LinkedIn 57.6%
YouTube 50%
Google+ 43.6%
Pinterest 21.2%
Instagram 16.7%
VKontakte 6.1%
Orkut 3%
MySpace 1.5%

As part of a study analysing social media usage trends of language schools worldwide, Wojtek Lapacz from Social Media & Marketing in Travel & Education (SMMITE) asked 68 language schools which social media websites they actively use (see above graph).

All surveyed schools had a Facebook profile. However, when monitoring a control group of around 100 language schools of varying sizes, Lapacz found that participants may not use social media to its full potential, with only 44 per cent of the control group posting news about the school. In total, around 80 per cent of the surveyed group reported that they do this. “Many respondents might have given us a wish list of their activities rather than a realistic view,” he says.

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