Do International Students Need Special Marketing Materials?

Guest author Megan Brenn-White outlines why international students benefit from specific information and unique marketing materials. 

October 15, 2015

The answer must be no, right? Wouldn’t creating special marketing just for international students imply that we’re somehow not a truly global institution?

It’s not just a theoretical issue. While the US is still the top host country for international students, our overall market share dropped from 28% in 2001 to 20% in 2012 according to the Atlas of Student Mobility. This reflects new and exciting choices for international students. For institutions, though, it indicates serious competition, particularly those offering English-taught degrees.

So it’s essential to let international students know that an institution is welcoming, offers programs that are attuned to their needs, and helps them to adjust to a different culture. But how would these materials be different from those designed for domestic students?

Different information needs

Today’s international students benefit from specific information that helps them bridge gaps in their knowledge and makes them feel welcome at the host institution and country.

Yet webpages for international students in the US (and elsewhere) too jump right to information about visas and travel. Many institutions overlook how the “getting-to-know-you” phase might differ for international students. These prospects may not be as familiar with your institution or location or our system of higher education – and be anxiously asking themselves if they’ll be able to thrive academically and personally.

Specific content that’s targeted at answering their questions, calming their worries, and getting them to connect emotionally with the institution is critical at this stage. For example, most international students will never do a campus tour, but some of that experience can be replicated with virtual online tours in multiple languages like the ones produced by YouVisit for Northeastern. International student blogs and ambassadors can help too. The University of Buffalo manages to provide critical information with a friendly and welcoming attitude.

Furthermore, international students are often even more career focused than US students, and they (and their parents) look for clear evidence that a degree will help their employment options. Statistics and testimonials specifically related to international students are both helpful here. Yet many students also want to gain work experience before returning home or launching a global career, which the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program allows many international students to do. This is a distinct competitive advantage for US institutions compared to countries such as the UK where “post-study work” was severely limited in 2012.

Local languages, global English

The page for Monash International, one of the Australian universities with the highest percentage of international students, shows links to sites in 10 different languages as well as Weibo and WeChat accounts in Chinese. Creating and maintaining this level of non-English content requires significant resources – but certainly helps them stand out.

While this may not be possible for many institutions, many universities are taking small steps:

  • Creating marketing materials in the languages of key target markets, often with help from local offices or agents. Even as little as a postcard or a downloadable one-page PDF increases student – and parent – comfort and shows institutional commitment.
  • Using a global English to avoid higher ed terms that differ significantly between American and British English – for example, “student accommodations” rather than “dorms,” or “professors” rather than “faculty.”
  • Writing with mobile in mind (mobile traffic on MastersPortal.com, one of the biggest portal sites for international students, increased from under 5% to close to 35% in the past 4 years).
  • Banish those long sentences and paragraphs and use captioned images.

The truth is that much of what works for international students also constitutes best practices for our domestic students – short sentences, lots of great images and videos, clear focus on the specific needs of segmented audiences, etc.

But this doesn’t mean that your marketing materials should be the same for domestic and international audiences. While catering to their specific needs, your materials can communicate that international students are an integral and valued part of your campus, not simply a full-tuition paying “asset.” Making sure that this is the case once they arrive on campus is equally important – but that’s the subject of another blog post!

Megan Brenn-White has nearly two decades of experience in international education and content development, most of which has been helping higher education institutions communicate more effectively online with international audiences. She founded The Brenn-White Group in 2010


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