Show, Not Tell, in Marketing to International Students

Lofty (yet unsubstantiated) claims of “high-quality teaching” or graduates who “go on to start amazing careers in a variety of well-known companies” don’t cut it for international prospects. Real evidence is needed.

September 27, 2016

International prospects, who often lack the context and peer affirmation of their domestic peers, need to understand quickly how “good” your program or institution really is – and how it will help them in their personal and professional goals. Lofty (yet unsubstantiated) claims of “high-quality teaching” or graduates who “go on to start amazing careers in a variety of well-known companies” don’t cut it for international prospects. And, frankly, they shouldn’t cut if for domestic recruitment either.

What Counts as Proof?

We know that career outcomes are one of the most important factors that go into student decision-making, and this is particularly true for many disciplines and recruitment markets. It helps to understand that a family may see the value of a degree largely as its future career benefit – and may be staking both their future finances and their familial pride on this bet.

One litmus test for what constitutes as real proof about the quality of an institution or program (and not just marketing fluff) is that it is said by someone other than someone paid by your university. A testimonial that has likely been edited by the marketing team is probably just slightly more trust-inspiring than marketing copy, but an award, accreditation, or cold, hard numbers are far better yet.

If you can say, for example, that 68% of your international students found jobs in their fields in their home countries within 3 months of graduation and an additional 10% stayed on to do a year of optional practical training in the US…well, you’ll stand out from about 99.9% of your peers!

Although more and more institutions are keeping careful track of student outcomes and using it in marketing materials, there is rarely any differentiation between outcomes for domestic and international students. American University’s “We Know Success” website does an amazing job of showing results for various degrees, but doesn’t add some of the specifics that may be particularly interesting to international students. It would be fantastic to have a dropdown with “country of origin” so prospects from at least a few of the major recruitment markets could see results from their compatriots, as just one example.

Why Rankings Matter

Although your institution may be very well known in your region or country, there are probably only 30 institutions in the world that enjoy a truly global reputation – and that may be a generous estimate. When a student is looking internationally at career options, they need to quickly understand the quality of the institution and program. The quickest way to do this is through rankings.

We may all hate rankings for different reasons, but there’s no doubt that this is the easiest shorthand to differentiate between institutions. Hobsons did a report last year (a new one should be published shortly) which, amongst other things, asked which rankings or “league tables”, in British English, were used by international students. 43% said they use the Academic Ranking of World Universities from Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings, 32.6% said they use the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and 20% use the “Professional ranking” of world universities from the École des Mines de Paris.

Which ranking a student chooses likely depends on where they are from and what type of program they are looking for, but it absolutely helps to know 1) where your institution stands in these global rankings and 2) if you are properly promoting any positive results in these or other rankings. Any legitimate ranking, domestic or global, is better proof of your quality (at least this is how it seems to most prospects) than you simply telling them you are great. Don’t assume an international student will know to look at US News and World Report if they are looking for programs in the US, for example, or know that your Physics department did great in your last national rankings!

If You Don’t Have the Numbers

Let’s say your institution isn’t highly ranked or hasn’t won any awards lately, then the next best thing really is to include testimonials from students and alumni. In fact, this is not an either/or proposition. Different prospects react to different types of proof so having a series of testimonials, ideally in local languages, can help provide your future students a type of that peer affirmation and show their parents that they won’t be alone. Somewhat rough videos that look like they weren’t scripted by a marketing team may come across as more authentic and trustworthy here, which is good for budgets!

If you don’t have great data about career outcomes, you can at least mention specific companies that graduates have gone on to work at – and talk about where they are located and not just the names. Knowing that at least one of your alums has gone on to work for Google in Hong Kong, for example, would at least show that it’s possible!

It also may be possible to run surveys of your international students (or participate in the i-graduate surveys) to be able to include facts about your international students such as their satisfaction with housing, how many of them complete internships, how happy they are with your location, etc. These are all statistics you can tout in your marketing materials.

Standing Out By Being Concrete

When you spend a lot of time looking at websites and recruitment collateral for institutions, it becomes very clear that the same kind of vague claims about quality, connection to industry, commitment to social responsibility, etc. are made by many, many institutions and programs. To really stand out, showing that you are dedicated to “high-quality teaching”, for example, by sharing satisfaction rates with the teaching quality, awards related to teaching quality, or even institutional initiatives for ongoing professional development for academic staff will you’re your claims much more believable. And if you can get someone else to say it for you – all the better!

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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