US International Higher Education

International Student Recruitment Priorities: The Long-term Value of Brand Building Online

When I began my career as an admissions counselor at my alma mater in 1993, we had only recently launched our institutional website. At the time, our online presence was nothing more than our text-heavy site and the occasional reference on a basic search site. What we did on the internet in the early 90s could not have been further down the priority list when it came to our admissions planning.

Since that time, it’s safe to say, little is more important to international student recruitment strategies than how our institution, our brand, is perceived by our intended audiences online. When it comes to our colleges’ overall brand, however, what that looks like is typically outside international admissions’ direct control. This month, let’s focus on what you can do to build real value for your institution’s brand online to overseas audiences.

Distinguishing your institution’s brand

What is your college’s brand? Does your college use its brand as an extension of its mission statement? A tag line, a logo, a lifestyle? Is it the kind of student you want to attract? A feeling you want students (and parents) to have about your institution? Is your brand your own, or is it defined by how others outside your college community talk about you? Ultimately, how a college wants to be seen by its audiences is what we can most closely call a brand. Can you put your finger on how your brand is identifiable on campus?

In the most practical terms, with the ultra-competitive global environment U.S. colleges and universities find themselves in today, millions of dollars are spent each year on marketing campaigns designed to reinforce those brands. But all too often the brochures, the commercials, the billboards often reflect strikingly similar themes across the world. How do you distinguish your own institution’s brand from not only your domestic competition but also other countries’ universities? If nothing else, the desire to broadcast your message as broadly as possible seems like the sensible thing to do, right? Not so fast. We all know the importance of telling your college’s story, yet too often a “one size fits all” approach is as far as the strategy goes. And often that decision ends up missing the mark.

Diversifying your stories and their reach

We all have a good story (or two or three) we can share about our colleges with prospective students, but are you the best storyteller for that message? Brands are effective when their stories relate to their intended audiences and their aspirations. Does the same message appeal to all audiences? Clearly no. Does every audience prefer to receive their information the same way on the same platforms? Again, no. So why would a college approach brand-storytelling with their international students the same as they do their domestic audiences?

Anyone who has worked in admissions for more than a minute knows that our current students, followed by alumni and parents, are the best brand ambassadors for our institutions. Unfortunately, the majority of institutions don’t have student testimonials from their international students anywhere on their website. Having your current students, successful alumni, and even students’ parents tell your college’s stories from their perspective is recruitment gold.

If you’re able to gather and record these stories in various formats (text, photos, long and short-form video) and make this content available on your website and beyond, you are taking steps toward long-term brand building online. More importantly, once that content is available, have a plan to push it out across your online presence (i.e. have versions available that fit all of your international student recruitment plans that involve online components). Beyond your website, think social media channels, email marketing, online ads, and search site profiles. Do A/B testing of messages, ads, videos, etc. to see what works best where.

Taking Next Steps

As time passes, and you’re able to track the effectiveness of your approach, adjustments can and should be made. Think about planning every two to three years to renew the faces and stories profiled. Some content will be evergreen, especially alumni stories. However, as your institution’s target market(s), messaging, and scholarships change, your story-telling tactics should evolve accordingly.

If you’re searching for ways to do your brand storytelling well, check in with Elle Butler and the marketing team at IDP Connect to explore your options and see how we can help.

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