International Higher Education

NAFSA 2018: Creating meaningful connections with today’s digital-first international students

YAWH – Meeting students halfway
“We’ve built a bridge of good will and now we want to meet international students halfway, we want to strengthen the message of #YouAreWelcomeHere, develop world leaders and create a lasting legacy.” These words on the last day of NAFSA 2018 from Temple’s Jessica Sandberg were the perfect way to wrap up a week of exhilarating discussions on how we can connect with our prospective student community in a meaningful way, on their terms.

Understanding student perceptions
Understanding the factors that influence today’s international students is a fundamental starting point to building these connections. Day Two of NAFSA saw IDP’s Head of Research Lyndell Jacka do exactly that with a deep dive into IDP’s Student Buyer Behaviour findings. “Students are sensitive to market forces happening in the world,” said Jacka, adding: “And this can influence where they choose to study.”

Figure 1. English speaking destinations: Where new students are going

Student mobility trends 

While the number of international students has more than doubled since 2000, the changing economic and political backdrop of the past few years has heavily influenced where students are going and why. Jacka showed us a volatile landscape for year-on-year percentage change of visas granted by key study destinations.

Australia has recovered from a market downturn to record high levels, meanwhile New Zealand and the US are slowing down, Canada with its welcoming visa policies and attractive graduate employment prospects is booming and the UK, which had been static, is now starting to grow.

Markets of opportunity
Pockets of opportunity can of course still be found in certain markets. Jacka referenced Hotcourses Group’s real-time insights data which showed interest in the US from Indian, Turkish and Thai students creeping up across Hotcourses International websites.

A presentation from Hotcourses Group’s Laura Holmes later in the week also confirmed that while the US had slipped to second most popular study destination behind Canada among Indian students, the overall number of students researching has drastically increased. This shows that the demand is very much still there in a changing market, and that students are increasingly using online tools to research an institution and understand whether it’s the right fit for them.

Figure 2. Understanding international student mobility trends – India

Telling the right story 
So how can we connect with these students in a way they want us to? Brand new findings from the Hotcourses Group International Student Survey which were revealed at NAFSA and featured in The PIE Newsshowed that employability and international alumni success stories are key driving factors in a student’s decision-making process. Institutions should be making campaigns that tell a story around these themes, but also have an awareness of which platforms to use and when. St John’s and Slippery Rock University were two institutions that referenced their work with Hotcourses, including taking advantage of the Hotcourses local language microsites and international social media following of over 2 million across many local platforms, as well as the ability to retarget students offsite.

The power of video
Video content was another theme with huge success stories. The past year has seen Hotcourses Group build newly designed Content Hub pages that use dynamic video to showcase institutions in a bold new light. Content Hubs with featured videos have had three times the number of student enquiries compared to those without video content.

Phoning in to a NAFSA session from across the pond to talk about how video has helped their institution was Birmingham City University’s Jemma Davies. Davies mentioned the lucrative Facebook livestreaming activities her team has been undertaking involving everything from campus tours to Q&As. Top tips for Facebook live included using duos to bounce off each other, keeping planning to a minimum and remembering to repurpose live content after it’s been published. The next challenge for Davies’ team is creating short burst videos that can communicate key messages about BCU in a matter of seconds. I look forward to hearing more about this and seeing the finished product!

Social platforms by market: A Vietnamese example
Looking to another institution’s success on mainstream social media platforms can be useful, but it’s equally important to be aware of the lesser known platforms that are resonating in key markets. A new one for me was Zalo, which was referenced by IDP’s Ayanna Brady in her joint session with Valeriana Daily and Lyndell Jacka. Zalo, or Vietnam’s answer to Whatsapp, was created by former international student, Quang Khai who has built ways around Vietnam’s unstable mobile internet connection and bandwidth issues. Khai has focused his efforts on making Zalo fast and easy to use and its popularity continues to grow in Vietnam with more than 35 million active users, meaning it’s a platform you can’t afford to ignore if you’re looking to connect with Vietnamese students.

Leveraging alumni network
Another key theme from Daily was leveraging an international alumni network. Successful projects mentioned included pre-departure orientations with alumni and current students in their home countries, as well as encouraging institutions to connect with alumni during their recruitment travel.

Announcement of the #YouAreWelcomeHere scholarship scheme at NAFSA

What better way to ‘meet students halfway’ than helping connect them with alumni who have lived the experience? With the #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign offering a brand new scholarship scheme, I’m excited to see the opportunities this presents as students who go through the scheme can pass on this message of welcome and support to their networks back home. The difference #YouAreWelcomeHere and UK sister campaign #WeAreInternational are making surely runs deeper than our sectors. Such campaigns are so important in helping foster diversity, create global communities and bring people from all corners of the globe together in challenging times.

With so many insightful conversations crammed into one week, we’re looking forward to NAFSA 2019 already! In the meantime, you can catch the IDP and Hotcourses Group teams presenting on real-time insights, IDP Student Buyer Behaviour and best practice in digital content marketing at BUILA, UKCISA, CASE and AIEC. Or if you can’t wait that long, check out our webinar this Thursday featuring the University of Buffalo and FIU Online on how to diversify in a competitive global market.


Figure 1 – English speaking destinations: Where new students are going

Taken from Lyndell Jacka’s NAFSA 2018 presentation ‘Creating Connections and Getting the Attention of Today’s International Students’.
Data based on Australia and NZ – onshore and offshore only, UK – offshore, non-EU only, Canada – total, US – HE only. * USA visa data not shown as it is not comparable to previous years due to changes in visa policy and processes; alternatively Open Doors new enrolments data is shown. Sources: Australia Dept of Home Affairs, Canada CIC, NZ Department of Labour (Immigration), UK Home Office, US Institute of International Education. Open Doors Report.

To find out more about the IDP Student Buyer Behaviour contact

Figure 2. Understanding international student mobility trends – India
Taken from Laura Holmes’ NAFSA 2018 presentation ‘Diversifying International Marketing and Recruitment to Compete Globally’.

To find out more about Hotcourses Insights contact

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