An Online Solution to Outreach in China? Think Again.

When international student recruiters think China, three words come to mind: big, far, difficult. China’s the world’s most populous country, with 40 cities of over 1 million people. It’s a hard place to feel like your efforts are making a difference. So why bother with the trip? Instead, there’s the appeal of internet based “online outreach,” which promises engagement with prospective students–and institutional recognizability–without even boarding a plane.

Yet like most things that are packaged as a convenient, one-stop, fix-all solution, the promises of online engagement are too good to be true.

Here are some run-of-the mill Chinese websites:

Feel overwhelmed? Chinese people are constantly awash in digital marketing content in every form possible—email, SMS, social media, you name it. You don’t even need to go online in order to feel inundated. The walls of most housing complexes and apartment buildings in China look something like this:

What is this? Modern art? Did someone go crazy with their stamp collection? No, these are individual advertisements for everything from locksmiths to house cleaning and dubious massage services. They’re the first thing people see when they open their door. Sales is a desperate, cutthroat game in China. After living in China for awhile, you realize no place is safe. Unlike in the US, where you can put your number on a “no call list,” Chinese people are constantly besieged by sales calls and text messages. Sales representatives will literally wander into your office without permission. “We’re here to service you!” they happily report, as they paper your office space with fliers. 

Sounds like a nightmare? Don’t worry, Chinese people are used to it. But this doesn’t bode well for your institution's message if you’re relying on online advertisements and cold-calls to engage students. Chinese students and families value word-of-mouth and interpersonal recommendation. Without a prior impression or a face to put behind the email that arrives in their inbox, they’ll simply ignore your outreach attempts.

As the president of the National High School Debate League of China, one of the biggest English-language extracurricular leagues in China, I constantly see Western universities attempt to interact with our community of 50,000 debaters, many of whom are interested in going abroad for their undergraduate studies. If our perspective from the front lines of the classroom can be distilled into one simple suggestion for Western universities, it would be: the advantage that Western institutions have is a personal touch.  

Because students are inundated with a galaxy of spam, promotions, and advertisements, your trustworthy, warm people that have a genuine desire to spread knowledge about your institution are your secret weapon. Utilizing this advantage requires building real connections with schools and student communities. You want to shape parents' perceptions about your institution. You want to change the lives of gifted and worldly students through a transformative conversation. You want to leave a lasting impact on a local community. That means you must visit students and have authentic, face-to-face interactions.