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Pillars of a High-Performing International Student Conversion Operation

The blog post below is derived from an article written by UniQuest’s Head of Global Marketing Mary Evans for NAFSA’s Winter 2019 issue of the IEM Spotlight.

Best practices are powerful but only to the extent to which they are actioned. In international student recruitment, the big challenge often lies in how teams can actually execute the approaches they know make an impact on student engagement and conversion.

Before international teams can meaningfully improve conversion throughout the recruitment journey, they need to make sure they are set up to operate at best practice. This means critically assessing that they have the right people, technology and processes in place to achieve the goals they have set. Today, effective international student conversion requires genuine personalisation, proactive encouragement across multiple channels, and quick support for every student through every stage of the full journey to enrolment. The UniQuest team has managed roughly one million student conversion journeys to-date. This blog article summarises the competencies we’ve found to be critical in driving prospective international student engagement and conversion.

People
There is no substitute for good people. A high-performing international student conversion operation is supported by people with the relevant expertise and skills to personally assist and proactively encourage every prospective student throughout the enrolment journey – i.e. from enquiry to enrolment.

To meet the needs of prospective international students, international teams need people with skills in:

  • Email marketing automation and optimisation to create, test and continually improve segmented and dynamic email marketing campaigns
  • Student customer service to deliver exceptional support to students across all time zones
  • Data analytics to turn information into insights
  • Market analysis to understand how cultural and market forces may influence student behaviour and decision-making
  • CRM adoption and development to ensure comprehensive data is tracked consistently and that data remains clean to enable relevant interventions with students and accurate reporting

Fostering relationships in some student recruitment markets requires team members with relevant language fluencies. At UniQuest, fluency in Mandarin is key for engaging students in China who are often uncomfortable practising their English, particularly over the phone.

Additionally, international teams must ensure their people have the capacity to do their best work. Check that there are enough hands-on-deck to serve the volume of students you’re generating interest from. Teams need enough people to manage communications with students across all channels being used – e.g. live chat, email, Skype, WhatsApp, phone – and to meet student expectations around speed and quality of support. UniQuest’s 2018 student survey found that 83% of students expect a same-day response to their enquiry.

Replying to enquiries across the international student recruitment journey is only part of the battle; universities need the capacity to proactively and consistently nurture relationships through every stage of the recruitment pipeline. Engage prospective students with a mix of one-to-one (e.g. phone calls, SMS, WhatsApp) and personalised, one-to-many communications (e.g. email marketing, web chats) to deliver relevant content and communications at every stage. UniQuest’s data shows that conversion to enrolment doubles when one-to-one channels are coupled with personalised automated, communications as opposed to using only one-to-many communications. It’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to following up with prospective students; use individual student data and insights to determine the relevant frequency, timing, channels and content of communications.

Technology
The right technologies help teams work smarter and more efficiently. Universities’ Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems need to be fit-for-purpose. Any CRM needs to be easily customised to suit the university’s unique needs, report data in a digestible way to inform strategic decision-making, and integrate with all tools used to contact prospective students. For example, data from live chat tools, email automation platforms, and event forms all must integrate with the CRM so the institution has a single repository of data to gain a holistic picture of their unique student journeys. This gives teams a stronger understanding of what interventions are working, or not.

In finding a fit-for-purpose CRM, think about the volume and variety of data it needs to accommodate to inform highly personalised engagement activities. And, the reporting capabilities that would deliver actionable insights. For instance, reports on student decision-making reasons, FAQs, pipeline progression, student sentiment, volumes and types of communications received – all filterable by country, course, study level, student stage.

With comprehensive tracking and reporting, CRMs can empower your teams to deliver personalised communications at scale that reach students at the best times to nurture their interest to the next stage in their recruitment journey.

Process
Robust protocols and processes harmonise all the effort across teams to ensure students have a seamless experience with the university through their entire journey. A strong process joins up the activities directly managed by people, across any department, and the communications that are automated through technologies to create an integrated student recruitment journey. Beyond creating an excellent student experience, strong process and protocols are needed to manage and safeguard personal student data in accordance with GDPR.

GDPR consent is not static, but rather changes as students progress through the recruitment funnel or as they use a variety of communication channels. Therefore, universities need methodologies to manage compliance continuously as they build new, and grow existing, relationships with prospective international students.

Next Steps
Understanding the foundations of a high-performing international student conversion operation, universities should do an audit as it relates to the volume of prospective students they’re managing to check they have the capacity, resources and process in place to deliver best practice student journeys at scale.

Some universities will be able to fill existing gaps in their student conversion operation internally. Others will find that building a high-performing international student conversion operation in-house isn’t cost-effective, in which case it would be worth exploring public private partnerships focused in international student conversion. Whichever approach universities find is the right answer for them, a commitment to optimising  international student conversion operations is a great strategy in a fiercely competitive global market.

To learn how we partner with universities to maximise student conversion, read one of our case studies or get in touch with our team.