Northern State University International Communication Strategy

We are all under pressure to increase international enrollment and expand our global reach. We also need to accomplish this with fewer resources than last year. Meanwhile, the sheer number of recruitment services out there continues to expand at an astronomical rate. Did you read that article in the Chronicle?  Do you have 15 minutes to learn about our services?  Did you hear how many students will attend that fair?    
Ignore these types of questions for a moment, and examine your international communications strategy instead. No matter how cutting-edge a recruitment service may be, or how hefty its price tag, nothing stands a chance without effective communications to support your efforts. This is particularly true for international students who, from the moment they embark on their search, face cultural, language, and entry barriers that can seem insurmountable. They ebb and flow in streams of academic, financial, and personal demands but are not always clear on how they will fit within the U.S. higher education system.  They are also the most technologically advanced generation we have ever known, but still struggle to find what it is they are looking for among the thousands of options presented to them. Their only hope is that someone out there on a campus somewhere is listening, and will in turn make the entire process a little less perplexing.  
Richard O'Rourke, International Recruiter and Adviser at Northern State University​ (NSU), advises that your international communications will never be ‘one size fits all’ – every aspect of it requires delicate calibration and aim. Whether it is still under development or already in place, O'Rourke encourages you to ask these 10 important questions of your communications strategy:
  1. ​Do you address every stage differently?  An admissions department may purchase prospects, receive inquiries and applications, offer admissions, get confirmation, and achieve enrollment. A student may enter as a freshman, transfer, re-entry, or non-traditional registration. Only one thing remains different on the international recruitment stage – it’s often a much longer distance relationship that requires clear guidance and constant support. International freshman at the applicant stage, for instance, are far more likely to choose a university that regularly sends updates on their admission status and clearly explains what is currently expected. The strategy must always follow the stage, focusing on the needs of that student during a particular time and place in the process. 

  2. Do you make them feel like you know them? Consider an institution that is particularly interested in students with xxx test scores from xxx country interested in studying xxx major, and they are eligible for xxx opportunity. Student search services like CollegeBoard and TOEFL, for example, allow you to find prospects that match statements like this. Online search profiles such as HotCourses, which offers microsites in more than 20 countries, should attract only those students who qualify. When international students feel as though an institution is looking specifically for them, they immediately feel connected to something that suddenly seems less foreign. Segment and tailor your communications so that it always speaks as if it knows exactly where the student is from, what the student is looking for, and why the institution wants to connect with that exact student.  

  3. Do you speak to the opinion leaders?  Opinions of parents, advisors, counselors, faculty, service providers, pathway program partners, and peer groups can really matter to prospective international students. An effective communications strategy should therefore aim to capitalize on students’ spheres of influence.  Students may engage with networks such as EducationUSA advisors, alumni of you institution, or representatives of English language or pathway programs affiliated with your institution. Parents are significant players in international students’ decisions, and in many instances, it is the parents who will ultimately be paying the tuition bills. These are all influential individuals who can carry your message far and wide, so it is important that they hear directly from you.  Keep a contact list of influential networks, and incorporate them into your communications strategy.  As English may be a second language for many of these opinion leaders, translation of important information in key languages may serve you well.  

  4. Do you follow a timeline?   The number of days a student has remained in a particular stage, or the time of the year that a particular event will take place, must always be factored into your strategy. There is nothing worse, for instance, than being asked to submit an application only to find out that the deadline has long expired. It is even worse when the student has already applied several days ago. For an international student, any delay in communication can be a real setback. Additional requirements, such as credential evaluations, immigration document and visa processing, and travel confirmation puts them on a much tighter timeline than what is normally expected of a typical college applicant. Put your communications strategy on a timeline that makes sense for the international student, giving them only what they need to think about at that particular point in time. This will help them move to the next stage in a much more efficient, manageable, and timely manner.  

  5. Do you encourage action, and then react to it? Clicking a link, joining a group, replying to an email, requesting more information – every aspect of the communication strategy must encourage some form of action by the student.  At the same time, your strategy needs to react to that action. What direction will your communications take if the student responds and does take action?  What direction – if any – will it be if the student does not?  An international student may not always read between the lines and see that an action is even expected. Some students, particularly those from higher-context cultures, may be afraid to respond and make a mistake. A little reassuring feedback that they have responded to your action correctly, or a small push to follow through, can make all the difference. Give your communications strategy responsive triggers that encourages and nurtures the type of action you hope to achieve from an international student.

  6. Do you make effective use of technology? If you manage student lists in an Excel spreadsheet, stop here. There are a large number of excellent customer relationship management (CRM) systems on the market today. The best ones should help you answer all of the above questions and alleviate the routine burden.  Fortunately, most CRM’s can even be shared with other departments on campus, such as domestic admissions and the finance office.  Sharing in this way will not only save you money, it keeps the entire campus on the same page with every student. Just be sure that the CRM can accommodate your own student segments. A freshman market segment, for instance, should also have an ‘international freshman’ market segment with its own set of tracking requirements and communication timeline. Higher-end programs, like SalesForce and Terradotta, can be like having an internationally-friendly marketing team on call 24/7. They can also be set to communicate in specific time zones, making sure that a message scheduled for 1 p.m. on Saturday is always received that way regardless of the recipients’ country.  For the more modest budgets, some excellent software options include MailChimp and HootSuite. Technology should automatically segment, track, monitor, and take appropriate action across the globe so that you can stay focused on your overall strategy.

  7. Do you engage your audience? We can all relate to Charlie Brown - he only heard trumpet sounds in the classroom.  Today, we face an even bigger challenge – if the student cannot personally engage with the message, it will dissipate faster than we can send it. Furthermore, international recruiters cannot typically invite students to campus, make telephone calls, or send materials via postal mail in a cost effective, timely manner. Social media and online gaming has changed the way students listen anyway, and your message should follow suit.  Some of my favorite content development and webinar tools come from the Adobe E-Learning Suite – no programming skills required, and fun for the end-user. Virtual campus tours, interactive videos, and social groups should replace those boring, long-winded, one-way messages. Make sure your strategy includes some creative and interactive ways to engage your international audience. If a particular recruitment event can be accomplished on campus, there is likely a way to replicate that same experience digitally for the student abroad.

  8. Do you make personal connections? First and foremost, your message should always come from an actual person with whom the student can speak. Don’t stop there - keep making these critical connections. This can be with faculty, current students, alumni, or anyone else who can make the prospect feel personally connected to your campus. The idea of assimilating to a new campus in a foreign country can be a bit frightening for an international student. The more connections you make, the easier it is for that student to imagine being on your campus.

  9. Do you foster collaboration with stakeholders? Enhancing internationalization and ensuring international student success requires a collaborative effort between many offices on campus including domestic admissions, university relations, faculty committees, campus affairs, and student groups. At smaller institutions these offices are typically located close to one another and easily accessible thus facilitating collaboration. Though collaboration at larger institutions may be more challenging, it should still be a priority. You will be surprised how many new and creative ideas come from short discussions with colleagues.  For example, an academic advisor at NSU was just telling me about the advantages of CLEP tests. Most international students are unaware of options like this on U.S. campuses. Moving forward, I now know to incorporate that message into my international communications strategy -- “Save money and earn your degree faster by studying here!  Learn more about our CLEP testing options!”  Make sure your strategy fosters this kind of collaboration and creativity.

  10. Do you have to be so complicated? No, keep it simple.  An effective communications strategy may branch in many directions, but it should always remain consistent, clear, concise, and relevant.  International students come with many different questions and concerns, but they do not expect to be overwhelmed by your answers.  Don’t bury them in viewbooks and handouts, confuse them with steps and information they do not yet need to know, or take days and weeks to respond.  You offer the right program and cost, they meet your entry requirements, and your overall communications strategy keeps them coming back, again and again, for more.    

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