international students holding UK, US, France, and Brazil flags standing in a field

The “New Playbook” for International Student Recruitment

14 min read

Rama Eriksson

As the world redefines its educational landscape, higher education institutions find themselves at a pivotal juncture. The “playbook” for international student recruitment has undergone a radical transformation.  

Gone are the days of traditional brochures and campus tours as the sole means of attracting global talent.  

Today, amidst a backdrop of ever-evolving technology habits and global policy upheavals, international student services and recruitment administrators must embrace a dynamic and multifaceted approach to enhance recruitment strategies. Read on for 7 essential marketing tips to enhance your international student recruitment strategy. 


1. Data-Driven Insights: Know Thy Audience 

Old Playbook: Spray and pray. Cast a wide net and hope for the best. 

New Playbook--> Precision Targeting 

Ian Little, an international student recruitment expert endorsed this viewpoint during his appearance on the Keystone Higher Ed Chats podcast, “I would encourage any school to understand what it is that they have.”  

Leveraging data analytics helps you to understand your audience deeply. Who are they? What motivates them? Where do your ‘cheerleaders’ reside? Armed with these (and more) insights, you can tailor your messaging and outreach. Remember, it’s quality over quantity. 

“I just think it's finding your niche,” Little expands, “being smart with your ROI after you target your right markets, and then figure out how you can compete against those that are unlike you.” 


Click here to listen to the entire episode of Keystone Higher Ed Chats featuring Ian Little. 

He goes on to elaborate, “ ... [O]ftentimes, schools minimize resources that already exist. It could be alumni. It could be faculty. It could be students that are studying abroad. They sometimes fail to do a data analysis between five to 10 years to figure out which markets might be already good for them and how to sustain those.” 

Little concludes by offering this advice, "... figure out where you are in the portfolio and leverage your comm flows, your marketing, your advertising to compete against those that are often a lot alike. ...” 


2. Digital Storytelling: Beyond Brochures 

Old Playbook: Static brochures collecting dust in admissions offices. 

New Playbook--> Engaging Through Narratives  

Craft compelling stories that resonate with prospective students. Prospective international students prioritize a destination’s reputation for being welcoming to international students, according to Keystone’s State of Student Recruitment 2023. They also seek an enriching experience beyond academics— they want time to enjoy life in their chosen destination. [link to SSR] 

Use video, podcasts, and social media to showcase alumni success, campus life, and unique programs to bring these features—and your institution-- to life.  Authenticity wins hearts. 

Episode 5 Keystone Higher Ed Chats Podcast with Ian Little

3. Digital Events: Inspiration and Inquisition 

Old Playbook: In-person tours are valuable (and a rite of passage for many), but they’re limited by geography, financial resources, and logistics. Similarly, email correspondence is limited by your ability to keep up with your inbox and the continuous cycle of back-and-forth correspondence.   

New Playbook --> Virtual Reality (VR) Tours and Live Q&A Webinars  

Transport students across continents without a passport. Virtual reality tours allow prospective students to explore dorms, libraries, and lecture halls from their living rooms.  

The significance of building a supportive community for international students before and after enrollment cannot be underestimated. Admissions Q&A webinars keep prospective students engaged up to and through the enrollment process and emphasize the role of international student services in ensuring student success and retention. 


4. Chatbots: 24/7 Concierge Service

Old Playbook: Overwhelmed admissions staff juggling emails and phone calls 

New Playbook --> Enter Chatbots 

These tireless digital assistants are the innovative solution revolutionizing international student recruitment. They answer FAQs, guide students, and even crack a joke or two. Offering a seamless experience for both students and admissions teams, admissions staff can now rely on chatbots to handle routine inquiries, freeing up valuable time and resources.  

These AI-powered assistants not only efficiently answer frequently asked questions but also guide students through the application process with ease. Chatbots are a win-win: streamlining operations while delighting prospective students.  


5. SEO: Extending Your Reach and Visibility (Globally)

Old Playbook: Hope your website ranks high on Google 

New Playbook --> Master SEO (Search Engine Optimization) 

Enter the world of SEO, the game-changer in international student recruitment. Embracing SEO means mastering the art of visibility, ensuring your institution stands out in the digital landscape. Be the top hit when students Google “best universities for bachelor studies in astrophysics.” 

No longer reliant on mere chance, you take control of your online presence, strategically optimizing content to match the algorithms of search engines. By meticulously selecting relevant keywords and phrases, you position your institution as the top contender when prospective students search for specific programs or fields of study.  


6. Peer Ambassadors: Students Selling Students

Old Playbook: Staff-led info sessions 

New Playbook --> Empower student ambassadors and influencers 

Empowering student ambassadors and influencers, who are fluent in the language of their peers, to take the lead offers an authentic perspective on the student experience.  

Specialized international student ambassadors bridge the gap between institutions and prospective students, providing invaluable insights and answering questions in a manner that resonates deeply. Their genuine enthusiasm and firsthand knowledge create connections that traditional marketing communications simply cannot replicate. Their passion and authenticity are contagious, driving student engagement and recruitment success. 


7. Microsites: Niche Appeal

Old Playbook: One-size-fits-all websites. 

New Playbook --> Create Microsites for Specific Programs or Regions 

By focusing on niche topics or specialized programs, such as cutting-edge AI research, data engineering, or Korean pop culture studies, you can create targeted content that resonates deeply with prospective students.  

These microsites serve as dedicated hubs of information, showcasing the unique offerings of each program or region. In a world where personalization is key, these tailored experiences win hearts and drive applications, setting your institution apart from the competition. 


The “new playbook” isn’t about discarding the old—it’s about evolving and adapting. Behind every application is a dream waiting to unfold. Experimenting and collaborating with peers will help your institution stay relevant and top of mind.   


Looking for more international student recruitment insights?

Click here to listen to the episode of the Keystone Higher Ed Chats podcast featuring Ian Little. 


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