ITC - the International Travel College - was founded in 1996, and has total of around 40 international students across two campuses.
Marketing Director Claire Huxley talks about their marketing approach and we learn that it’s all in the planning.
Strategy comes first
“When it comes to marketing, it has to be strategy first,” says Claire. “It's that old quote ‘A goal without a plan is just a wish’. People can have a tendency to think of marketing simply as developing materials. That’s only a part of it, and actually, a very small part.
“We only spend around 10% of our energy developing marketing material - 90% of our time is on planning.”
Claire stresses that strategy has to be developed at the highest levels first, and has to be integrated into your overall business plan. Knowing your unique point of difference and the reasons why you have international students is also vital.
“If your only goal is to make money, then you’ve already lost,” says Claire. “How can you market that to students? You need to have a point of difference. You have to be able to solve a 'problem' for your potential students.
"A goal without a plan is just a wish."
“For example, one of the main aspects within our business plan is to add diversity into our current domestic cohort. And when it comes to product, we have a tight offering around tourism.
“When we look at our student ‘problem’, we ask questions such as: ‘you live in ‘x’ country, tourism is big industry for you there, but the domestic offerings are around 20 years old and use rote learning.’
“We can then look at how we can come in to solve that problem by saying: ‘we offer practical experiences, we have an open and inclusive learning style’… you get the idea.
“Start with a really good SWOT of your organisation. This will help define your product offering that you can match to markets.
“You also need to keep your strategy forward-thinking by continually looking ahead. Think two years into the future and ask yourself what products you could offer in your area of expertise by then.”
ITC’s international student population is relatively small, around 15% of their total student population. And that percentage is deliberate says Claire.
“We decided not to focus on huge numbers, instead our strategy is to attract high calibre, vocationally-driven students.
“Our goal is to foster retention of those students so they’ll become lifelong advocates. Word-of-mouth is a huge asset which will support us with growth into the future. We nurture students and have the support systems in place to make sure they achieve what they set out to.
“You need to ensure that a student's experience is of the highest calibre, and if a student isn’t happy or has an issue, that you have systems and processes in place to implement immediate change and learn from their experience.”
Pick your markets carefully and break them down
“It’s vital to pick your markets carefully,” says Claire. “And make sure you’ve matched them to your product and offering.
“The key to this is research. Understand each market intimately. Do your analysis using your own data and that of ENZ and NZTE and any other sources that are relevant to you.
“Only then should you look at channels and the route to those markets.”
“It can be easy to just go with the flow and say ‘Great, there’s lots of potential students in India and China, let’s go there.’ But you’ll be wasting time, effort and valuable resources if it doesn’t match your product. Just because the numbers are there, doesn’t mean the interest is. It’s like saying: 'I offer courses in knitting, so I'll just go out and market that to the whole world.’
“For example, we’re not focused on China or India at the moment as neither market is currently aligned to the product we offer.
“You also need to break it down. If you did think China for example was the market for you, you need to ask yourself a lot of questions. What area of China? What city? What demographic? Where should we test our product to see if we'll stick for the long term?’ It’s all about drilling down.”
Quick tip: Use a scoring sheet
Create a score sheet - for example, with a ranking of 1 to 10 - for each of your potential markets. Set criteria that matches your product offering, what’s on offer from your competitors, and what’s on offer locally.
Things to include might be whether there’s local offerings of your product in that market and whether those offerings are better or worse when compared to your product; whether students are mobile; whether there’s favourable policies for students to travel; plus any other barriers.
You can then rank your markets accordingly. This will help you determine the amount of resource and energy you might want to invest in each potential market.
Avoid the trap of short-term gains
“Look at your markets each one, three, and five years,” says Claire. “And plan returns from the end of that span. Most of the time we won't see any gains until around the three year mark at the earliest.”
“Most of the time we won’t see any gains until the three year mark at the earliest."
Claire also stresses the importance of not getting into the trap of looking for short-term gains.
“If you focus on short term gains, such as getting one of your team into an untested market to sell quickly, going along to expo fairs and just blanket marketing, setting up competitive commission rates, or being lured by agent offers of 100 students - you will get burned.
“Quick gains are short lived. For example, if you take those 100 students from that agent and you can’t give them a quality experience. That’s 100 negative word-of-mouth statements against your organisation. That’s a sure way to kill your international business.”
TOP Tip: STICK TO YOUR KNITTING
“When you’re planning, it’s best to stick to your knitting,” says Claire. “This means knowing where your expertise lies, and how far you can go with that.
“For example, at one stage we had people advising us to add English language learning into our product offering. But this isn’t part of our core skill set. It would have taken a lot of our resources to add it in, impacting on the products we already had. It would have thrown us into markets we weren’t prepared for, extended us too far outside our comfort zone. It could have severely impacted on our student experience. And we weren’t going to risk that.
Know the local and international competition and opportunities
It’s important to have a good understanding of both the local and international competition, says Claire.
“That means not just reading and research, but speaking to others. New Zealand’s international education industry is small, so it’s best to network, find out other people’s experiences.
“You also need to find out internally what the prospects and opportunities are in your particular industry. For example, you’ll want to find out whether your industry is willing to recruit and develop international students.”
Start small, learn and then grow
If you’re entering a new market, you’ll want a way to test the waters says Claire.
“One way of doing this is to target a small area in your market, such as a particular town or city, and test, trial and analyse in that one place.
“This means you can limit the resources you put in initially as you learn how the market will work for you.
“From this process of testing, trialing and anlaysing, you can learn and adjust before replicating further across other markets.”
You can’t control it all
Claire also emphasises the need to ensure you’re not too dependent on any one market.
“Markets change, and there’s factors that you can never control, such as the economy and government policies. So you have to be reactive. Read all the information you can, learn from others, network and build relationships so you get the inside scoop on what’s going on in your key markets.
“Those conditions that you can’t control are also a good reason not to rely solely on any one market. It’s about not putting all your eggs in any one basket.”
Tailor your market material
It’s important once you get to the point of developing your marketing material, that you tailor it specifically to each market.
“No one marketing approach, imagery or channel will work across the board,” says Claire. “For example, we know that Korea likes glossies both in English and in Korean. In other countries, it might be all digital, so you can go into market with a USB stick only.
“Knowing your channels for each market is vital. Who uses Facebook? YouTube? Who doesn't? What are the alternatives?”
Gain cultural insights
Along with understanding your market intimately, it’s also vital to understand the cultural differences and challenges.
“So far I’ve read over 15 books on cultural diversity. I meet people and have learned about them. I need to know what challenges we face, what the cultural boundaries are, what social norms people have, what their reality is compared to ours. Understanding people is key.”
Know what you're marketing!
What’s the authenticity of your product and offering? How can you be assured that what you’re marketing matches your product?
“These are vital questions for me as a marketer,” says Claire. “I need to know that what I’m selling is the real deal. I need to understand all the aspects of our product inside out. I can’t go into market and say we’ll offer field trips or work experience if we don’t.
“Talk to your academic staff, your support people, agents, and anyone else involved in delivering and marketing your student experience.
“My aim is always to, if anything, under promise and over deliver."
“It goes right back to our strategy. We aim to retain our students, and target high calibre, vocationally driven people. So it’s vital that all aspects of our business link together and reflect this.”
- Have a strategy with solid reasons why you want to have international students at your organisation
- Have a strategy in the now, but always be looking ahead - ask yourself where you’ll be in two years’ time
- Review every one, three and five years
- Think sustainably - it could be three years at least before you see a return
- If your strategy is just to make money - then you’re lost
- Undertake a SWOT analysis to help define your strengths and weaknesses
- Know your unique offering and what makes your product stand out in the crowd
- Understand the competition, both locally and in your key markets
- Match your market to your product
- Think outside the box when it comes to markets - big isn’t better, break it down into area, town, demographics, go for the niche
- Rank your markets with a scoring sheet so you know how much resource to put into each
- Test a small part of the market first, learn, then replicate
- Never rely on just one market - things can change fast!
- Know the culture of your key markets
- Tailor your material to each market
- Be honest - aim to under-promise and over-deliver.