The birth of a “higher education influencer”

“In March 2021 Z.J. started livestreaming from Chicago area universities on WeChat and immediately found it was a big hit”

The world of international higher education recruitment has traditionally been a very analogue affair. Typically, a representative from a university will do a tour of a region of the world and dutifully set up a table in the lunchroom or another high traffic area in the hopes of attracting the attention of students who may both be interested in learning about their university and speak English well enough to engage in a discussion.

Information is shared via brochures and websites and students are left to fill in the rest with their imagination or via online searches until they have a chance to visit in person.

However, during the pandemic and with a mission to pivot his already successful tourism and commerce marketing business, Z.J. Tong found a way to bring the schools into the phones, and homes, of China. Witness, the birth of a “higher education influencer”.

In March 2021, Z.J. started to conduct livestreaming from Chicago area universities on the Chinese social media platform WeChat and immediately found this method of interacting with parents and prospective students from China was a big hit. He then decided to take this approach on the road to visit other US-based universities where he would live stream from campus. In addition to Z.J. speaking to his audience, he asks students from China who are on campus to join his streams and provide a real, unedited opinion of their time living and studying at the visited universities.

His WeChat livestream audiences quickly grew via marketing on WeChat and word of mouth among students and parents in China. Z.J. now regularly will have 10,000 viewers of his campus visits, and his WeChat channel subscriptions has grown to 120,000.

Parents particularly became an active audience, often asking questions that reached beyond academics to inquire about campus safety, comfort level of Chinese students living in the area and about the day-to-day life of foreign students.

Z.J. did not engage the universities or receive payment from them to offer these livestreams at first, but more and more university admissions offices are becoming aware of his practice and are inviting him to visit their campuses, which also has opened doors for university professors and staff with a Chinese background to join the livestreams and to engage with his audience. While university engagement has been a nice addition, especially since they sometimes will cover travel expenses, Z.J. is committed to continuing to provide an honest, live, unedited view of US campuses to ensure that his viewers are getting the most authentic experience possible.

When asked what he believes his viewers really want to find out from his livestreams, Z.J. says “the viewers want to see the ‘real’ America. News about violence, looting, murder, and death toll from Covid have been widely spread in China during the past couple of years and many Chinese students, and their families are concerned about sending their children to the US for school.

“After all, many of these children a ‘single child’ due to China’s One Child Policy. So, the viewers want to see if the city, the neighbourhood, and the school where their children will study at is safe.”

Z.J. often states that his own time as a foreign student from China in the US has had a great impact on his campus influencing livestreams. He is particularly mindful and empathetic towards the parents who are watching, many who will never have the chance to visit a US campus and who have many concerns and misconceptions about campus life in America.

His livestreams have become so popular that sometimes parents who have students on the campus he is visiting tell them to go find Z.J. during the broadcast to say hello live to everyone.

When asked about the future of campus influencers like himself, Mr. Tong says, “I did the livestreaming at the request of my followers. Since there will be new students coming to the US study every year, we’ll continue to have strong demand from these students and their families to learn about the schools in the US.

“My hope is that more universities would work with me to showcase their schools to Chinese audience. After all, China is the number one source country for international students for US higher institutions.”

What is clear is that there is a great opportunity within the digital world to engage and influence students and parents of prospective international students coming to the US or elsewhere, especially when done so on the platforms in students mother tongues. Students may not have met Z.J. in person at their school during lunch, but tens of thousands have met him online and trust his voice.

About the author: This article is written by Bob Davis.