With a bulging population and a worldwide outlook, Chinese learners represent your largest market of potential ESL students. You may have already tried – and failed – to secure Chinese students; though there are plenty of students, they are not easy to reach.
All Chinese internet is strictly controlled by their government; the Chinese will struggle to access popular Western websites without the aid of a VPN due to a massive firewall, which is literally called, ‘The Great Firewall’. The best way to get passed the firewall is to advertise on or create a website with a ‘.cn’ domain suffix. Obtaining a ‘.cn’ suffix is increasingly difficult, but you can still do so through Hong Kong, specifically ISP’s such as Licosys. Having this suffix will increase your searchability within China: with basic SEO you stand a chance of popping up in Chinese search engines.
You’ve scaled The Great Firewall, but there are still two main problems: first, in Chinese culture it is common to speak to a service provider or company representative in person before committing to a purchase. Chinese customers put great stock in personal relations to build trust. The Chinese are far more comfortable sealing any deal over the telephone than by email. If you don’t speak Chinese, you may struggle with customer service, so I recommend working with a Chinese intermediary, who would be paid on a commission basis to tout and clinch deals for your company. Make some social media connections and ask around for commission-based intermediaries, who earn a percentage on the first course bundle they sell for you. You won’t pay them unless they produce actual results.
The second problem you will encounter is payment. By now, China is largely a cash-free economy. Chinese people link their bank accounts to the AliPay and WeChatPay mobile phone apps. These provide seamless shopping experiences and their mobile payments are accepted pretty well everywhere. While PayPal will usually work for Chinese transactions, it is not widely known and not considered a trusted payment alternative. In many cases, you will make Chinese clients uncomfortable by insisting on PayPal, or any other payment platform they aren’t familiar with, and could lose the client. Banks in China make it deliberately difficult to send personal funds outside mainland China, not to mention costly.
Integrating a payment platform into a simple website, preferably one with a ‘.cn’ domain suffix, will be the best way to take payment from Chinese clients. There are many to choose from, with Stripe and WooCommerce being the best known. Both of these platforms will allow you to collect card, AliPay and/or WeChatPay payments from China, charging a percentage-based transaction fee (around 5% for Chinese payments). There are many payment platform options, including those that operate by set monthly fee, so just find the best one for you. Stripe will also allow you to invoice manually, like PayPal, meaning you don’t require a website integration; however, in using this method customers will not be offered AliPay or WeChatPay options.
You can easily create a one-page website for payment platform integration. Wix and WebNode, for example, utilise simple, drag-and-drop functionality that even a novice techy can master. What’s more, many of these web hosting platforms will offer basic sites for free, if you are happy to keep their branding.
So you’ve covered the practicalities of securing new clients, now where do you actually connect to them? The Great Firewall prevents Chinese residents from accessing many Western websites, including Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, YouTube and Google. A few rogue Chinese will have acquired VPN’s to get around the firewall, but this isn’t exactly legal. Unfortunately, blanket bans of many social media sites significantly limit the means by which you can access new clients. Therefore, my first suggestion is to use Chinese social media instead: WeChat. WeChat, similar to Facebook, is widely used by Chinese people and is the trusted alternative for all things technological. If you live in China, or already have a WeChat account, maximise it by posting regularly in the publicly searchable stream, ‘Discover’. Use simple English, or better yet, Chinese (use Google translate sparingly: I tend to translate back and forth several times, to ensure my meaning isn’t skewed by the bot). Create a brand for yourself, position yourself as a proficient and professional teacher of English. Post testimonials, free resources and, if you can, actual clips of you teaching. Use key words that are likely to be searched for, such as ‘English class’ or ‘learn English’. All that said, WeChat have changed their verification requirements for new accounts in the last year or two: they now require every new account to be verified by a current active user currently residing within mainland China.
A final recommendation is LinkedIn; this social media platform is yet to be banned in China, and makes making connections with prospective clients easy. As above, develop your brand by creating and sharing relevant posts regularly. Use hashtags, which LinkedIn will suggest for you, to draw searchers to you: #englishonline #languagelearning, for example. As you have already defined your specific niche, search for and request connections with profiles within that niche. If you are looking to teach Business English, perfect! LinkedIn is all about linking business professionals. In a professional account, you can even narrow your search for connections by region. Google common Chinese names within certain decades, and then copy-paste the characters in those popular names into your LinkedIn search. If you are recruiting young learners, identify who their mothers might be, and search that demographic on LinkedIn. LinkedIn allows you to privately message any approved connections, so welcome each prospective client to your network, and offer them a free trial class; direct them to your website; ask them to support your business page (with a link).
Whether you’re using WeChat, LinkedIn, or the next greatest social media platform, the most important action to take as you build your network is to continually represent yourself as a dynamic and engaging English teacher. You need to feature regularly in the streams of your prospective clients, they need to get to know you, and they need to hear of you at least seven times before they take the plunge.
Good luck breaking into the Chinese market – I’d love to hear your further questions, and especially your successes! Get in touch!