• Promoting the RUG in China

    The girl behind the social media

    Facebook and Twitter have millions of registered users around the globe. However, Chinese netizens don’t have access to them and the social media sector in China is still under the government’s control. Yang Liu, a RUG alumna, has taken on the task of recruiting prospective students through Chinese social media while toeing the party line.
    in short

    Yang Liu started working as the RUG’s representative in China in 2009. She set up a Chinese version of the RUG’s website, which provides basic information about the university and the city to Chinese prospective students

    She is also behind the RUG’s social media in China. But since Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are banned there, she is using Chinese social media platforms instead.

    The university has asked Liu not to publish any content related to politics, military and religion, due to the major cultural differences between the two countries.

    Posts about the RUG’s new branch in Yantai always attract a lot of attention – Liu has noticed prospective students use the social media to find out more about it.

    Liu’s job can be quite challenging, since all her posts need to be in line with the Chinese government’s values in order to avoid censorship.

    Having a strong social media presence is an integral part of the RUG’s marketing strategy with a dedicated person to maintain the RUG’s social media presence in Germany and pages provided in multiple languages.

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    Yang Liu, who graduated with a master’s degree in science from the University of Groningen in 2005, also goes by Tulip, a cute and symbolic nickname that she adopted when she returned to China to convey her connection to the Netherlands.

    In 2009, Tulip suggested to the RUG’s president Sibrand Poppema that she could become the university’s representative in China at an event held in Beijing. The university saw it as a solid idea with good prospects, and Tulip became a representative for the RUG. ‘China is an important market for the RUG. However, due to its complexity, we need someone who understands it and who can react quickly’, says RUG spokesperson Gernant Deekens. ‘That is close to impossible if you would have to do that from Groningen. Tulip is an alumna of the RUG, hence she knows the university, the city and the degrees and this is a big plus.’

    Communication with Tulip is a bit problematic: our conversation took place via Skype, but there were connection problems, as even Skype is slow in China. Contacting her via email was also tricky, since her Gmail account is blocked and she only has access to it when she is in her office.

    Government’s approval

    Her online presence is a part time job that she does in addition to her job in the finance industry, but restrictions on foreign websites in China make her job difficult. For one thing, China-based webpages can’t link to non-Chinese websites that are running promotional campaigns unless they have the government’s approval. ‘The Internet connection becomes very slow when people from China are trying to access foreign websites’, she explains.

    In 2009, Tulip was given a budget of around 700 euros by the university in order to set up a Chinese version of the RUG’s official website provides basic information for Chinese netizens and prospective students about the university and its programmes, as well as photos of the city in a scrolling feed at the bottom of the homepage.

    Tulip’s role as the university’s representative in China has been expanded over the years and she is now focused on helping the university amp up its social media presence in China. ‘Social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube are forbidden in China, and therefore parents and prospective students are not able to stay updated about campaigns that the RUG promotes via its social media platforms. I am using Chinese social media like Weibo, Baidu and Tencent QQ to promote them.’ Links to accounts on Chinese social media sites can also be found in the website.

    The posts

    Besides informing prospective students about the university’s campaigns and degree programmes, Tulip also posts content about alumni. ‘Alumni are the university’s best ambassadors. The RUG has an organized network for them, so I am trying to keep them informed about activities that are meant for them’, she says.

    ‘My priority is to make the city and the university known in China. Groningen is a nice and peaceful city, but many students can’t visit it and see for themselves whether they would like to study there or not.’

    Jessica Winters, head of the RUG’s marketing department, believes that Tulip is very successful in what she is doing. Tulip has the freedom to decide for herself about the content she is publishing, but there are some restrictions set by the university. ‘We asked her to avoid anything that is related to politics, military and religion’, Winters explains. ‘The reason is that the Dutch and the Chinese culture are so far apart, and therefore posting topics like these could spark problems.’

    While Winters heaps praise on Tulip for her work to increase the RUG’s social media presence in China, in recent years, the number of Chinese students coming to study in Groningen has actually declined somewhat: according to Eric Tinga at the RUG’s Center for Information Technology (CIT), there were 291 Chinese students enrolled in 2013, but that had gone down to 261 students in 2015.


    Since Google and other non-Chinese social media tools are forbidden in China, Winters believes that it is vital for the university to have someone on the ground in the country in order to make the RUG’s recruitment more effective, be it attracting Chinese students to Groningen or drawing international students to the RUG’s planned branch campus in Yantai.

    When Tulip informed Chinese netizens about the RUG’s collaboration with China Agricultural University in the northeastern Chinese city of Yantai, her post received a lot of attention. ‘I was surprised to see that even the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs shared my post on social media. I was bombarded with questions, like when it will start, how much the tuition fees will be, what kind of majors it will have and so on. Even now, one year after the initial announcement, prospective students keep asking me a lot of questions.’

    Winters is hoping that she will play a bigger role in the future in connection with the fledgling campus. ‘Once the RUG’s branch in Yantai comes into view, I expect that Tulip will start recruiting students for it, too. However, nothing is definitive yet’, Winters adds.


    The Chinese government has long held a firm grip on online content. Anything that goes online is censored, which is something Tulip always takes into consideration before posting. Being from China helps her recognize content that the government would consider as inappropriate and, subsequently, avoid it. ‘If the government doesn’t like a post, it will either delete it or close your account. I have been very careful with that since the very beginning, so fortunately I never faced any problems.’

    Nevertheless, Tulip feels a great sense of responsibility as the person behind the RUG’s social media in China. ‘I think social media tools are very powerful when it comes to brand name promotion, even in China. It is an interesting job and I feel very happy about it.’

    Marketing strategy

    The RUG was the first Dutch university to start employing social media as a recruitment tool in 2008, says Winters. The university uses six official Facebook pages at the moment and there are around 50 other Facebook pages managed by the various faculties and degree programmes of the university. Its main aim is to reach as many students as possible.

    At the moment, the RUG has official Facebook pages in four countries: the Netherlands, China, Germany and India. A page aimed at a Latin American audience is still in the works. Winters’ international team of six staffers handles the university’s social media sites. Since Facebook is personal and informal, the university’s Facebook pages are promotional tools, but corporate news is kept to a minimum. ‘We have our website for that’, Winters says.

    She seeks to use social media in the way that they expect students will use them. That means that many of the RUG’s Facebook pages are not in English, but some of them are in German, Dutch or Chinese. ‘This is because prospective students in Germany prefer a German-speaking Facebook page for example, but in India, they prefer an English one. You name it, we got it.’

    Privacy sensitive

    Just as language differs from one country to the next, so too does the effectiveness of social media. Germans are very privacy sensitive, which Winters ventures could be due to their nation’s history, and they are not as willing to have their contact details open in the public. Since many Germans do not use their real name on Facebook, it makes it nearly impossible for Winters to check whether German students on Facebook are also enrolled at the RUG or not.

    Their concern about their privacy also means that promotional campaigns in Germany are not as successful as they are in other countries. ‘When I run an ad for a whole week in both Germany and India, in Germany, I will receive around 50 clicks, and in India, I will receive around 50,000 clicks. The majority of Germans doesn’t like, comment or share on Facebook. But in India, Indonesia or Latin America, they don’t care about their privacy. They will just comment and share everything, so those are the best countries in terms of promotion.’

    The RUG is planning to expand its social media strategy even more in the coming weeks by implementing an Instagram feed in the university’s website, which will display all pictures uploaded on Instagram with hashtags from the cities where the RUG has facilities – Groningen or Leeuwarden at the moment – or #NothingTopsGroningen and #thecityisourcampus. ‘The purpose of this is to show to both Dutch and international students what life in Groningen and the University of Groningen looks like. I think the best way to do that is with content made by students, as their voices are more powerful than ours.’