The booming demand for English teachers in China has been flourishing for decades now and despite the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the long-term demand does not seem to be going away. Furthermore, even if growth in the Chinese economy stagnates, the English teaching market is expected to continue to grow.
Chinese society has placed great emphasis on the importance of learning English for years. While ESL schools in China were first established to teach English to adults, in the last couple of decades, the market has shifted toward primary and secondary level students. Many Chinese parents are willing to spend up to half of their household income on language classes for their kids, resulting in an ever-growing market. For instance, in 2020, it is estimated that over 400 million people in China were learning English which makes it the largest market in the English learning industry.
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Overview of the English Teaching Market in China
The English learning market is already larger than the entire population of the United States. The market is estimated to be worth about $4.5 billion dollars.
Technavios analysts forecast the ELT (English Language Training) market in China to grow at a CAGR of 21.93% during the period of 2017-2021. The last trend showed a gain of interest in 2nd and 3rd-tier Chinese cities. The reason for this trend is rather simple – the competition in 1st tier cities is way too fierce with organizations that have been in place for years.
Read our China Education Market Guide
One of the major drivers for growth in this market is the development of an online training center. Nevertheless, the popularity of free online platforms or open source applications is a threat to the growth of the market. Open-source models such as Duolingo free up the cost of beginner learning. This ease of access to free online resources is forcing classic language training schools to change their models.
How is the ESL market evolving in China?
Despite the development of new resources, studies estimate that at least 100,000 English teachers are currently needed in China. This number should continue to increase over the next few years. This is a challenge for the government and private sector organizations that will have to find ways to attract always more qualified teachers.
As the age for learning English in Chinese public schools has changed from twelve to nine years old, the students of private English training schools are also getting younger. This has opened up plenty of new opportunities for businesses to come up with adapted programs. As a result, you’ll see Chinese children as young as four years old starting at English schools.
Although the demand for teachers is incredibly high, stigmas still remain. The prestige of a typical foreign face in terms of a traditional English speaker is much more desirable in China than qualified local teachers. Parents are willing to pay twice the price for a teacher who looks like they’re from the west.
English Teaching Business in China: Best Practices
- A school in China must be registered to issue “expert certificates” to foreign teachers. According to the Beijing Bureau of Foreign Experts Affairs, only roughly 500 institutions in Beijing are allowed to issue these “expert certificates” which grant foreign teachers work visas; however, there are approximately 7,000 institutions that employ foreign teachers illegally.
- Foreign English school chains need a Chinese partner and must have their teaching materials approved
- Business licenses, fire safety inspections, and the requisite certificates allow you to hire foreigners. These all take time to acquire so starting the process to get these is highly advisable.
What is the optimal location and pricing for English services?
- While the market in 1st-tier cities in China is larger and the demand is higher, being located in a 2nd-3rd tier city is also attractive because those areas have much fewer competitors.
- Location in the city is also important. Pick spot kids frequent or is on the way to or from school.
- Offer training for English comprehension tests. With more and more students heading overseas for college, the ESL market in China is looking for TOEFL, SAT, and ACT tutors as well as college counselors and admissions consultants. As an example of just how big it is, it is estimated that 30% of all the international students in the USA are Chinese.
Who to hire for your staff
- Hire native English speakers as teachers and highly qualified non-natives. Teachers that also speak Mandarin are even better but they will cost you more.
- Hiring teachers is just a start. You’ll need staff for accounting, marketing, cleaning, etc. There are options to go through an agency to help you reach your target personnel.
How to successfully launch and operate your ESL Business in China
You will rapidly learn that reputation is everything in China. Chinese people are among the most connected in the world. Digital marketing is crucial to promote yourself. This includes preparation before launching and building hype around your brand before the actual launch.
It is now more important than ever to consider new methods available for teaching English. These also act as great points when promoting your school. Due to the ever-evolving situation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for online teachers and other digital solutions for teaching English is incredibly high. During the early onset of the pandemic and even still, many students have had to switch to entirely online methods of learning. This has forced both students and ESL businesses to adapt.
For example, live streaming classes are a method that is growing in popularity. These classes allow for group learning rather than teaching on an individual basis. This is beneficial for students because they can feel support as a class and can gain benefits from having classmates such as gaining insights from the questions other students ask. On the other hand, this is great for many ESL businesses because they can save on operating costs by only needing to hire one teacher for several students.
Furthermore, where international travel for teachers may no longer be as easily accessible as it once was, online training for teachers has also become more important than ever. Methods for training teachers online have subsequently become more effective in the last year or so. There are many third-party companies that provide TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training which is something that most ESL businesses in China require from their teachers.
- Get a Chinese website hosted on a Chinese server. Most of your potential customers will look for information online. Their first contact with your brand will most likely be via your website and it is also an excellent way to display your services, location, price, news, blog posts… etc. It is important for your website to be hosted on a Chinese server so it loads quickly. You don’t want visitors to leave before even seeing your content because your page is taking too long to load.
- Invest in Baidu SEO. Baidu is the most used search engine in China and is the Chinese equivalent to Google. Optimizing SEO for Baidu can be much less expensive than ads and also will offer you great visibility.
China Social Media: WeChat and Weibo
- The king of all Chinese apps is WeChat. WeChat is a crossover between Facebook, Whatsapp, Tinder, Uber, a wallet, and even more. It has its own ecosystem with over 1 billion users active every month. 93% of the Chinese population uses this social media app. For any business that wants to succeed in China, it is essential to create an official WeChat Corporate page so that your customers can follow your updates directly from the app. Use your QR code to promote your WeChat page and your services. It is also a great place to communicate directly with your customers and publish content that has the possibility of going viral.
- The second app you need to consider is Weibo. With over 650 million registered users and 129 million monthly and a user presence across 190 countries, a presence on this app is critical. It is often referred to as the “Chinese Twitter”. Weibo marketing is one of the most recommended marketing activities in China. Creating a company account is an effective tool to establish your presence in China and to get your content easily shared.
Marketing Efforts “Online and Offline”
- Create a link between your online and offline community: You’ll notice soon enough that having a name in Chinese communities will help you to grow your customer base. Get in touch with locals, be present on strategic places online and offline such as local libraries, kindergartens, daycare, parks, malls. Most of these places would be happy to host a demo class and can act as the perfect setting to conduct business. Be ready to handle parents though. Let us give you a tip: Be proactive and educate them on questions that they might have. For instance: Why is it beneficial to start learning English from a young age? Answering these questions can take many forms: pamphlets, flyers, handouts, Wechat posts, etc.
- Think e-reputation: Word of mouth is equally important in China to build your image. Invite your customers to review your school and share your services. In order to achieve this, we strongly suggest that you have a presence on Chinese online forums. Examples include Zhihu, Baidu Zhidao, Douban, Baidu Tieba, or the rating app, Dianping. An advantage of Dianping is that you can create coupons that allow people to make reservations to your facilities directly via the app. Having a presence on these forums will help you develop your brand awareness and will ensure that customers are more likely to find you when looking for an English teaching school.
The road is going to be long and perhaps challenging in terms of administration but the English teaching market in China is still highly profitable and well-worth entering. Having a polished marketing strategy can help your brand reach the customers that it needs.
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Want to launch yourself on the teaching market in China but have little idea how to reach out to your target audience? Contact GMA, we are a marketing agency specializing in China and help foreign businesses to find their place in this exciting market.