If you teach English to Chinese children online, you might wonder how Chinese parents choose online English companies. Maybe you are working for online teaching companies or you are an independent online English teacher. Maybe you are an online ESL teacher with years of experience, or you have just begun to teach English online from home. Maybe you want to know if you can teach English with no degree or wonder what to do if you start to teach English with no experience. Then you should read this blog.
This blog answers three questions: (1) Who are the decision-makers? (2) How do Chinese parents feel about online teaching and learning? (3) How do Chinese parents choose online teaching companies?
My insights are:
Moms who are born in the 80s and 90s are increasing and making decisions for their children’s education including English tutoring. They are better educated and better informed.
The online format is here to stay and will reach far more beyond the existing market.
How Chinese parents choose an online teaching company depends on various factors such as the city they live in, family income level, education level and exposure to Western culture.
While word of mouth is a major way for Chinese parents to make decisions, Chinese social media is playing an increasing role.
All of these offer opportunities for online English language teachers who can personalize their teaching products and learn how to use Chinese social media.
I collected twenty questions from teachers in Facebook Groups for online English language teachers. To answer these questions, I interviewed three different Chinese moms and researched Chinese websites.
My interviews are with moms from three different tiers of city:
• Mom A from Shanghai (1st tier city) with a 9-year-old son. Her elder sister lives in the US.
• Mom B from Jiangsu province (mostly 2nd tier cities) with a 4-year-old son.
• Mom C from Henan province (mostly 3rd/4th tier cities) with a 4-year-old son. She is a teacher of English at a local college.
Chinese cities are unofficially divided into tiers based on economic growth and consumer sophistication. Most international brands and companies have a presence in 1st tier cities such as Shanghai and Beijing which are economically more developed. But these cities form only 3-5% of the whole country’s population. Many overlooked 3rd and 4th tier cities are growing fast and actually offer new opportunities for the online English teaching market. Book my workshop “Understand Chinese parents” to find out how to capture opportunities right for your teaching product.
Estimated Annual Income (2020)
Alongside interviews with Chinese parents, I researched what Chinese parents write about online English learning for their children, industry reports of early childhood English education market in China and looked at recommendations from influencers on Chinese web internet (Baidu) and mobile internet (WeChat).
1. Who are the decision-makers?
According to iresearch.cn’s white paper on “China Early English Education White Paper”, over 80% of the Chinese parents who make decisions about their children’s English education are female. Most of these parents were born after the 1980s when the Chinese economy began modernisation, the internet became ubiquitous and it became more mainstream to get college education. Compared to earlier generations, these people see three things as a normal part of life: ever-improving life quality, the internet as a source of information and a college-level education. These parents place a high value on English language education for their children and are better educated and informed compared to the previous generation.
Source of graph: China Early English Education Industry White Paper
In terms of geographic distribution, these Chinese parents are currently concentrated in 1st tier cities and economically more developed provinces. But the potential of 3rd and even 4th tier cities is too significant to underestimate.
Source of graph: China Early English Education Industry White Paper
Book my workshop “Understand Chinese parents” to find out further what are the different opportunities in different tier cities, what are Chinese parents’ education level, the expectation of early English education and how to market yourself to capture these opportunities.
2. How do Chinese parents feel about online?
Both mom A and mom B live and work in big cities in mainland China (Shanghai, Nanjing in Jiangsu province) with busy daily schedules. They don’t have the time to drive their kids to different classes every day after finishing their full-time jobs. Doing classes online at home saves time and provides flexibility.
Mom C in Henan province recognised the advantage of in-person teaching versus online. “The level of interaction in person is completely different compared to what one can do online”. There are also concerns from Chinese parents who worry that too much use of digital devices might not be healthy for their young children. However, her challenge is that her city has few professionally trained English teachers with the right qualifications and experience. As there’s little chance of finding a good English language teacher offline, she has to go online or at least combine online and in-person learning for her son.
There are several factors contributing to Chinese parents’ general acceptance (even embracing) of the online format. Chinese e-commerce and mobile commerce have leaped forward in the past ten years which made online services ubiquitous in daily life. Every child and parent has become familiar with learning online during the Covid-19 pandemic when all schools were closed and every class moved online, from English to PE lessons.
There is a relatively big gap between developed cities and less developed cities in terms of educational resources such as qualified English language teachers. Before social media such as WeChat and TikTok penetrated life in cities and rural areas, Chinese parents were not aware of these gaps. Now, mom C in Henan province can easily find how a child from Shanghai speaks fluent English on social media. Inspired (or pressured) by what is possible she naturally looks for online solutions.
The situation in Hong Kong is somewhat different compared to that in mainland Chinese cities. Hong Kong has an extremely convenient public transportation system and the city is much smaller compared to those in mainland China. It has a much longer history being in a global system and enjoys a more international education system. The necessity for learning online is less.
3. How do Chinese parents choose online teaching companies?
Several China-based online teaching companies such as VIPKid, DadaABC, Qkid and Magic Ears are competing to get the lion’s share of the market. The competition is fierce and causes huge advertising costs for these companies. Click the link to download my major Chinese online English platform comparison to find out the teaching model, price range and rating from teachers of these teaching platforms.
There are multiple factors that influence a parent’s decision to choose an online teaching company: price affordability, user experience for both parents and children and recommendation from their peers or/and social media influencers
Let us first take a look at Chinese parents’ wallet size. Getting private tutoring is a big investment for most Chinese parents. Mom A, B and C, no matter where they live and their family income level, spend about 20% of their total family income on their children’s after-school education activities.
These classes cover subjects such as early English education, music and sports for pre-school children. When their children start school, the tutoring classes might be more academic subject related.
For a 1st tier city such as Shanghai, this means monthly spending of around US$714 (UK£528).
For a 2nd tier city in Jiangsu province, this means monthly spending of US$431 (UK£320).
For a 4th tier city in Henan province, an average family spends US$322 (UK£238) per month.
Another thing to bear in mind is that in a 3rd/4th tier city, their income growth rate is about twice the speed of a 1st tier city’s income growth rate. They are catching up fast.
In the area of early English education, VIPKid is seen as the ‘luxury’ brand with a minimum commitment of buying 6 units of classes (half a year’s class). If you are wondering how much parents are paying for VIPKid, here are some numbers.
Recently VIPKid raised its minimum spending threshold so a Chinese parent has to buy at least a 6-unit package of 96 lessons. The normal price per package is RMB12,000 (US$1,835) with a promotional price sometimes at RMB10,980 (US$1,679). This means on average a Chinese parent is paying RMB125 (US$20) for a 25-minute lesson.
A 6-unit package usually lasts for 6 months. Therefore, if a Chinese parent decides to continue the lessons, his/her annual expense with VIPKid amounts to RMB24,000 (US$3,670) without a discount. This translates to about US$300 per month spending on VIPKid.
The current high price level hinders parents outside 1st tier cities to use VIPKid who have a huge need for online English lessons but want a more flexible model.
As it is a substantial investment for long-term English language learning, 95% of the parents will have their children attend the free trials before committing to a choice of an online English teaching company.
Almost all major online English teaching platforms will offer free trials and usually send their best teachers during these trials to attract new parents. The most popular Chinese social media – WeChat constantly pushes notifications to parents offering free online English classes to try. Chinese parents can try as many companies as they wish (1 trial per company only). They might also go the extra mile to record these trials and send their recordings to more experienced parents to review before making a final decision about a paid service.
Traditionally, word of mouth is the main way for Chinese parents to gain motivation (or peer pressure) and be informed. For example, Mom B from Jiangsu already knew two real cases of early English education through her personal network before she became a mom. One is a colleague in Shanghai and the other is her elder sister. They both bought online English lessons for their children when they were toddlers. Now their children can speak some English words in authentic contexts. This inspired her to make a similar investment. She used the same English education methods and resources as her colleague and also followed her sister’s recommendation. Therefore, she tested and chose VIPKid for her boy when he was two years old.
Social media influencers
It takes a lot of time for a Chinese parent to choose a suitable online English company and teacher. To make it more challenging, the decision-making process exceeds many parents’ current language capability. A new role has emerged to solve this problem – parent consultants.
They are active on Chinese social media with advice on how to choose an online English company or teacher. Usually, they compare curriculums provided by platforms and review recorded videos of the free trial session. A hugely influential person is what Chinese social media called KOL – Key Opinion Leader. KOLs recommend online English companies, arrange free trials from these companies with Chinese parents and help evaluate these companies and teachers.
Why do Chinese parents change online English companies?
Although many companies require parents to make at least a 6-month commitment, it is not abnormal for Chinese parents to change online English companies. The reasons can be:
It is too expensive
It is hard to book good teachers: Many parents are frustrated that they have to book a new teacher for every lesson with VIPKid. It becomes a stressful race as the most popular teachers are always fully booked. Read my blog – “How do Chinese parents choose online English teachers” to find out what parents are looking for in a teacher.
Kids don’t like it: although it is the parents who make the decision. If the child really doesn’t like the classes, there is nothing a parent can do except to cancel.
Fail to meet expectations: It’s important to understand Chinese parents’ expectations. Many of them would like their children to be able to understand and speak English in an authentic environment. If the classes are very expensive and don’t meet expectations, parents may eventually stop throwing money that these companies.
Customer experience: A good customer experience is not a sufficient reason for a Chinese parent to choose an online English company. But a bad one can be a reason for parents to ditch one. A bad experience can be slow customer service and too aggressive sales, etc.
To summarize the findings of how Chinese parents choose online English companies,
How Chinese parents choose an online teaching company depends on various factors such as the city they live in, family income level, education level and exposure to Western culture. Increasingly young and better-educated moms will be making informed decisions about their children’s education including English tutoring.
An online format is generally well accepted in 1st and 2nd tier cities and there is a huge opportunity beyond these cities. But that requires some flexible models.
Not every Chinese person uses cash but almost everyone in China uses WeChat (Weixin in Chinese). To call WeChat the Chinese equivalent of Facebook or WhatsApp is a definite understatement. This super app for the Chinese mobile internet is also everyone’s wallet, name card, social media and search engine. It has the reputation of being a Chinese person’s remote control. This blog focuses on WeChat for online ESL teachers. There are three parts: (1) What is WeChat? History, function and influence of this super app; (2) How online ESL teachers can use WeChat; (3) How to set up WeChat, a step by step guide.
1. What is WeChat?
WeChat history and functions
In 2010 when Apple launched its iPhone 4, a Chinese Internet gaming company called Tencent saw the future of the Internet on mobiles. That same year, it incubated a mobile-first product called WeChat for instant messaging. Users could use this chat messenger to send files, photos, and text messages, or record audios to each other.
In 2012, WeChat launched Moments for users to share their daily lives. This became the milestone that defines its role in social media. At this point, WeChat was a combination of Facebook and WhatsApp. Soon after, WeChat became the most-used social platform with 300 million registered users.
In 2016, a New York Times video about WeChat described it as the Swiss Army knife app that rules China. It went beyond the world of mobile phones and penetrated into people’s daily life. This is the so-called “online to offline model”, where the Chinese Internet is transforming people’s offline life through online apps. One could use this app to accept or offer payment, book hospital appointments, pay utility fees, order taxis, and takeaways. WeChat had become the ‘remote control’ of a Chinese person’s life.
But WeChat did not stop there. In 2013, it launched WeChat official subscription/accounts. Anyone with a WeChat official account can publish articles supported by pictures, audio, and videos. This began the era of WeChat as a content-publishing platform.
This social/content/chatting platform continued its innovation. In 2016, WeChat launched Mini Program. Mini Program allows third parties to operate their own programs within the WeChat system. For a WeChat user, this means they can use WeChat to run many apps such as the equivalent of Uber, Airbnb, Amazon, Netflix. WeChat took on the role of being the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.
In 2020, WeChat made its stride to becoming Google and YouTube combined. The company has been working on its search product for four years and very quietly launched the WeChat search function. The same year, WeChat Channels started gaining traction. WeChat Channels allow users to publish 1-minute video content and this video content is searchable.
By Q3 of year 2019, the monthly active users of WeChat reached 1.15 billion. This means every 1 in 7 persons on the earth is actively using WeChat.
Over 300 million users use its Mini Programs on a daily basis. They contribute an annual sale of RMB 800 billion ($US 122 billion, or about 40% of Amazon’s revenue that year) via the WeChat platform.
With such an impressive huge user base and active purchasing record, what is the opportunity for online ESL teachers to use WeChat?
2. How can online English language teachers use WeChat
The demand for English learning in China
Before I give concrete examples of how online English language teachers can use WeChat, I would like to give you a big picture, the overall demand for learning English in China.
According to a Shenzhen-based consulting firm, the overall English language learning market in China reached RMB 40 billion ($US 6 billion) in the year 2014, with 70% concentrated on children’s English education. According to Statista, the ELT (English language training) market size in China in the year 2017 amounted to approximately 41.5 billion U.S. dollars and was forecasted to grow further.
The motivations to learn have also expanded. Twenty or thirty years ago, the need to learn English was fuelled by the need to study abroad. Exam English preparation schools such as New Oriental were notorious for their military-style training to spoon-feed students advanced vocabulary.
Today, with the rising middle class and increasing opportunities to travel and communicate with the outside world, more and more Chinese see English as a language to communicate rather than just a gateway to study abroad. People want to speak English rather than memorising English. Parents want their children to learn as early as possible, an opportunity they themselves didn’t have.
The supply for English learning in China
Private English tutoring classes used to be in-person but companies such as VIPKid and the 2020 Covid pandemic really changed the perception and reality of English language learning and teaching. They showed that learning English online is not only feasible but also preferable at times, if not inevitable. This naturally leads ESL teachers to experiment with using WeChat as a tool for language teaching. So, is that possible, and what are some examples?
How do online ESL teachers use WeChat
1. Use WeChat to distribute teaching materials
BIEA外教英语启蒙 （BIEA ESL teacher for beginner English）is a WeChat channel using music, dance, and nursery rhymes to teach beginner-level English. The teaching covers basic vocabulary about numbers, weather, body parts, etc. These one-minute videos are engaging learning materials as well as a warm and friendly way for parents to cultivate good habits for toddlers.
2. Use WeChat to promote teaching courses
Lise外教英语 （Lise ESL teacher）is a WeChat channel aiming at Chinese students who study, or want to study, in the US. Teacher Lise shares inspirational short talks and corrects common mistakes made by Chinese students via videos. Each video links to her WeChat Mini Program which sells two courses: beginner pronunciation at RMB 899 ($US 137) and practical oral English at RMB 1499 ($US 230).
3. Use WeChat to promote teachers’ personal brands
Big White (大白) is a Canadian ESL teacher who lives in Chong Qing China. His personal WeChat channel – Big White teaches English (大白教英语)not only shares English vocabulary at times, but also share the difference between Canadian culture and Chinese culture.
4. Use WeChat to show students’ progress in English learning
Some WeChat videos focus on students to showcase their progress in English learning. One example is the video made by VIPKid. This 11-year-old boy has been learning English with the platform for about 4 years and is explaining a quantum mechanics theory.
Now you have discovered the potentials of using WeChat for your online English teaching career, are you ready to set it up? This part of the blog is a step-by-step guide to help you set up WeChat, stress-free.
Step 1: discover WeChat app in your app store
Step 2: download WeChat app from your app store
Step 3: sign up for WeChat via two options: Facebook or your mobile
Step 4(a): sign up WeChat via Mobile
Step 4(b): sign up WeChat via Facebook
Step 5: Read WeChat privacy statement
Step 6: WeChat verification
WeChat, as a social app, requires you to be verified by an existing WeChat user. This is something I can help you with. Arrive 10 minutes prior to my WeChat workshop and I will help you with this verification process.
To sum it up. WeChat combines Facebook’s social features and Google’s search ability as a super app. There are some existing examples of how English language teachers use it to promote their teaching brand and distribute some teaching materials.
If you are an online English language teaching with an interest to tap into the Chinese English learning market, why not experiment with what you can do with this super app? It does not need to be a huge amount of investment of your time. With my WeChat workshop, I will go through the process to enable you to stand out by harnessing this China super social media platform.
How have you used WeChat for your teaching? How are they working out for you? Do you have further questions?
I would love to hear you voice in the comment box.