Few searches in 2020 are as depressing as searching for higher education news articles. It’s like a holocaust out there. Washington Monthly just put up one of the most dire articles yet, “How to Save Higher Education: A New Deal for America’s sinking colleges.” You came for the clickbait headline and the cartoon of the university slipping into quicksand; stay for the gloomy pull-quotes:

“COVID will bankrupt many colleges. But the need for higher education won’t go away, particularly with widespread unemployment. Absent major reform, for-profit colleges backed by private equity will surge into the gap, using aggressive and deceptive marketing tactics.”

Ouch. Meanwhile at Berkshire Hathaway’s Business Wire, an infographic for COVID-19’s impact on higher-ed:

impact of COVID-19 on the higher education market

The interesting thing is that the global market anticipates growth, but at a far slower rate than previous years. So it’s not playing the funeral march for a whole industry just yet.

Now we’re being forced to say it again: we’re not going to paint a silver lining on the COVID-19 cloud. But higher education isn’t going to end, isn’t even going to be downsized, and it isn’t going to be corrupted into an organized crime outlet. Education is not a luxury good; people don’t just give up on school like they would decide not to buy a new game console. The market demand is still there; it’s just a question of getting the logistics figured out.

A whole lot of those logistics are going to revolve around remote learning, a hybrid on/off-campus approach, and a greater reliance on technology to replace functions that are inconvenient to do face to face. Hopefully, by now, every school has some kind of plan in place. If you have a plan, you’re ready to take in students and the students are ready for you.

It Is Still Worthwhile For Higher Ed To Advertise

Traditionally, universities have been in the top four industries for spending on Google ads. That trend may decrease slightly after 2020, but there’s no reason to expect that higher ed marketing dollars are just going to vanish.

statistics on who spends the most on Google Adwords

With that said, (pay-per-click (PPC) advertising for higher ed is also one of the more expensive categories of ad keywords. Not only are higher ed PPC slots more competitive, but campaigns tend to run for longer periods, creating more demand.

The trick to college PPC marketing is that you’re not trying to make a sale right on the spot. You want impressions. Nobody makes up their mind on a college in one day. When the stakes are this high and the impact on their future this large, students are prone to take months mulling over the pros and cons. During all this “comparison shopping,” you want your brand name to simply be visible, reminding potential students that you’re an option.

college advertising spend from 2001 to 2017 graph

According to Brookings Institute, colleges have expanded greatly in their marketing efforts this century. We see expansion across most media, with the Internet and television being the most pronounced. The demand for all this marketing wouldn’t exist if it didn’t produce results.

 

Best Practices for Higher Ed PPC Advertising:

1. Set Your Campaign Goals

As expensive as higher ed marketing is, you don’t want to pay for clicks that go nowhere. You should look towards your school’s goals and direct your ads to address those specific needs:

  • Increasing undergraduate enrollment
  • Attracting graduate students
  • Attracting donors
  • Growing specific programs
  • Expanding your reach into new regions
  • Growing your faculty

Any time you advertise, you should have a result in mind. The education industry just so happens to have more complex needs than the average business, so those goals aren’t always the same as other industries.

For example, the student who is seeking a graduate program is a more valuable advertising target. They’re already holding a bachelor’s or equivalent; they are both invested in a continuing academic path and have proven that they do, indeed, follow up on their interest in education. As opposed to undergraduate programs, where the target market has less of a commitment. They might head for a community college first just to dip a toe in the academic waters or even put off that education for a while to focus on other matters–especially now.

Your goals will determine every subsequent decision for your PPC campaign. The ad type, what type of extensions you use, the offer, the ad copy—basically everything.

For example, if you want to increase enrollment in your graduate program, how you word an ad makes a difference in what kind of prospect you will attract. Here’s how you talk to high school graduates looking for a quick trade career:

higher education google PPC ad

You can almost hear the late-night infomercial voice-over: “Operators are standing by! Call now!” Notice how many times they mention price in the ad?

higher education google PPC ad

This ad is much quieter. There’s no rush. Price is not even mentioned. It even assumes that the reader has a “work, school, and personal life” balance to worry about. Do you know when a high school student is concerned with work/life balance? That’s when he’s deciding if he should let his girlfriend ride along while he delivers pizzas.

2. Go For The Long Tail

The “long tail” is the far end of the keyword frequency spectrum when we’re speaking in the context of PPC wording. One blogger who works in entertainment media has a great analogy to Star Wars. In descending order from most popular, broadest keywords to the long-tail, narrow keywords, he finds:

  • Star Wars (whole franchise): 884 million hits
  • Baby Yoda (from recent Mandalorian series): 30.7 million hits
  • Hammerhead (Star Wars episode 4 character): 942K hits
  • Momaw Nadon (the little-known proper name of Hammerhead): 81.8K hits
  • Momaw Nadon action figure (by Kenner circa 1978): 67 hits

Each time, we went narrower with our scope until we found a topic space so tiny that there’s no competition for it. In PPC marketing, we want to aim for keywords with less competition, but not so obscure that it will hit no search results at all.

google keyword planner volume bucket sizes graph

Apply the same logic to a typical academic career path. As we stated above, most of the people searching for “bachelor’s degree” are low-intent shoppers anyway. They’re not committed, and likely don’t even know what kind of bachelor’s they want yet. A search for “nursing degree” is more specific and has less competition, while having a higher intent. People who are searching for nursing degree information are likely considering that as a career.

We were trying to go deeper along the long tail, but we blindly picked “phlebotomy,” only to discover that a phlebotomy technician doesn’t even need a medical degree! No really, 11 weeks and you’re there. This explains why whenever you get your blood drawn, the person drawing the blood is the only one in the hospital with tattoos and piercings all over. Most people would just assume it’s because that line of work attracts people who are into needles.

Fine, then, we’ll pick “neurosurgeon.” That’s four years’ pre-med, four years’ med to an M.D., a year interning in general surgery, five to seven years’ residency in neurosurgery, optional fellowship, and continuing education. We proceeded along the “long tail” until we got to that really dedicated specialist who removes brain tumors. We type “continuing education programs neurosurgery” into Google and out pops:

No surprise. We only find 17 million search hits for it, too, a relatively small number for a medical topic. We have found the “Momaw Nadon action figure” of medical career degree paths. Depending on what courses you actually offer (mere detail), you might want to back that up a bit to target “medical school postgraduate” or the like.

Having a thorough understanding of prospective student’s search intent and information needs is essential for developing cost-effective PPC campaigns. Otherwise, you’ll waste money targeting keywords that attract clicks from low-quality prospects.

3. Mind the Sales Funnel

Since Halloween is drawing nigh, our usual boring sales funnel diagram is dressed up in a tasty ice cream cone costume.

At the top of the sales funnel are the low-commitment people we’ve mentioned earlier. They could be going anywhere; they are still searching for their best option. By the time users move to the middle of the funnel, they have now blossomed into “leads,” and have their minds almost made up where they’re going to go. They don’t search Google as much; they have university pages and resources bookmarked. If they do head to Google, it’s to conduct comparisons and to dig deeper into university programs. By the time they get to the bottom of the funnel, the lead is weighing between fewer options or counting their savings as well as the days until enrollment.

With users near the top of the sales funnel, before they become leads, don’t try to pressure them into a commitment just yet—unless you’re trying to sell fast IT career certificates or phlebotomy technician certification. You can, however, invite prospective students to learn more about your programs. Once they’re on your site, you hopefully have an attractive college website experience with blogs, multimedia channels, virtual campus tours, social media, and other promotional content. There the candidate can soak up your atmosphere and decide on your programs at leisure.

This part also refers back to what we said back at the top about building up positive impressions. Your strategy is mainly based around building that brand awareness until your name is a comforting and familiar one.

4. Narrow Your Focus With Geo-targeting

Geo-targeting is where we target a specific geological region with our PPC campaign. Obviously, not every student is willing to fling themselves across the country if they have options closer to home. Google Ads and most other PPC ad systems use geo-targeting to restrict an ads’ range to those users in an area.

example of an ad geo-targeting for a university

With Google Ads, you can target your ads to a specific radius around your city or target a region where you want to boost enrollment.

The best way to geo-target is not necessarily a circle radius around your campus. There are many different ways to geo-target, which depend on your goals as we discussed earlier. First, you should find out where most of your students come from. You can target those areas and increase enrollments from your existing base. Or you can target new regions where you’d like to increase brand awareness and grow enrollment. If you’re offering unique graduate programs, you might even be targeting international locations.

While we’re speaking of local matters, of course, your Google My Business (GMB) listing is up to date and registered, correct? It better be, as your GMB listing is often the first thing searchers see on the search engine results page (SERP).

5. Embrace Remarketing

Remarketing campaigns allow you to stay top of mind during long buyer’s journeys. The decision to choose a university is not one that is made overnight. It can take prospective students months to decide what to do after they graduate high school.

This makes remarketing mandatory for higher education institutes.

Remarketing starts when someone visits your website and is tagged with a cookie. The action that you tag can be anything; you can create remarketing campaigns for triggers like:

  • Visits a specific webpage
  • Watches a virtual tour video
  • Downloads an application form

With that cookie in place, you can develop remarketing campaigns that show them ads when they conduct relevant searches. Your remarketing campaign should build on their first action and persuade them to take the next step. If they downloaded an application, show them ads that allow them to schedule a consultation with an admissions advisor.

PPC Ad for Higher Ed virtual tour

If a potential student has visited your admission web pages, consider using remarketing to show them a PPC ad about scheduling a virtual tour.

Make sure that during their journey, they’re constantly reminded of your school and that you persuade them to revisit your website.

Remarketing maximizes the effectiveness of your PPC advertising budget by showing your ads to the people who already are considering your school.

6. Create Seasonal Campaigns

Another selective practice in PPC advertising is targeting certain times of the year. Thanks to the standard school year in North America, we’re mentally programmed to think of “back to school” in late summer / early fall, but higher education markers and admissions need to target a different schedule.

Most students apply for college in January or February of their senior year. They hear back in a couple of months and typically have to make their final decision by May 1. With that information in mind, you should ramp up your PPC advertising in the months leading up to when they submit their application. They’ll be conducting extensive research on Google and you want to be sure that your university is at the top of the SERP.

After the initial application rush, consider using remarketing campaigns to stay top of mind with applicants. They’ll be evaluating their options, weighing offers, and cross-checking programs. You can develop custom audiences using applicant email lists and show them ads that will persuade them to choose you.

7. Think Mobile!

There’s a gadget gap between generations and between demographics. Senior web users remember when you had to have a desktop computer to get on the Internet—wheezing Gateway boxes with monitors that weighed as much as a small car on your desk, AOL dial-up making funky noises. Middle-aged users and those with an office profession think only in terms of laptops and netbooks. But the younger generations and all users who don’t need a laptop for work are now nearly 100% on the mobile phone standard.

 

 

The Hamilton Project reports that the majority of undergraduate students are ages 18-24 and ages 25-29. Smartphone ownership among that age group is a whopping 96% according to Pew Research.

 

According to Pew Research, 99%  of Americans ages 18-29 own some type of cell phone and 96% own a smartphone. That’s the prime demographic that you’re trying to attract to your school. I’m sure that comes as no surprise, as you know, students love their phones and social media.

That means, your website, should a user actually click your ad, needs to be mobile-friendly. In fact, Google is penalizing sites for not being mobile-friendly now. Your ad campaign should be mobile-friendly too. Use ad extensions like call buttons and site links in your PPC settings. Keep your headline and text short and to the point, so there isn’t a wall of text on the mobile users’ screen.

Google also allows you to set Mobile Bid Adjustments. This allows you to adjust the price of your keyword bid by a percentage depending on what device the user has for the current search. That comes in line with the age group you want to target the most for a specific campaign.

8. Land the Lead

You’ve done it! An interested user clicked on the ad! What happens now?

You will want a landing page. The landing page is not your website’s homepage. It is a special page built just to receive ad clicks. We do this because when users visit from a campaign, the campaign made a promise, which the user is expecting to be fulfilled now. You want a page that supports your ad’s claim, and a call-to-action (CTA) to convert the visitor, such as a dialog form to sign up for a newsletter or make an appointment with a counselor.

Clicking through from a creative writing course ad:

…should take us to a matching offer for that creative writing course:

We actually don’t have a great example here, because our CTA button this time is an un-motivating invitation to “join wait list.” Right away, our natural reaction is “your ad didn’t say anything about waiting!” Indeed, you can shut an ad campaign off with a flip of a switch, so why are they doing this? This seems a very slack way of running things, even for Berkeley.

On your landing page, your CTA can be any form that serves your purpose and collects some contact data for your new lead. There’s form generation software and even landing page generation software out there, if you have many campaigns and don’t want to bother too much with custom pages for each one.

But we have another option! As a special Beta sneak peek, Google is rolling out lead form extensions for Google ads. This is an automatic mini-landing page that is active from within Google’s cloud, letting you pop up a CTA right there within the ad unit. This may not be adequate for every need you have with an ad right now, but we’ll see how it shakes out after it’s out of Beta.

 

Conclusions

As we all continue to tread fearlessly into the COVID-19 era, boldly going where no economy has gone before, we learn that it’s still worthwhile to advertise because we still need a functioning society. We also learned how to strip down our PPC ad strategy to make it leaner and meaner, which should smooth things over in the budget department.

Higher ed has indeed never faced a challenge like the present time in recent memory, at least, but let’s not forget that we all survived the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic last century with even worse technology than we have now, and none of our universities sank into quicksand then either. Surely we can be lucky twice?


 

Alex Membrillo Cardinal CEO

Alex Membrillo

Founder and CEO

Alex Membrillo is the CEO of Cardinal, a digital marketing agency focused on growing multi location companies. His work as CEO of Cardinal has recently earned him the honor of being selected as a member of the 2018 Top 40 Under 40 list by Georgia State University as well as 2015 and 2016 Top 20 Entrepreneur of metro Atlanta by TiE Atlanta, Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 2016 Small Business Person of the Year,and the Digital Marketer of the Year by Technology Association of Georgia (TAG).