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Written by Sam Yadegar on Oct 7 , 2020

If you’re not using pay-per-click (PPC) ads for your higher education digital marketing, you could be missing out on a huge recruitment opportunity.

Here, you’ll find:

  • How to plan your higher education PPC campaign
  • Key ways to define your audience
  • Pro tips for keyword bidding
  • How to stay organized and leverage remarketing

Creating buzz, fueling enrollment, increasing applications — to thrive, higher education institutions need to drum up a steady influx of new students every year. And as the pandemic continues to affect how students of all ages access their classrooms, marketing for these schools requires more creativity and flexibility than ever. 

An easy-to-use website and solid SEO strategy can make up a successful digital plan, but on their own, they may not attract the numbers you need. Competition is fierce, but there’s a reason why so many colleges and universities advertise online: It’s where future students are. 

Search engine marketing (SEM) can be one of the most cost-effective forms of advertising for the higher-education industry. It scales easily while providing swift reporting and transparency. 

PPC (or paid search) also delivers fast results. It can drive greater return on investment (ROI) for a broad range of goals, from improving recruitment numbers and lead generation to increased brand recognition.

Higher education paid search allows you to personalize each searcher’s experience with your school, from prospective students and parents of students to educators and members of the community.

PPC lets you engage your audience at the right time with the right message on the right device. The result: more exposure and higher enrollment.

With that in mind, we’ve gathered some of the most effective tips to help you get started and make the most of your college or university’s digital marketing budget.

HawkSEM blog: Paid Search Marketing for Higher Education: Advice from an SEM Agency

Have active campaigns for early admissions leading up to application deadlines and other time-sensitive dates. (Image via Unsplash)

Plan your higher education PPC campaign

During non-pandemic times, online activity for colleges and universities often peaks and dips predictably. While this may mean that you bump up your advertising spend more at critical times of the year, it’s wise to keep advertising going year-round. 

Your budget can be shifted based on the day, week, month, and quarter using historical performance and prospect cycles. When developing a year-round budget, here are some factors to consider:

Lead time

For traditional students, the recruitment cycle is long. Prospects begin their school search throughout grades 11 and 12, and virtually no one makes a decision based on a single click. It can take months or years for them to convert.

Similarly, PPC is a multi-touch approach. It requires preparation and nurturing throughout the lead generation funnel. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to have active campaigns for early admissions leading up to application deadlines and other time-sensitive dates.

Undergraduate vs. graduate programs

For schools with rolling admissions, there is some predictable activity for undergrad programs, especially when it comes to prospects coming from high school. However, it’s not as clear cut for non-traditional students.

Adults may search at any time of year, and their lead time is often shorter than for high schoolers. Graduate programs are also less predictable, with ebbs and flows throughout the year.

Branding and remarketing

Starting and stopping PPC campaigns can hurt your efforts more than it helps. By optimizing a higher-ed strategy that runs all year, you can take full advantage of your branding and remarketing efforts (which we’ll get to more below) while getting a better view of the big picture via data and reports.

Otherwise, your school may drop off the map entirely, and you essentially end up starting all over again when you create new campaigns or reactivate past ads. It’s easier to build momentum and keep the conversation going by maintaining a strong, consistent PPC presence.

Define your target audience

When creating your paid search strategy, it’s crucial to have a firm grasp of your ideal client persona. Who are they, and what interests them? Put yourself in their shoes and identify with their needs to help determine what they’re looking for and how you can provide it. 

For example, college-bound high school students may be more interested in the traditional “college experience” of sports and local hangouts. It’s a different perspective than the adult with a family who’s trying to finish their degree after 10 years in the workforce. They’re likely more interested in convenience, flexibility, and time management.

Focus each campaign toward your most relevant audience. Here, it also helps to look at your data. Are most of your leads local or in-state students? Craft your higher education PPC towards that niche. Are you recruiting for a particular program? Get granular! Use terms that help searchers find that specialty. You probably won’t get as many impressions, but the lead quality could more than make up for it.

Pro tip: When bidding on branded keywords, you may be concerned about existing students and faculty clicking on the ad from Google’s search engine results page (SERP) to get to your website. To mitigate this, you can always exclude a radius around the school so those in close proximity don’t get shown the ad.

HawkSEM blog: Paid Search Marketing for Higher Education: Advice from an SEM Agency

Splitting campaigns into groups using specific characteristics can help you measure the results and see which segments perform the best. (Image via Unsplash)

Organize the account structure

Make the Google Ads account structure work for you by making sure your campaigns are organized. This can help you make the most of your budget and potentially increase conversions. Just make sure you use a consistent naming convention for campaigns and ad groups that make the intent identifiable — the proper structure can influence how well your ads perform.

If you have too few campaigns and too many ad groups, you might miss out on the full potential of your budget. You can avoid this by increasing the number of campaigns and segmenting the account for greater insight. A compelling account structure for higher education PPC may look like this:

    • Campaign Name: Undergraduate Search
    • Ad Groups:
      • Bachelors’ Degrees
      • Degree Programs
      • Continuing Education
      • College Classes
      • Online College

Splitting campaigns into groups using specific characteristics can help you measure the results and see which segments perform the best. From there, you can make changes accordingly. Also, not everyone will use the exact terms that you use, so consider expanding your bidding to related terms.

See how we helped Sierra Nevada University revamp their targeting, tracking, and landing pages for a 309% increase in conversions.

Be thoughtful about keywords

Keywords can be costly, and the wrong ones can reduce the effectiveness of campaigns. Get more bang for your buck by using specialized keywords and single keyword ad groups (SKAGs) rather than general terms. 

For example, instead of using the official name of your writing program, use the phrase “creative writing.” Or try using “digital marketing degree,” even if digital marketing is only a subcategory of your Marketing degree program. Selecting the terms searchers want is crucial to higher education SEM.

HawkSEM blog: Paid Search Marketing for Higher Education: Advice from an SEM Agency

The success of your higher education paid search hinges on how well your campaigns target your audience, address their concerns, and handle the competition. (Image via Unsplash)

Consider remarketing

It makes sense to target searchers who already show interest in your programs by visiting your website. You can begin the nurturing process by using remarketing. This type of PPC campaign (also called retargeting) shows your ads to people who previously visited your website. It’s a great way to keep your school top of mind, especially as potential students are weighing their options.

These campaigns are generally much cheaper than Google Ads. Plus, they can help improve brand awareness by targeting people who already know about your college or university. You can even serve compelling ads for your programs each time a prospect visits a competitor’s site. The more you stay top of mind, the more likely they are to convert.

Pro tip: Make sure you’re familiar with the settings to help you properly focus your remarketing efforts. Within campaign targeting settings, turn off automated targeting settings so that you serve ads only to the exact audience you want.

The takeaway

PPC doesn’t have to be expensive. When you get right down to it, the success of your higher education paid search hinges on how well your campaigns target your audience, address their concerns, and handle the competition. 

PPC can help your school break into new areas by improving your reach and following up on existing leads. Continuously measuring and monitoring user behavior is the ultimate guide to effective targeting. All of this paired with well-defined goals and a focused approach can help your higher education PPC become a powerful tool, even amid uncertain times.

This article has been updated and was originally published in October 2019.

Sam Yadegar

Sam Yadegar

Sam Yadegar is the co-founder and CEO of HawkSEM. Starting out as a software engineer, his penchant for solving problems quickly led him to the digital marketing world, where he has been helping clients for over 12 years. He loves doing everything he can to help brands "crush it" through ROI-driven digital marketing programs. He's also a fan of basketball and spending time with his family.

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