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 keep your program organized 

Creating buzz, fueling enrollment, increasing applications — to thrive, higher education institutions need to drum up a steady influx of new students every year. And even with the social and financial effects of the pandemic finally winding down here in the U.S., marketing still requires more creativity and flexibility than it has in the past if schools want to stand out.

The importance of PPC ads for digital marketing

A report by higher education enrollment management services company Ruffalo Noel Levitz (RNL) shows that a college’s website has the biggest impact on a prospective attendee’s choice. That makes getting them there all the more vital. 

A user-friendly website and solid SEO are integral to a successful outcome, but on their own, they likely aren’t enough. Online advertising competition is fierce, but for good reason: That’s where future students are. 

Well-executed SEO is a great way to drive traffic. However, SEO alone isn’t the most effective strategy. What is: a combination of site-wide SEO — observing the latest SEO best practices — alongside a strategic PPC campaign.

Search engine marketing (SEM) is among the most cost-effective forms of advertising for the higher-education industry. 

How higher education SEO & PPC work together 

SEO and PPC are symbiotic. They work together, compensating for each other’s weaknesses. SEO takes time to start working, but PPC doesn’t. SEO brings in more top-of-funnel traffic, introducing people at the beginning of the buyer’s journey to your institution, while PPC is much more effective at appealing to bottom-of-funnel prospects and driving immediate conversions.

PPC delivers fast results and greater return on investment (ROI) whether your goal is lead generation, brand recognition, or enrollments. Higher education paid search even allows you to personalize each searcher’s experience with your school, from prospective students and parents to educators and community members.

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 digital marketing budget.

group of college students in the library looking at a laptop

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

Traditional students have a long recruitment cycle beginning around grades 11 and 12. They rarely, if ever, choose a school quickly and impulsively, often conducting careful research over several months or years.

Similarly, PPC uses a multi-touch approach requiring preparation and nurturing throughout the lead generation funnel. It helps to have active campaigns for early admissions leading up to application deadlines and other time-sensitive events.

Undergraduate vs. graduate programs

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

Adults may search any time of year, and their lead time is often much shorter. Graduate programs are also less predictable, with more fluctuation 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 go over more below) while getting a better view of the big picture via data and reports.

Otherwise, your school may drop off the map entirely, effectively starting all over again when you create new campaigns or reactivate old ones. 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.

Additionally, keep in mind that teens looking into colleges are digital natives. Connecting with them requires having your omnichannel game on point. Reach out through the social media platforms and technology they’re already using and provide valuable content through convenient means.

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.

higher education library

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.

higher education student with books and backpack

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)

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.

Contact HawkSEM for Free Consultation