Digital Advertising: The Key to Higher Education Marketing
Digital advertising has risen above the other channels in a multi-channel strategy when it comes to higher education marketing. According to the 2017 Ruffalo Noel Levitz E-Expectations Trend Report, digital ads are increasingly important to students and parents seeking information about colleges and universities. According to the report, in just the past year there has been an 8 percent increase in digital ad clicks for juniors and seniors.
Nailing down the most effective recruitment strategies is vital in the current environment where college admissions are shrinking. Eighty-five percent of admission directors say they were very (55 percent) or moderately (30 percent) concerned about reaching their institution’s enrollment goals this year. So finding the marketing mix is critical to higher education marketers’ goals.
Let’s take a look at the typical marketing mix for higher education (in no particular order):
- Your website
- Printed materials
- Virtual tours
- Social Media
According to RNL, a college or university’s website is the number 1 information resource for prospective students – and their parents. While that may seem intuitive, what may be less intuitive is how to get them to your website. Creating and publishing the site is not enough – especially if you don’t have Ivy League recognition. You need a strong brand and you need to take steps to make students and parents aware of your institution and drive them to your website.
Digital Advertising Gets Them There
Digital advertising, defined by Marketo, is “the tactic of leveraging the internet and its properties to deliver promotional ads to consumers on various channels.”
The goal of digital search ads is to get your website high on search engine results pages (SERP) so prospects already searching for information about your school and programs will easily find it.
The goal of digital display ads is to improve awareness of your school and offerings by running ads on related website pages, or in the case of retargeting (or remarketing), to keep your school top of mind for people who have already visited your page.
Digital ads, whether pay-per-click, social media, email, programmatic or other tactics, gives college marketers a way to get their message to a targeted audience and include links that bring that audience back to the college’s website. Digital ads can also:
- Bring your school to students’ and parents’ attention when they otherwise might not have known about it.
- Reinforce your brand with those who already know about your school.
- Highlight a feature of your school students and parents might not be aware of.
- Bring students and parents to your website, which they may not have visited before, even if they know about your school.
When it comes to digital ads, both students and parents click:
Google ads led the pack with 73-76 percent of students, and 71-72 of parents saying they click on Google ads for information about schools. Facebook came in second.
Schools should make use of digital ads and include digital ad spend – and search engine management costs – in the marketing budget. Until you get started, it’s difficult to forecast how much you’ll need to spend; start out with a comfortable number, then scale up or down from there. There’s no minimum spend on Google and the minimum on Facebook is $1 (but realistically, it will take much more than that to make an impact).
According to RNL, digital ads work best at the top of the funnel, and with students and parents who already know about your school; but they work in other stages of the marketing funnel, as well. Just be sure you tailor your content and calls to action (CTA) to each section of the funnel, and/or the specific time in the process. For instance, as it nears application time, you can change the focus of your ads from awareness (“learn more”) to consideration (“schedule a visit”) to conversion (“apply now”).
Search Engine Optimization
The secondary takeaway from the RNL report is that particular attention needs to be paid to search engine optimization: RNL found that high school students and their parents use search engines more than site navigation to find specific information within a college’s website.
There are two types of SEO you need to consider: on-page and off-page. On-page SEO refers to your web pages and good SEO makes sure your site is optimized with searchable short- and long-tail keywords, page titles, meta descriptions, and most importantly, useful and high-quality content.
When students or parents look for specific programs, activities, or information about your school from a search engine, such as Google or Bing, you want the relevant answers to come up in search engine results pages, preferably on Page 1. Did you know that 75% of people will never scroll past the first page on a Google search? That means for ¾ of the people looking for an answer about your university, that answer might as well not exist if it doesn’t come up on Page 1 – either organically or through a digital ad.
Off-page SEO refers things outside of your own website that affect SERP rank, such as popularity, relevance, trustworthiness, and authority. One factor is inbound links – website that link to your site. Off-page SEO is important because, while we don’t know the exact recipe for Google’s algorithm that determines SERP rank, off-site SEO-related factors likely carry more than 50% of the ranking factor weight.
Aside from inbound links, other activities that can affect your off-page SEO include influencer marketing, reviews, social media, and more.
All the digital advertising and SEO in the world won’t help if your website provides a poor user experience (UX). When it comes to business websites, people will leave if the user experience is poor, and it’s likely the same to some degree for college or university websites. According to Kissmetrics, two of the three biggest website UX turn-offs are poor navigation and bad content structure, problems that befall many university websites. If a student is committed to a particular institution, bad UX will be frustrating; for a student who is in the early awareness phase, it could mean a lost prospect.
What are the components of a good user experience on your website? Here are the most important factors:
- A cost calculator – Believe it or not, in the RNL survey, parents and senior students rated a financial aid calculator as the second most influential factor in the college decision-making process, second only to the website itself.
- Design – Attractive pages and intuitive navigation are two of the characteristics students say they would like to see with college websites, but often don’t.
- Easy-to-find information – Schedules, maps, deadlines, records requests, and contact information should all be easy to find and it should take a minimum of clicks to get there.
- Complete course listings – Department pages should be consistent in design and course offering info should be easily accessible. A Nielsen Norman Group study revealed that 48% of users didn’t realize that the university offered the program that they were looking for, even when it did.
Which brings us to:
- Design the site for your audience – When it comes to your school, you know the various departments, which offer what degrees, and where all of the academic programs belong. Parents and prospective students (and even many enrolled students) don’t know the ins and outs of the academic program hierarchy, so set up your website with them, not the staff and administration, in mind.
The Bottom Line
The takeaway from all of this is that digital advertising is critical to higher education marketing, but it doesn’t work on its own. Schools need to also focus on search engine optimization and website user experience to complete the package.