Higher Education Marketing

PPC Conversion Rates in Higher Ed

Date posted: June 11, 2013

As PPC becomes mainstream in higher ed as a marketing tactic, colleges and universities who have not used it in the past are seeing their competitors get out ahead of them in competitive keyword markets. As these late adopter marketers enter PPC, ( desktop and now mobile), it is only natural for them to seek some assurances on what your conversion rates and ultimately ROI will be from these initiatives.

So the questions is “ What kind of conversion rate can you expect?”

I remember the first time I ran a higher ed PPC campaign, with the help of an outside consultant, and asked them that same question. Technically, they knew their stuff but had not worked in higher education before so I got back the inevitable “ it depends” answer. I was a bit frustrated and felt like I was being “managed”, but accepted it and carefully watched things roll out to educate myself on what was reasonable. It turns out that  "it depends" was and is still a reasonable answer given the wide variability in conversion rates that organizations get, as seen below.

global ppc stats

Source: Marketing Sherpa

The good news is that we can do a bit better today than “it depends” to help new PPC marketers understand what to expect from their higher ed campaigns. I particularly like to pull out  the following stats to help define some baseline expectations for our new higher ed PPC clients. These stats present a typical day in the life of PPC activity on Google, collected back in Nov 2012 . (They are a combination of data from the jobs and educational vertical but I still think it is very informative about our sector because of the significant overlap. Click thru here to see the whole infographic from Wordstream to see this same breakdown across the top 10 industry PPC verticals. )

edu ppc stats

So let’s look closely to see the important insights of this data:

1) TOTAL AD IMPRESSIONS: Education accounts for the most ad impressions across the top 10 verticals. Wow, so who is doing all of this educational PPC advertising? Well if you look down a bit you will see that it is the largest private, for profits, including Phoenix, ITT, Devry and Kaplan who dominate. In fact, Phoenix has claim to the title of being the biggest PPC advertiser on Google. Yes that is correct, they spend more money on PPC than any other company in the world. That should be a very sobering thought if your programs compete with theirs and you are just getting into the market now!!

2) CLICK THRU RATE: Education also lays claim to having the lowest click thru rate at 1.72% of the top 10 PPC verticals. This fact is a bit scarey for many first timers but once you understand that cost per lead is actually more important that click thru  rate then it becomes a bit more manageable.

3) COST PER CLICK: So an average cost per click in education is $1.80. This is a good figure to use if you want to project how much budget you will need to participate in the PPC marketplace

4) CONVERSION RATE: A 6 % conversion rate in higher ed seems quite reasonable to me. Some campaigns we have run do much better than this but to get that kind of result takes experience and lots of A/B testing to make it happen.

So given these industry averages, here is what a $1000 PPC budget will get you:

$1000/$1.80 per click = 556 clicks
556 clicks x 6% conversion rate = 33 leads
$1000/ 33 leads = $30.30 per lead

5) GOOGLE DISPLAY NETWORK: Note the stats about the Google Display network on the right of the graphic. Display ads are the text or image based ads that you can place on a PPC basis on 3rd party sites who are members of the Google Display network. A huge amount of money is being spent there these days, with very modest click thu and conversion rates compared to Adwords,

Here is an estimate of what that same $1000 will get you on the Display Network|:

$1000/$.34 per click = 2941clicks
2941 clicks x 2% conversion rate = 59 leads
$1000/ 59 leads = $16.95 per lead

So as you can see that the cost per lead is almost half that of the main Adwords network. Of course the big question unanswered here is about lead quality. Which leads will ultimately convert to student at the highest rate? Generally Adwords leads are of higher quality but don’t make assumptions with respect to your campaigns. You must try to be certain of the outcome.

There are other PPC ad scenarios, including Mobile ads and Retargeting ads, but we’ll leave those for discussion another day.

So how do educational PPC conversion rates compare to conversion of organic traffic? Once again the answer is it depends on the nuances of a particular organization’s website, “product” and value propositions

Here is an example of variability of conversion rates on organic traffic from Marketing Sherpa. Once again, "it depends" applies.

global organic conv stats

 Source: Marketing Sherpa

I hope this has been helpful to set some basic parameters around what you can expect as you are entering the PPC marketplace for the first time. It a very competitive marketplace so do your homework and make sure you have optimized your campaigns to produce a reasonable level of ROI right from the outset.

We would love to hear your insights from your experienced into what has worked best for you in higher ed PPC and what strategies and tactics you've used to produce your highest conversion rates.


Scott Duncan has worked in post-secondary educational marketing for over 25 years developing and marketing curriculum materials, marketing educational software, consulting to post-secondary institutions and most recently focusing on developing traditional and e-marketing solutions for student recruitment. He has extensive experience in student recruiting for continuing education and non-credit programs.