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Today’s prospective students turn to the web to learn about schools, using search engines like Google and Bing, but also rely on platforms like YouTube and TikTok to discover their options and learn more about schools and their programs. In such a fragmented and competitive digital landscape, it can be difficult for your school to stand out and attract these prospects. However, with a paid advertising plan, your school can even the odds and increase the chances of reaching its target audience and driving action, even if your budget is tight.

Read on for an in-depth look at how your school can develop an effective paid advertising strategy.

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Do You Really Need A Plan?  

There are countless benefits to developing a paid advertising plan for education marketing. First, before you launch your campaigns, you need to be clear on who you are targeting, what you want to say to them and what action you want them to take. The answers to these questions may differ for different platforms. For example, you might have one message for leads on Facebook but something different for TikTok since, in general, the audiences are different when it comes to their demographics. 

You might also (and should) have different messages for leads at different stages at the funnel. For example, you might have a specific message in your Google Ads for prospective students who have not yet engaged with you but then say something different in retargeting ads they see after clicking on your Google Ad but not taking the action you wanted them to take. Digital marketing is complex, so without a plan, your efforts will be a mishmash of random tactics that don’t fit together strategically, and that will both lead to wasted money and disappointing results. 

The Anatomy of a Paid Ad Campaign 

A successful paid ad campaign hinges on targeting the right audience, featuring the right message, and choosing the right platform. Following are six best practices to help you get it right.

1. Choose the Best Placement and Schedule

Put simply, ad placement is the advertising space offered by websites and social networks for displaying your ads. Ad scheduling is when you set your ad to run over a specific period of time. Both components are essential to any advertising campaign and can consequently impact your budget. 

Schools using Google Ads can choose their own placements and run ads where prospects are most likely to spend their time. These ad placements can appear on YouTube or on a website within the Google Display Network, such as millions of websites and apps and Google-owned properties like Gmail and YouTube. If you notice that one specific website provides better results for your school, then you have the option to modify your placement bid, increasing your exposure on that specific website or decreasing your bid for other ad placements that aren’t performing as well. 

Example: Iona University developed a Google Display ad that appears on a website geared toward its target audience. The ad shows on the sidebar, next to relevant content about studying tips and introduces prospects to the school brand and its messaging.

Source: Iona University

Similarly, schools running social media ads can choose their own ad placement on the platform they’re using. These ads can appear as newsfeed ads, in-article ads, in-stream video ads, and more. 

Below is an example of a video ad created by the University of Leeds to attract prospects using one of Facebook’s ad placements:

Source: University of Leeds

When it comes to ad scheduling, you are able to specify the exact days and hours you want your paid ads to run. You can also adjust your bid to focus on specific days and times instead of covering a general period. Knowing when your target audience is most active online is especially valuable in this context, allowing you to maximize your budget for the best results. For instance, a career college targeting professionals seeking a career change may discover better results by running ads outside of standard work hours. That said, different schools will likely have different ideal times to run ads—it all comes back to the data your team has gathered.

2. Ensure Optimal Reach and Frequency 

Frequency and reach are key metrics to explore when setting up a successful ad campaign. Both are especially relevant for brand awareness campaigns, but having a limited budget makes it difficult to increase both. Generally speaking, increasing frequency leaves less money for boosting reach and vice versa. As such, you’ll want to aim to find the right balance. 

Schools targeting a niche audience, such as language learners or business students, or schools with an audience that is ready to enroll, can benefit more from focusing on frequency. Schools trying to attract an audience that is unaware of their offerings or those concerned with increasing brand exposure should focus on reach. 

Taking a closer look at your analytics can help you determine whether your school is achieving its objectives, especially since this data can reveal how many people were shown your ads and how frequently over a set period of time. 

3. Target Audiences via Research and Ad Settings

There are generally two key ad streams: social media and search engines. Success in both streams relies on using industry best practices and understanding your student personas

On social media, you can target an audience based on demographic and psychographic traits. This can include location, interests, behavior, education, occupation, and more. However, on search engines, your ads show based on keywords a user searches for, though you still have some control over who sees your ads based on the demographic criteria you specify. By understanding your prospects and developing personas, “you can create lookalike audiences based off them for Facebook, or use their pain points to shape messaging on a landing page,” explains Alexander. Taking this extra step can help you ensure that your ad campaign delivers the results your school needs. 

Example: On Facebook, you can create a lookalike audience by navigating to the “Custom Audience” option in the Audiences tab of your Ad Manager account. Here, you’ll have the opportunity to set the similarity and reach of your custom audience:

Source: Facebook

Setting Goals to Identify Your School’s Advertising Mix and Channels

Setting goals for social media ads and other paid advertising campaigns is an important first step to your success. It’s only after defining your goals and objectives that you can begin determining your key performance indicators, allowing you to measure your progress. As Alexander puts it, it’s about answering the question, “What does success look like?” This can be reaching a set number of leads per budget, maximizing conversions per budget, or even driving traffic to your school’s website. Knowing your goals can ultimately help you define the cost of paid search advertising.

Scott Cross, HEM Regional Manager of Sales in North America, shares that schools primarily want to collect leads, addressing the question: “How can I get more students in my classrooms?” He adds, “Newer institutions, or those with programs they’ve just introduced, are also looking for visibility [and] awareness” to show prospects that they’re open or providing new offerings.

It may be difficult to determine your school’s goals at first. In these cases, Scott advises to “base digital marketing objectives on [your] school’s objectives.” For instance, “if [schools] are looking for more students, then we recommend digital ads that will drive lead generation,” Scott explains. “If they feel their school is unique to the competition and is misunderstood,” then taking an inbound marketing approach is recommended, which means creating content that addresses those misconceptions. Alternatively, schools seeking to boost visibility or those with low website traffic can turn to Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to increase their ranking in Google search results. With so many options to choose from, having a clear goal can help lead you in the right direction and toward the right advertising mix. 

4. Build Awareness with a Paid Advertising Plan for Search Engines and Social Media

With brand awareness, you’re looking to reach a wide audience. In this case, it’s good to diversify your ads to expand brand exposure. Your school can run ads on different channels depending on your budget, prioritizing the ones that work best for your school and its unique audience. This can include pay-per-click (PPC) ads as well as social media ads on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, and other platforms. 

If you go with PPC ads and search engine marketing, then you’ll want to use the right keywords in your campaign. This way, your ads can come up when prospects are looking for relevant options that reflect their query, introducing your school as a viable solution for their education needs. As you monitor your performance, be sure to track your impressions and clickthrough rate (CTR). These metrics can indicate how well your ads are achieving your brand awareness goals.

Pro Tip: If you find yourself contemplating how much paid advertising costs on Instagram or Facebook, then it’s worth determining how much you’re willing to spend first. This also applies if you’re torn between prioritizing the costs of paid advertising on Facebook versus Instagram. On both platforms, you’re able to control your school’s budget and, consequently, the overall amount spent on advertising. By adjusting your bid strategy, you can even control your cost per result, making sure you only spend what you need for results. 

5. Improve Lead Generation with Paid Ads and Landing Pages 

In Alexander’s view, “the most common goal is lead generation—getting prospective students to fill out a request for information form.” He adds that “At the end of the day, lead generation is typically more valuable to schools than other goals, such as [generating traffic] or awareness.”

Interestingly, Google Search Ads are a primary tactic for lead generation, which typically involves creating a landing page designed to improve lead collection rates and quality. There’s a lot involved in this type of lead generation campaign. At HEM, “we can do everything from researching markets, designing ad creatives, building landing pages, advising or building follow-up processes [to] hooking forms to CRMs [and more],” as Alexander puts it. Each step of this process can help a school refine its advertising efforts and generate impactful results.

To maximize a lead generation campaign, your school will need to create a landing page. This standalone page is where visitors “land” after clicking on your PPC ad. Its purpose is to promote a specific event or program featuring a single call to action (CTA) to drive visitors toward converting. An effective landing page provides prospects with value, addressing their needs and motivations while intuitively guiding them throughout the page using good UX design and compelling content. Here, conducting an A/B test can be particularly valuable, enabling you to optimize your performance and increase your chances of success.

Example: Prospects looking for French courses in Montreal can type a query and immediately discover Berlitz Language School through Google’s search ad:

google search ad

These prospects are looking for a specific type of school and are likely ready to dive further once they discover a good fit. By clicking on the ad, they’re redirected to a landing page designed to encourage form submissions and calls to the center:

Research shows interesting insights on paid search advertising costs, indicating that the average cost per click (CPC) across all US industries is between $1 and $2 on Google’s Search Network and under $1 on the Google Display network. Although lead generation campaigns done through Google’s search network may be a bit more expensive, they can deliver impactful results when done correctly.

6. Boost Conversions through a Paid Advertising Strategy 

A common goal for schools is to generate registrations for events, such as open houses, webinars, info sessions, and campus tours. These conversions can be encouraged through paid advertising, which can provide schools with the foothold necessary to establish communication with interested prospects. The key is to make sure that the destination of the ad moves them further along the enrollment funnel.

By redirecting social media users to a landing page for event registrations, schools can boost their chances of increasing the number of attendees. The University of Windsor uses Instagram to advertise its Open House event, leading users to a dedicated page for signing up:

Source: University of Windsor

Another way to get results is to build forms into your school’s paid ads on social media. In doing so, you make it easy for prospects on social media to complete a call to action, like signing up for a newsletter or an info session. This way, they can convert without needing to exit the app—streamlining the process. 

Example: The University of Sydney takes this approach in its Instagram ad below, presenting the school as a leading institution for graduate employability. Not only does this ad increase brand awareness within a niche audience (career-oriented prospects), but it also boosts conversions via a built-in form accessible by a single click. Prospects who fill out this form are able to download a Student Guide and then further interact with the school.

Source: University of Sydney 

According to Alexander, “Generating a lead is never the end goal; getting an enrollment is. Therefore, making sure the follow-up process after the lead comes in is strong is key to turning those leads into students.” These potential follow-up processes can include anything from targeted email messages to conversational marketing via text or chatbots. In this sense, your paid advertising plan is only part of your overall student recruitment efforts. 

Refining Your Media Mix and Channels for Maximum Efficiency

There are several things to consider when outlining your paid advertising strategy, including which channels and platforms to use. As our Regional Manager of Sales in North America, Scott has noticed that Google Search is the most common ad channel for lead generation, and Facebook and Instagram are the most common for visibility and awareness. 

The key to choosing the right digital advertising mix and channels is to pick ones that align with your goals and naturally attract your target audience. Turn to your digital marketing analytics to determine which advertising channels are the right fit for your school. It’s also worth considering media mix modelling, a technique used to measure a campaign’s impact and how each channel contributes to conversions, which enables school marketers to make decisions that lead to a higher return on investment. 

Schools wanting to achieve the best results will need to gather valuable data insights. In fact, Scott notes that “Schools with the best-performing ads are those who have a lot of information we can use to target the right audiences.” For instance, schools that identify specific areas within a state or province from where their students come and then target those geographies have a higher chance of reaching an audience qualified for their program. Schools that only define their target audience by country can miss out on the benefits of precise targeting. 

Looking for help with this process? The HEM team is here to help you develop a paid advertising plan and even guide its implementation if needed. “At HEM, we also work to keep our clients involved in their ad campaigns over time,” explains Scott. “We provide them with a Google Data Studio dashboard on which they can view ad campaign performance data 24/7 or break up their data by month or by semester.  We also meet with them monthly to discuss ad campaign performance, and we ask about the quality of the leads their ads are delivering.” These discussions help us better understand our clients and provide us with the insights we need to monitor ad performance and optimize our efforts for even better results.

Determining Your Paid Advertising Plan’s Budget and Costs

As you move towards setting your paid advertising expense, you’ll also want to track a set of key metrics. These include:

  • Number of conversions
  • Conversion rate
  • Cost per conversion
  • Cost per action (CPA) 
  • Cost per lead (CPL). 

If you notice that the cost is too high or the quantity is too low, then you may want to investigate whether your cost per click is appropriately priced or whether other aspects of your paid ad campaign may need to be optimized. Taking this extra step can help you maximize your overall paid advertising budget, setting you up for success.

Unsurprisingly, developing an effective paid advertising budget template can be tricky at first. An important tip to keep in mind is to avoid over or under-bidding. “If you’re bidding $10 for a keyword where the average CPC is $2, and it’s not generating lots of conversions, you’re definitely overbidding—while if your bid is well below average and it’s bringing conversions, then you are underbidding,” shares Alexander. “You want to make sure the bulk of your ad spend goes towards the best performing keywords, audiences, etc. and that your spend is being tapered away from the lower performing parts of a campaign.”

Another helpful metric to track is the Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC), which can help with predicting and improving your ROI. It can be calculated by dividing the total costs of marketing expenses by the total amount of customers gained in the period of time in which money was spent. This metric is particularly relevant for tracking individual advertising channels. This way, school marketers can focus their efforts and resources on the channels that generate the lowest CAC—reducing the budget while maximizing their efficiency. 

The simplest approach is to calculate your ad spend by channel and compare results, though it can be tough to determine where your prospects came from. This is where using an attribution model in Google Analytics can help. Since many schools operate using an eCommerce model, they can track conversions through the last-click attribution model, which assigns value to the last touchpoint.

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to regularly audit your paid advertising plan and review your performance. Not only does this step allow you to refine and optimize your strategy, but it also enables you to analyze and benchmark your KPIs. The more insights you gain about your efforts, the more capable you become at managing your budget and strengthening your strategy.

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