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digital advertising for schools

With students increasingly looking to online sources when searching for their perfect school, a digital advertising campaign can go a long way when it comes to boosting your inquiry and application rate.

While paid advertising was something of an optional luxury for schools in the past, it’s becoming more and more essential over time, as online competition heats up and organic reach on both search engines and social media becomes harder to come by.

However, with the right strategy, even a small amount of ad spend can significantly impact your admissions numbers. Read on to learn the ins and outs of how to generate inquiries and applications with paid ads.

1. Setting Your Higher Education Paid Advertising Goals

Whether you want to advertise an event, promote a specific program, or simply increase your school’s brand visibility, setting goals is the first step of any successful paid ad campaign.

Paid ads can meet any number of objectives, from specific goals like encouraging international students to attend your webinar, to broader targets such as improving brand visibility, to arguably the most important goal of all – increasing inquiries and applications. The goals you set influence who you aim to reach, which platforms you use, and how you measure your progress.

Once you’ve outlined your objectives, your school can identify key performance indicators (KPIs) in order to ensure your ad is meeting your goals. A KPI is a type of performance measurement – or, in other words, a specific objective you hope to meet, in relation to your larger goals.

If your school wants to amplify its online presence through paid ads, KPIs will help you determine what, exactly, that will look like. For instance, your KPIs could be gaining 100 more Instagram followers for an awareness campaign, increasing traffic to your website by 10% through a promoted post campaign, or attracting 30 new inquiries from a lead generation campaign.

By setting goals and determining achievable KPIs, your school can better set itself up for advertising success.

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2. Defining Your Prospective Student Audience

Once you know what your objectives are, the next step is to think about who you need to reach. The better you understand your prospective student base, the easier it is to succeed in higher education advertising.

Your audience will help determine the platform you choose and the targeting options you select, significantly impacting the success of your ad campaign. By having a clear understanding of who your prospects are, you’ll be able to generate high quality leads and see a substantial ROI on your school’s paid advertising initiatives.

Personas Help You Create Campaigns that Connect

While it can be tempting to try and reach every possible applicant with your school’s ads, it is much more effective to target narrow, specific audiences.

By ensuring that those who see your ads are among those most likely to become students at your school, your campaigns can generate more high quality leads using less money.

Defining accurate personas can help you achieve this goal. These representations of your typical applicants help you identify their common characteristics, such as their age, gender or location, and what attracts them to a particular school.

In doing so, your school can get inside the head of your typical prospect in order to figure out what kind of ad would catch their attention when surfing the web or scrolling through social media.

Would your school’s academic credentials appeal most to your prospects? Or do they want to find a school with a vibrant community on campus? Perhaps, future career prospects are their biggest concern when deciding upon a school or course. Knowing your persona’s ‘selling points’ will help you create the most enticing ads possible.

Example: This persona, ‘The International Newcomer’, is concerned about finding a fulfilling job in their new home after arriving in Canada. They are looking for a qualification that will lead to a stable job at a school that offers practical training.

If you want to target prospects like this, highlight the success of your graduates in going on to careers in their fields, as well as any industry connections your school may have. You may also want to consider multilingual campaigns.

higher ed paid ads

Select the Right Targeting Options

Having a proper understanding of your prospects will not only enable your school to create relevant ads – you’ll also know who to target.

Defining your intended audience is the foundation of any successful paid advertising campaign: if you’re not reaching the right students, your ad spend is for naught. But how you target your prospects depends on the ad platforms you use.

Generally speaking, there are two main advertising streams, social media and search engines, and each offers different targeting options. If you create social media ads, you’ll be able to define your audience based on a variety of demographic and psychographic characteristics, including behaviour, connections, interests and location. Search engine targeting, in contrast, allows for some level of demographic targeting, but is largely based on the keywords that prospects use when searching.

When it comes to social media ads, your detailed personas will really come in handy. Think about how old your target audience is, where they’re located, and what their interests are. If their education decisions are influenced by people like parents and high school counsellors, perhaps it would be worthwhile for your school to target them, as well. Many social media platforms allow you to target users based on age, location, interest, education, field of study, job title, and countless other characteristics.

Example: This Facebook ad for an esthetician school appears only to women with a passion for beauty. Note how they excluded those who already have a postsecondary degree.

Facebook advertising for schools

While search engine demographic targeting is not as specific as social media, there are still some ways to refine your paid advertising efforts to reach the right students.

Location is one of the main targeting factors when it comes to search engine ads as the search results each user sees vary based on their location. Depending on whether you’d like to reach local or international students, or want to target prospects in a specific region, you can specify your ad location accordingly.

Google also offers other basic targeting options like age, gender, and device type – but the biggest factor that determines who sees your ads is the keywords you bid on. The key, therefore, is to choose terms that your target audience is likely to search.

To find these perfect keywords, your school needs to conduct thorough research. This process includes brainstorming education keywords, examining your competitor’s keyword usage, and evaluating the success of your keywords to find the right ones for your school.

The keywords you choose will not only determine who your ad audience is, but also the scope of your campaign. For example, if a language school bids on “learn English,” their ad will likely be seen by a large number of prospects, but not all of them will be viable leads. A more niche search like ‘ESL summer camp UK’, meanwhile, might attract far less searches, but those that do look for it may be more likely to be seriously interested in that type of course.

3. Successful Search Engine Paid Advertising for Higher Ed

With many prospects using search engines as their primary tool for finding schools and courses, it’s essential your school appears at the top of relevant results pages. With the first five organic results gaining 67.6% of all traffic on any particular search (including paid ads), you’re failing to reach the majority of your prospects if your site doesn’t rank highly on major search engines.

While SEO will no doubt help your school’s search engine ranking, search engine ads can boost your website traffic faster and more efficiently. By increasing your visibility for targeted keywords, your school can instantly connect with prospects who are actively searching for courses and schools like yours.

Google Ads

When it comes to paid advertising, Google Ads are less of an option and more of a necessity. With 92% of the search engine market share, Google is the cream of the search engine crop – if your school ranks highly there, you’re visible to practically every internet user. As a result, your ads are likely to generate a substantial ROI. In fact, Google boasts that their ads will usually generate $2 for every $1 spent.

What’s more, if you choose to advertise with Google, you also have access to the Google Ad Network, including the Search Network and Display Network, where your school can create ads across a wide range of platforms. Google’s Search Network includes ads on Google sites such as Shopping, Maps and other partner search sites, while its Display Network includes such as YouTube, Gmail, Blogger, and other partner sites.

Example: Here, a Google Ad for Wesley College Melbourne is displayed on Google’s search engine as a result of a search based on the user’s location.


Since Google is so popular, ranking for a top keyword like “MBA program” will be costly, especially as cost is influenced by competition with Google Ads. However, you can adapt your keywords to fit your budget by using long tail keywords or keyword variations to significantly decrease your cost per click (CPC). Additionally, paid advertising on Google becomes cheaper over time because your quality score will inevitably increase (more on that later in the blog), making your ad campaigns cheaper. With quick results and flexible budget options, Google Ads are a great way to increase brand awareness for your school.


Since Bing has a significantly smaller reach than Google, using Bing Ads alone may not be enough to fulfil your student recruitment goals. However, there are still 12 billion search requests on Bing per month, and considering that Bing keywords are often cheaper, running some campaigns on the platform could be a great addition to your search engine advertising strategy.

Keep in mind, though, that Bing caters to a more niche audience than Google. Bing users are predominantly American, and tend to be older than those who use Google, so schools looking to attract mature students or students from the US would benefit most from using Bing Ads.


If your school wants to reach people in China – the world’s largest international student market – you’ll need to expand your digital marketing strategy to include platforms not commonly used in the rest of the world. While China disallows Google and Bing, they have domestic search engine alternatives such as Baidu, Sogou, and Shenma. Of these, Baidu is the by far most popular, with 74% of the search engine market share in the country.

Baidu ads come in similar formats, and with similar targeting features, as Google and Bing. Baidu offers search ads, image extensions, combination ads, app promotion, in-feed ads and more, allowing users some variety in terms of choice. But in order to create ads on Baidu, your school will have to use an approved agency and have a Chinese language website.

Example: This is what paid ads will look like when displayed on Baidu’s search page.

Baidu ads for schools

Source: Baidu Advertising

Running search engine ads in China is resource-intensive, but depending on how important the Chinese market is for your school, these ads can generate a substantial ROI. Plus, as more agencies offer Chinese digital marketing services, it’s increasingly easier for schools to build brand awareness in the market.

4. Choosing the Right Social Media Advertising Channels

With social media advertising, your school can create highly customized ads to increase your organic reach, retarget your existing leads and followers, and find new prospects who fit your persona profiles.

No matter your budget, goals, or target audience, each social media platform offers different perks when it comes to paid advertising for higher ed  – all you have to do is figure out which option could benefit your school most.


Facebook ads for schools

When it comes to social media advertising, Facebook is one of the most popular options. As the biggest social media channel, and the second most important advertising platform after Google, Facebook dominates the social media advertising game – and for good reason. The company’s ad suite offers arguably the most detailed ad targeting options of any online platform.

With Facebook Ads, you can customize audiences based on characteristics such as:

  • Location (city, community, countries, etc.)
  • Demographics (age, gender, education, job, etc.)
  • Interests (hobbies, passions, etc.)
  • Behaviour (purchasing history, device usage, etc.)
  • Connections (events attended, apps used, pages liked, etc.)

Facebook also offers Lookalike Audiences, a targeting option which allows you to create a source audience of users already interested in your school. Based on this source audience, your ad will reach people who share similar characteristics. 

In addition to their extensive targeting options, Facebook ads are highly customizable. They can include images, video, and text, and appear in different locations on the site such as the News Feed, Marketplace, Messenger, and Stories. Facebook also offers page promotions, allowing organizations to quickly create ads to reach their target audience, choosing their preferred budget and duration of time.

Considering that organic reach is at an all-time low on the platform, advertising on Facebook is even more essential than ever. But since most schools achieve a sizable ROI from their Facebook Ads campaigns, you’ll not only make up for lost organic reach with Facebook ads, but exponentially increase your inquiries and applications.


Instagram ads for student recruitment

If your school has experience with Facebook Ads, creating Instagram ads will be a breeze. Since Instagram is owned by Facebook, schools can use Facebook’s comprehensive ad manager to create Instagram ad campaigns, making multi-channel advertising that much easier.

If you advertise on Instagram, however, you’re likely to see different results than with Facebook Ads. Considering that 70% of Instagram users are under 35 years old, IG ads are a great way to reach a young audience. What’s more, Instagram is one of the most brand-friendly platforms – engagement with brands on Instagram is 10x higher than on Facebook – so users are generally more receptive to advertisers.

However, the cost of Instagram ads reflects their effectiveness – the average CPC on Instagram ads is double the price of Facebook’s. But if your school has the budget, advertising on Instagram – the world’s fastest growing social media channel – will likely be worth it in the long run.


While Twitter’s growth has been eclipsed by competitors like Instagram, it’s still one of the largest and most influential social networks, and its advertising options can be useful for schools looking for a global ad reach.

Twitter also allows advertisers to promote their accounts. This means that Twitter suggests your profile to users who don’t currently follow you, but may be interested in what you have to offer. If your personas are avid Twitter users, this unique ad option could be a great way to directly connect with prospective students.

If your school wants to create a robust, multichannel marketing strategy, Twitter can give your online visibility an extra boost – but used alone, it may not generate the results you need as quickly as you would like. Schools should carefully evaluate their goals, resources, and personas before deciding how big a priority the platform should be in their campaigns.


If your school seeks career-driven prospects, your target audience likely uses LinkedIn frequently.

LinkedIn is the platform where people go when they want to get ahead in their professional life, and many schools have found success appealing to this highly motivated audience. LinkedIn Ads offer targeting options based on not only language and location, but also industry, job title, company and group memberships.

If these users sound like your prospects, why not expand your LinkedIn reach through paid advertising?

For the most part, LinkedIn ads come in standard social media formats, including Sponsored Content, Text Ads, Video Ads, Dynamic Ads and Carousel Ads. However, LinkedIn also has a Sponsored Messaging option which business schools and universities in particular have found highly effective. Messaging is LinkedIn’s version of email, and a Sponsored Messaging is a message from a LinkedIn advertiser. 

Although the platform’s ads have proven highly effective, keep in mind that LinkedIn Ads are also more expensive than many other social media networks. Think carefully about who your target audience is before investing in it to ensure the ROI will justify the expense.

For example, high school students are less likely to use the platform, so if you’re looking for a young audience, you may be looking in the wrong place. However, business schools have found particular success on LinkedIn, especially for graduate programs, as the target audience for these courses likely already have some career experience.


Although Snapchat’s popularity has fallen since the rise of Instagram Stories, the platform still attracts millions of young users that you can target with engaging and unique advertisements.

Prior to the release of Snapchat’s self-serve ad platform, many advertisers shied away from advertising on Snapchat considering how difficult it was to create ads on the mobile app. But now, it’s easier than ever to create Snapchat ads – and the platform also offers ultra-specific targeting options, including Lookalikes, interests and behaviours, location and custom audience.

However, considering the waning popularity of Snapchat and the low ad view time, make sure you’re paying close attention to your ad performance to make sure your advertising efforts are generating the results you need.


Pinterest ads for student recruitment

Many schools see Pinterest as too niche a website to be a viable advertising option – but the content the site offers, as well as those who use it, are becoming increasingly diverse and varied. Now, there are almost as many male Pinterest users as female ones, and education-related content is becoming increasingly popular.

What’s more, Pinterest is one of the best platforms for driving users to websites. With 83% of pinners purchasing from a brand viewed on Pinterest, the platform’s users actually appreciate advertisements, making it an attractive digital advertising option. Pinterest is unique in that it’s both a search engine and a social media page, making it a dynamic place to promote your institution.

To create a successful Pinterest ad, the biggest difficulty your school will likely have is figuring out how to curate the right content. As with other visually oriented platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, advertisers have to figure out how to communicate their message visually, with little to no text.

However, schools looking to showcase their location as an attractive study destination, or a campus with vibrant student life, would do well to advertise on these platforms, as these marketing angles can easily be represented through pictures.

5. Planning Your Budget for Higher Education Advertising

After you’ve identified your audience and the right channels for your campaign, the next – and perhaps most important – step is to plan how much money your school can set aside to see your advertising efforts through.

If you have created ads before, it will be easier for you to estimate how much money is required to achieve your goals. If you’re new to paid ads, you can look at what other schools are spending on advertising in order to approximate your budget. The chart below shows the average amount that education institutions spend on online ads, according to WordStream.

paid advertising for higher education

Knowing how much is typically spent on paid ads in the sector can offer a helpful starting point, but keep in mind that every school has its own marketing budget, as well as different advertising objectives. HubSpot’s ROI calculator can help you approximate how much you’ll need to spend in order to achieve your goals. Conversely, the tool also helps you predict the outcome of your advertising efforts based on your budget.

However, in order to get the most accurate picture of what your paid advertising efforts will cost, you’ll have to do your research on your platforms of choice, since each has its own pricing model.

Search Engine Ad Budgeting

If you opt for search engine ads, your CPC is determined by two factors: your CPC bid and your quality score. The former metric is determined in an ad auction where businesses bid the maximum CPC they’ll spend on certain search terms such as ‘MBA program’ or ‘ESL summer camp’.

However, the highest bidder doesn’t always sit at the top of a given keyword search. Google also looks at how relevant and useful your ad is based on various factors such as click-through rate (CTR), relevance, and your landing page, and gives you a corresponding ‘quality score.’ To determine where your ad will rank, search engines multiply your quality score by your CPC bid.

paid ads for schools

Social Media Ad Budgeting

To create a social media ad, your school will also have to take part in an ad auction.

Each platform offers different actions you can bid on for each ad. For example, Facebook Ads allows you to bid on CPC, CPM (cost per thousand impressions), and conversions. LinkedIn, in contrast, allows advertisers to bid on CPC and CPM, as well as cost per send (CPS) and cost per open (CPO) for Sponsored Messaging. Each action is priced differently on each channel.

Trying to decide on a budget across these various platforms may sound daunting, but there are various resources that help you determine the best platforms to use based on your school’s budget.

Additional Costs to Consider

The amount you spend on the campaign itself will probably take up most of your school’s paid advertising budget, but there will likely be other costs you incur while creating your ads.

Whether you create and run your campaigns yourself or use an external agency, you will have to devote time to developing a paid ad strategy, designing the ads, managing the campaign, and tracking the results.

The worst thing you could do when creating your first online campaign is to underestimate the amount of money you’ll need to see it through. But with thorough research, your school can set itself up for success.

6. Managing Your Paid Advertising Campaigns

One of the major differences between creating an online advertising campaign and a traditional media ad campaign is that online ads are a far more dynamic medium.

Once your education advertising campaign is live, you don’t just sit back and wait for the results. Instead, you should actively manage your ads on a weekly or even daily basis – adjusting your budgets, targeting, and even your creative strategies to improve your results.

Analyze Your Ad Reports

Most digital advertising platforms offer reports that compile data from your ad campaigns. Not only do these reports outline the exact impact of your ads – they also show you how much each impression, lead, and action has cost you.

On Facebook Ads, for instance, you can measure impressions, cost per result, and more, depending on the ad formats you choose.

Facebook ads for student recruitment

Each advertising channel offers its own variation of the above report. If you create a Google Ad campaign, you’ll be able to see your ad ranking, how well it is driving conversions, and how effective your chosen keywords are through various Google Ads reports.

google ads for schools

The more information you have about your paid advertising campaigns, the easier it is to maximize the money you’re spending on paid advertising. With that in mind, tracking conversions correctly is essential for those who want the most accurate picture of their paid advertising performance.

Placing tracking codes – also known as ‘UTM codes’ – on your landing pages and other web pages will allow you to see exactly how many conversions you are getting from each ad.

Optimize Your Campaigns for Maximum Success

Your method of monitoring these reports is arguably just as important as the strategy you use to implement your ad campaign in the first place. By paying close attention to your ads, you can figure out what works and what doesn’t, and readjust accordingly.

Each metric your campaign reports track offers insight into a different aspect of your paid ads. If you conduct a social media ad campaign, for example, your CPM reflects the scope of your targeting efforts. If you receive few impressions, this may be a sign that your audience parameters are too restrictive. Conversely, if you’re receiving a large number of impressions – but are generating few clicks – perhaps your parameters are too broad, or irrelevant to those you want to attract.

When creating an ad campaign, it’s beneficial to make several ads, but only activate a few of them at a time. When it comes to deciding which ads to keep active, which to pause, and which to optimize, your CTR and CPC play a significant role for both search engine and social media ads. These metrics show you how many leads you’re generating based on the money you’re spending.

If you find that some of your ads are underperforming, but not to the extent that they need to be dropped completely, consider rotating them. By periodically freshening up your ads, people won’t see the same ad too many times, and will be more likely to click on it as a result.

Example: These two ads from Rhodes Wellness College use different photos and have slightly altered text, but project the same message. Thus, they can be easily rotated within a campaign.

higher education paid advertising

If your search engine ads are costing you too much relative to the results you’re getting, perhaps your school could consider testing new keywords to find the ones your prospects use when researching schools.

As for your successful ads, examine what exactly is making them perform so well, and update your paid advertising strategy accordingly. If some of your ads are generating a significant ROI, it may be worth increasing your ad budget if you’re sure that the results you’ll achieve will be well worth the extra ad spend.


If you want to get results quickly, remarketing is one of the most effective advertising tools. This technique involves advertising to people who have shown interest in your school – but haven’t become students yet – by positioning targeted ads in front of them as they browse the internet.

Let’s say a prospective student scrolls through your ESL summer camp page on your website one day. Later, when they’re browsing the web, an ad will appear for your summer camp. The likelihood of them clicking on your ad is 70% greater than them clicking on a random display ad.

Remarketing is a useful optimization tactic for any campaign, regardless of its performance. But the more successful your ads are, the shorter your remarketing campaign can be, and the more money you will save as a result. If you’re in an advertising rut, however, running a lengthier remarketing campaign may be worth the extra advertising dollars, as you can be confident that you’ll receive a significant ROI from your remarketing efforts.

From planning your campaign to monitoring its performance, there are many ways for your school to optimize every stage of the digital advertising process. Although paid ads require more labour than some other marketing tactics, they’re also one of the most direct and effective ways to boost your school’s visibility online. And while paid advertising for schools can be challenging, once you’ve found the right strategy, it will likely become one of your most effective marketing tactics.

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