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Here’s a common situation that marketers across all industries face: you create the perfect social media ad campaign, with the right offer, a sufficient budget and brilliant messaging, only to be disappointed with your results when you don’t know how to target students on Facebook ads.

This can happen for a number of reasons, but with Facebook Ads, the problem often comes down to targeting. The targeting options on the social media giant’s ad platform are so diverse and specific that it can be easy to make a wrong move, and end up serving your campaign to the wrong audience.

If your school has had difficulty finding the right audience for its Facebook ads, read on to find out how to get it right.

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The Groundwork: Having a Clear Student Persona in Mind

Believe it or not, much of the foundations for a good Facebook Ad targeting strategy are laid before you even begin to look at your options on the platform. Simply put, you need to have a clearly defined target audience in mind for your campaigns before you start. Otherwise, you will likely find yourself browsing through a myriad of possible targeting parameters wondering which ones will likely get the best results for your school.

Instead, you should discuss and lay out your target persona’s characteristics with your team beforehand, so that it becomes a matter of simply matching your school Facebook Ads audiences up with what you had in mind.

For best results, you should aim for as much detail as possible. Consider going beyond simple demographic, geographic, and education related parameters to consider things like a prospect’s outside interests and hobbies, publications they might read online, and even their digital habits like device usage and browsing behaviour. These sorts of factors will enable you to get the most out of Facebook’s laser-focused audience parameters.

How to Target Students on Facebook Ads Using Different Demographics

Demographics are clearly defined, demonstrable categories of the population that a person can fall into. Facebook Ads demographic parameters begin with three basic settings:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Language

These should be easy to set if you have clearly defined your target persona. One thing to keep in mind is that if you are planning to serve ads in a language other than your own, it would be wise to create a landing page in that language too. Prospects who click on an ad in their native language will expect the page they end up on to be in the same language, and may be less likely to convert if it isn’t.

Example: This Korean landing page created by American English College is designed to attract prospects seeking to learn English, encouraging them to convert in a language they’re familiar with.

Cover photo for an american english college showing a student

Source: American English College

Beyond these basic categories, there are also a number of different demographic characteristics that might help you pinpoint your audience on Facebook Ads.

The most pertinent for how to target students on Facebook ads would include education level and field of study, but others may also be useful. Work-related fields such as job title and industry, for example, might be useful for schools who are targeting working students, such as business schools or those running professional development courses. 

K-12 schools, meanwhile, will want to look at the possible targeting options in the parents field, which allow you to specifically target parents of children in different age groups.

image showing how to target students on facebook ads with demographics

Targeting the Right Locations for Your School

One area of your targeting that you absolutely need to get right is location. Facebook’s location-based targeting runs the gamut from larger catchment areas like cities, countries, and even continents, to more precise targeting by postcode or even the radius of a specific address. Additionally, you can opt to target everyone currently in that location, including people who live there, people who are visiting it, or people who were there recently.

This wealth of options can be both a blessing and a curse when creating Facebook Advertising for schools. Institutions of all kinds will often make the mistake of setting their parameters either far too wide or too narrow, or even just simply make a small mistake that leads to their ad being served to the wrong market.

For instance, a business school might set their ads to target a particular country, but see them being shown in rural areas where users are unlikely to be considering this kind of education. A better approach for this sector how to target students on Facebook ads would be to target specific cities.

Example: An audience created in Facebook Ads centred around 5 major European cities with a potential reach of 11.9-14 million people. Note how you can set the targeting radius within a certain number of kilometres of each location.

image showing how to target students on facebook ads with custom audiences

In general, the more specific you can be about your location the better. Targeting a number of specific cities, or even areas of a country, that are likely to contain interested leads will give you a much better chance of converting than targeting a country or an entire continent. While it may feel like you are limiting your potential reach, you are actually increasing your chances of success.

Getting Your School’s Interest-Based Targeting Right

Interest-based targeting is where the amount of detail you’ve put into defining your personas really begins to pay off. You can target people who have shown interest in the particular fields your programs or courses cover, related industries and areas, or other hobbies or preferences that may be typical of your target persona.

Example: These beauty-related, interest-based targeting options could be very useful for an esthetician school targeting potential students interested in topics related to programs they offer.

facebook ads for education

One important caveat to this is that these will only be things that users have shown a demonstrable interest in when browsing Facebook itself. The criteria the platform uses to define interests are based on a user’s stated likes and interests, apps they have used, and pages they have interacted with, among other things.

This can arguably limit its effectiveness for schools, as a prospect who is interested in your course or field of study may not necessarily express that on a social network. For example, a prospective student for a language school may not have specifically liked a page related to learning English, or stated ESL as an interest. Nonetheless, adding a few interest-based fields can definitely be helpful for how to target students on Facebook ads.

How Valuable is Facebook’s Behaviour-Based Targeting for Schools?

Behaviour-based targeting parameters are much more purpose-specific, and many of the possible fields may be a little redundant in your schools social media ads. Options like consumer classification, purchase behaviours, and anniversary occurrence are more tailored towards e-commerce advertisers, and will likely not be relevant to your institution.

However, there may still be a few parameters which do come into play, depending on your school’s particular courses and goals. For instance, the ex-pat field, which allows you to target ex-pats who have moved to a country from elsewhere, could be very useful for a language school creating a campaign targeting local prospects.

facebook ads for schools

Likewise, device usage can be particularly important to consider when creating a campaign, as it will help you match your audience with where on the Facebook network you are planning to place your ads.

The Importance of Placement in Facebook Ads Targeting

Speaking of which, placement can be one of the most important targeting parameters to define in your ad campaigns. For a start, being familiar with your audience’s digital browsing habits can be seriously advantageous when creating campaigns. You should consider whether they are likely to use mobile devices, tablets, laptops, desktops, or all of the above.

Moreover, the Facebook Ads network has expanded to include the company’s other platforms like Instagram and Messenger, ensuring that you choose the platforms your prospects are likely to be active on will be crucial to your Facebook strategy success.

It’s also important to consider what features and areas of these platforms your prospects are likely to visit and use. For instance, the Reels feature has become increasingly popular on all of Facebook’s platforms, but the majority of users are younger, with older audiences naturally slower to adopt the new feature. If your school is recruiting more mature students, it might not be the best place to reach them.

You should also look at more niche areas of the network where your ad might be served, such as Facebook Marketplace, or even Facebook Watch if you are considering video ads. Do some research to see if your target audience is likely to use these features.

Example: Below, a Facebook Ad for Language Systems International is shown in various formats including Facebook Feed Ads, Instagram Feed Ads, Facebook Stories, and Instagram Stories. The use of multiple advertising platforms such as Stories helps them to reach a younger audience.

social media advertising for recruiting students

How to Target Students on Facebook Ads Using Custom Audiences 

If you are looking to create remarketing campaigns to target prospects who have shown previous interest in your school, Facebook Ads Custom Audiences will offer you plenty of options. A good starting point might be to look at users who have previously interacted with your school on the network, whether by visiting your page, liking or commenting on a post, sending you a message, or clicking through on a link you posted.

You can also move outside of Facebook and create a Custom Audience based on traffic to your website. This can be a great way to find prospective students who have been researching your school online but have not found it on the social network yet. While this type of Custom Audience can be useful, the iOS 14 update has put some restrictions on Facebook’s ability to track users, giving them the option to opt out of tracking when browsing apps such as Facebook or Instagram. Learn more about it here.

If you have a strong database of leads in your CRM system, another option might be to create Custom Audiences based on lists. Your school can simply upload a CSV or text file with your leads’ details, and Facebook will attempt to match them to the correct profile on their network. The identifiers the site allows include email address, phone number, first and last name, city, location, age, and date of birth, so you should stand a good chance of finding the right matches provided you have gathered enough details in your CRM.

higher education social media

Use Lookalike Audiences to Find More Prospective Students

If you want to attract more leads similar to those you already have, Lookalike Audiences can be a great option for you. You can create a Lookalike Audience using any existing audience you have. Facebook will then define a new list made up of users with similar demographic characteristics, interests and behaviours to your existing leads.

Lookalike Audiences are created in specific locations, and you can modify them by selecting a percentage of that location’s users (from 1 to 10%) to target. 1% will give you an audience that is most similar to the audience you are modeling on, while increasing the percentage will broaden the size and scope of the audience. Depending on your needs, you can create multiple LookAlikes with different levels of similarity to your source. This can be a great way to expand your reach in a market you have already been successful in.

Example: Here, a Lookalike Audience created with the targeting narrowed to 5% of the population will create an audience that’s broader, but still largely reflects the modeled audience.

social media advertising

Narrowing Down Your School’s Audiences to Target Students on Facebook Ads

While all of these parameters can hold a lot of potential for your campaigns, it’s important to ensure that your target audience remains as specific as possible, while not getting too small. This is the ideal option for how to target students on Facebook ads.

One way that Facebook Ads allows you to narrow your audience down is by refining your detailed targeting options to make the criteria leads must meet more specific. For instance, here you can see a campaign that has been set up so that users must be both university graduates and work in the business and finance sector to be included:

school facebook ads

This targeting could be ideal for a business school promoting an MBA program. Doing this will allow you to distinguish which characteristics are essential, and which ones are simply desirable.

Additionally, if you find your audience too large, you might look at excluding certain groups from it. This can be a great way to ensure that your ad isn’t shown to users who are unlikely to find it relevant.

Considering your targeting in the areas defined here should help you create far more precise, suitable audiences for your social media marketing strategy. However, there can still be a fair amount of trial and error involved, and you probably won’t get a clear sense of how successful you have been until you begin running your ads. Nonetheless, by keeping a close eye on your results, refining your audiences where necessary, and managing your campaigns actively at every level, you should soon find yourself getting the hang of the platform.

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*This post was originally published in 2012, but has been updated and expanded to reflect the latest trends and developments in the industry.