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paid advertising for education

Perhaps understandably, many schools have curbed their spending on paid advertising in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. With resources stretched and uncertainty surrounding when and how schools will be able to resume normal operations, limiting ad budgets – or suspending campaigns altogether – may seem like a prudent move.

But is it the right decision? While generating ROI from advertising during COVID-19 is a challenge, careful targeting, budgeting, and creative could help your school to maintain its lead flow during this difficult period. What’s more, there may even be some opportunities afforded by the current marketplace that some institutions could use to their advantage.

Keep reading to learn more about how COVID-19 has impacted the paid advertising landscape, and how schools can adjust their campaigns to buck the trend.

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How COVID-19 Has Impacted the Paid Advertising Landscape for Schools

Ever since the COVID-19 situation went global, the digital advertising business has been in a state of flux. Writing for Search Engine Journal, Optmyzr Co-founder Frederick Vallaeys aptly noted that “It’s the Wild West Again.” The unique nature of the crisis has meant that some sectors are facing enormous hardships, while others are actually benefiting from new opportunities.

On this spectrum, education advertising lies somewhere in the middle. WordStream’s Mark Irvine noted a “modest increase in paid search traffic for new careers and vocational training (+10% and +8%, respectively).” This suggests that some schools may see an increase in prospects looking to retrain for new careers if they have been laid off as a result of the pandemic. The caveat, however, is that he adds that this is “largely aspirational for the moment, as conversion numbers haven’t shifted noticeably.”

In simple terms, while many people are probably considering furthering their education right now, finding the means to do so is another matter. With campuses closed, and some potential applicants likely to have misgivings about online study, it may be a while before these prospects move towards making a firm decision.

A difficulty moving leads towards conversion is a problem that many sectors are facing right now. As the lockdown began in the United States, digital marketing expert Neil Patel charted the growth and decline of conversion rates across 19 different industries, with 15 experiencing a negative impact. The education sector was one of them, although the decline was relatively minor in comparison with others:

paid advertising for schools

Source: Neil Patel

On the plus side, the price of paid ads has dropped. With many advertisers cutting back and people spending more time online due to the lockdown, Patel noted that the cost per click for ad campaigns has fallen at a far greater rate than the drop in conversions. Among his own clients, he noted an increase in ROI from paid ads from 31% to 53%:

advertising for schools

Source: Neil Patel

The drop in prices is particularly stark in paid social. In April, the Wall Street Journal reported that the average cost per thousand impressions (CPM) of a Facebook ad had fallen 15-20% from February to March, while the CPM for Instagram ads had declined by 22%. YouTube’s ad prices also fell by 15-20%.

While the situation changes week to week and there have been some signs of stabilization, both Facebook and Google have forecasted that ad revenues will continue to be down for the foreseeable future, meaning prices will likely be lower, too. For schools with the means to continue investing in advertising, there may be opportunities to be had.

Opportunities in Ads for Schools During COVID-19

Obviously, the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic make it more challenging to generate leads through ads for schools. Some may have had to suspend or cancel certain courses altogether, while others may also find that many prospects have postponed or changed their minds about their study plans.

However, there are a few reasons why you might want to consider reinvesting in this channel over the coming months.

Advertising for Online Courses

While convincing prospects to apply for classroom-based courses is a struggle right now, demand for online learning is booming. With campuses around the world closed, and thousands considering training for new careers, more and more people who have never seen online courses as an option before are now embracing the idea.

In theory, this could be something of a lifeline for many schools, who could use their new or existing online courses to offset the drop in enrollments for their traditional classes. In practice, though, a number of these institutions are likely to suffer from a lack of visibility and reputation for online learning.

Example: In a Montreal-based search for the keyword marketing degree, the top results come from two of the city’s biggest universities, McGill and Concordia.

paid advertising for online courses

In a search for marketing degree online, however, the top spot is held by Athabasca University, a school that has cultivated a reputation for specializing in online learning.

advertising for education

Paid advertising can be a great way for schools in this position to generate leads in the short-term while they work to establish their online offerings. Paid search will help you target crucial keywords you don’t rank well for, while social media advertising can help you find the audience for your programs and familiarize them with your school and what it has to offer.

Example: A number of online course providers, including Cornell and Yorkville University, have purchased ad space in the aforementioned search.

ads for schools


After the initial shock of the COVID-19 outbreak, many prospects who had shown interest in your school may have opted to delay going any further.

However, with lockdown restrictions easing, and people generally adapting to the new realities of their situation, now may be the time to try and reach these leads again. Remarketing campaigns can alert prospects that your school is still open for business, and may just be the nudge they need to resume their enrollment journey.

Long-term Student Recruitment

As much as a decline in enrollment numbers this year might be unavoidable, it is important to keep your school’s goals for the long-term in mind, and paid advertising can be a valuable tool for you to accomplish them.

This particularly applies to universities, business schools, and other institutions that may have longer lead lifecycles. As uncertain as things might seem now, prospective students intending to study at these schools in 2021 – or even 2022 – will likely still be looking at their options now, and beginning to earmark their preferred choices. Paid advertising can help ensure you reach these leads early, and give your school the best chance to stay top of mind as they progress through the enrollment journey.

Revising Your School’s Ads Strategy for COVID-19

As you consider the role paid advertising can play in your student recruitment strategy going forward, it’s also wise to think about certain aspects of your campaigns which may require a different approach.

Simply put, COVID-19 has changed so much about the daily lives, needs, and goals of your prospects that some of the tactics you have found success with before may not work anymore, while others may be more effective. Here’s a brief overview of what you might want to consider.

Rethinking Your Ad Creative

If you are still running campaigns, or thinking about relaunching them, you may want to consider revising your existing creative. Depending on your school’s personas and unique value proposition, what has worked for you in the past may no longer be effective or appropriate.

For instance, schools that trade heavily on their locations will often use visuals which highlight them when advertising on social media. In the wake of COVID-19, this may not be appropriate, and you may need to find other ways to present your school visually.

Example: Like many language schools in the English capital, the location of Speak Up London Language School has been one of its major selling points in the past. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the school has pivoted to promoting online programs, and adjusted its ad content appropriately.

advertising education

Even if you are confident your campus will be open by the time of your next intake dates, certain social distancing measures may still be in place, and students may not be able to enjoy the sights and sounds of the area in the way they once did.

This applies less to search ads for education, but is still relevant. Where you may have used location-based keywords and copy, but are now unsure if you will be restricted to remote learning next semester, it pays to focus on other advantages your school has to offer.

Example: These ads from the University of Fredericton and Edinburgh Napier University focus on online learning, as well as the prestige and variety of courses on offer, keeping them relevant in the current climate.

search ads for education

Even if you have already done this, there may also be less obvious issues that you have overlooked. For example, there may be certain things that make up a big part of your course offerings – such as work placement or internship opportunities – that could be uncertain in light of the pandemic. The best approach is probably to treat your new ads as a fresh start, and build a campaign from scratch that reflects the new realities of the world.

Update Your Targeting

It perhaps goes without saying that you may need to adjust your targeting if you are running ad campaigns during the lockdown. For a start, you may need to focus on different locations. If you were targeting international students before COVID-19, for instance, those markets may no longer hold as much value for you, and domestic or local campaigns may be a better bet. Conversely, if you provide strong online course offerings, you may be able to cast a wider net than before, as prospective students look for remote learning alternatives.

Example: Ads for the online MBA program at Robert Kennedy College in Switzerland appear in searches for the keyword MBA Toronto. In the current climate, ads like this are more relevant and may be likely to generate more leads than before.

ads schools


You may also want to analyze the performance of your ads by device type to see which devices are driving the most conversions. As much as prospects will probably still be active on their mobiles, they may be somewhat more likely to use tablets and laptops while confined to their homes.

In addition, you should pay attention to the scheduling of your ads, and how they are performing at different times of the day and week. COVID-19 has turned people’s schedules upside down, and the hours they are awake, online, and researching schools may be different now.

Refining these aspects of your targeting may take a little trial and error, but the initial results you take from your campaigns will likely point the way forward. And if your school can find the right targeting formula, you could gain an edge over your competition.

Adjust Channels

Another thing you may want to consider is shifting your advertising focus to different channels. As people spend more time online, their habits have changed, too, and certain channels are seeing spikes – and occasionally dips – in their popularity.

Facebook, for instance, reported that its daily active users had climbed from 1.66 billion to 1.73 billion in the first quarter of 2020, while Messenger and WhatsApp saw a 50 percent jump in usage as more people began using the messaging apps to connect while in isolation. This could make the social media giant an even more effective option for paid advertising than before.

Interestingly, some data suggests that Facebook’s subsidiary Instagram hasn’t benefitted quite as much from the increase in online activity. A survey from Influencer Marketing Hub found that 34 percent of social media users had shifted their time from Instagram to Twitter:

higher ed paid advertising

Source: Influencer Marketing Hub

The data also showed a 14 percent drop in engagement on Instagram around mid-March, although Facebook posted similar numbers. This suggests that in these troubled times, Twitter’s new-based focus makes it more attractive than its more casual, entertainment-focused rivals.

Reviewing your paid advertising channels can also give your school a chance to potentially get more from its budget. For instance, you may find that a Google Ads campaign for a new online course is quite pricey, as the competition for particular keywords will be fierce with many schools developing online course offerings.

A social media ad campaign, on the other hand, relies more on demographic and audience-based targeting rather than search terms, which may make it easier to find cost-effective options as many companies in other industries cut back.

Whether paid advertising is a good option for your school right now will depend on a number of factors, as well as how skillfully you navigate the changing marketplace. Do it well, though, and there is still plenty of value to be had.

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