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Managing Pay-Per-Click advertising requires a lot of knowledge and expertise that is not necessarily native within the in-house skill sets of many college or university marketing departments. It really does require expertise to be done well. Regardless of this reality, it is also the kind of tactic that allows entrepreneurial schools to test the water with a small budget to develop that internal expertise over time. The problem with this approach is, of course, if your experimentation turns out badly, it leaves a very difficult impression to erase that PPC does not work for your programs or your market.

One of most common reasons for poor campaign performance by PPC beginners is that they blend Adwords search network and display campaigns, assuming incorrectly that these two kinds of PPC campaigns are similar enough that they can be done effectively using the same ads and the same landing pages. Adwords makes it really easy to select both when you set up your campaigns, (in fact recommends it), but I believe it is very important to keep them separate.
Select network

So let’s take a step back and first understand how they are different.

Search network PPC campaigns target a searcher’s intent

PPC search network ads appear beside the organic search results that you get when you search on your keywords on Google, Bing or Yahoo. An individual is often actively searching for a school, program or courses directly related to the keywords they have entered. If the PPC ad that they see on the search engine results page resonates deeply enough with the searcher’s intent, they will click on the PPC ad. Search-based PPC ads are text-based only.


The click will then typically take the searcher to a landing page on the school’s website. If the landing page resonates deeply enough with the searchers intent they will respond to the call to action on that landing page, providing some personal information, and produce a prospective student lead for the school.

Mac landing page

Search network campaigns answer a question or fulfil a need. They are “demand harvesters”. The PPC ad and the landing page are developed to resonate with the searchers intent, leading them, with the right copy, the right amount of information, appropriate images, value proposition, etc ., to take a suggested call to action and declare themselves as interested in that school.

Display network PPC campaigns target a visitor on a website with a certain type of content

Display network PPC ads are display ads placed on web pages that a school believes their prospective students might visit.  They might be higher ed school research portals, magazines, news sites or blogs. They can be put in the traditional category of “interruptive marketing”, just like traditional TV, magazine or newspaper print ads. They are often seen as ads for the purpose of branding, rather than direct response (like search PPC.) They can be considered “demand generators” rather than “demand harvesters”. Display network ads can also be text-based but are more typically images or video. In the example below, Forbes magazine is a content site that Ryerson University has included in its selected sites for its display campaign.

Forbes content ad

Retargetting ads are a special type of display ad that are also distributed through the display network that will appear on websites that you are visiting because you have searched on a set of keywords previously that they are aligned with. Display ads, similar to search, typically push to a specific related landing page, as below.

ryerson landing page

Lets consider the mindset of a hypothetical visitor being presented a display network ad.  They have demonstrated that they are interested in business articles in a business section of various websites or blogs. They are not seeking an MBA program at this time but given their interest in business they might be a candidate for one at some point. The display network provides a school an opportunity to present its brand to a potential prospect within the context of their related web browsing.  Remarketing amplifies this presentation as once an individual has been tagged for say, MBA related keywords, a remarketing campaign, repeatedly presents an ad, reinforcing the brand and preparing the way for that individual to seek out their school, when they are ready.

What kinds of results can you expect from search vs display campaigns?

Search campaigns, depending on the target market, the quality of the PPC ads and their landing pages can produce a pretty wide range of results, but I will stick my neck out here and say that typically they range between a 4-10 % conversion rate (a conversion being defined as a lead). In my experience, display network campaigns produce significantly lower conversion rates somewhere in the range of .3-1%. Even with very low conversion rates, display campaigns can deliver quite a competitive ROI given the generally, very low cost per click of display network advertising.

Here is a some related data published in 2012 by Google that backs up these approximations. Unfortunately I have not been able to find any more recent figures for higher ed.

google conversion rates

This difference in conversion rates makes perfect sense if you think it through. Search network traffic to your landing pages is coming from people who are searching for information that matches the specific keyword profile of your ad.  Display network traffic is coming from people that just happened to come across your ads in the course of doing something else, (remarketing being an exception).

Given these differences it should now be pretty clear why your ads and most importantly, your landing pages should be customized for these two different kinds of traffic “persona”. The focus, the mindset, and the attention span of each are very different so you need to communicate with them accordingly.

Strategies to create effective landing pages for search vs display network PPC campaigns will be the subject of a future blog post based on more research and testing, but I will leave you with this starter suggestion for now. Display ad traffic has a very short attention span, with limited interest, so try using a very focused, short, bullet-point driven landing page with a very tight lead capture form. The search ad traffic is looking for more info, so give them a longer landing page, providing more depth of info to attract their deeper interest and close with a more detailed lead gen form. More on this later.

What has your experience been with search vs display network PPC campaigns? Do you agree with me that they should always be completely separated? Have you overlapped your search text ads into the display network and if so with what level of success? I look forward to hearing back from you and sharing more on this topic in the near future.

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