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Remarketing (also known as “retargeting”) is a student recruitment initiative that many colleges and universities have heard about but few have yet to optimize. It is becoming more popular as it becomes better understood, essentially enabling the targeting of prospective students who have already visited your website so are more likely to convert. Remarketing may be especially effective for higher education institutions, which receive many visitors to their websites, have a long conversion cycle and a significant purchase price.

Prospective students commonly visit several college websites during their school search, browsing and deliberating over many months before eventually making their big decision. Approximately 98% of first-time visitors to a website in any industry will leave without completing an inquiry or application. Remarketing displays targeted ads to this qualified audience who have previously viewed your site, keeping your school top of mind and enticing them back with strategic offers. For instance, an interested student who viewed your financial aid pages may later be shown an ad inviting them to try your financial aid calculator while surfing unrelated websites or social media, providing a subtle reminder to continue the inquiry process.

Remarketing works by following up on a prospect’s earlier interest with repeated opportunities to reconnect, offering customized supporting resources during the course of their normal web activity throughout the drawn out college research stage. “Education is a highly-involved decision and one that requires many different touch points along the way,” says Jennifer Howard, Director of Education at Google, who has access to extensive search and user data. As search queries become longer and more detailed, often at least two months before action is taken, “assisting” marketing channels build awareness and intent in the earlier stages as the prospect gathers information about potential school destinations.

education marketing purchase cycle

Even if remarketed ads aren’t clicked on at the time, the “billboard effect” from numerous impressions on various websites elevates brand awareness and recall to encourage later action. Conversion rates on remarketed ads are up to 400% more effective than traditional PPC ads in some industries, and with an average of half the Cost Per Click (CPC), return on investment is generally higher.

remarketing life cycle

Establishing Remarketing Segmentation

Once you understand the basics, setting up a remarketing paid search campaign can be surprisingly easy. Platforms like AdRoll, Triggit or ReTargeter take care of monitoring visitors with cookies, guessing user intent and working with various display networks or bidding exchanges. Working directly with Google offers advantages like access to its vast display network (reaching 90% of worldwide users) and easy setup from within your Google AdWords account. Google’s major drawback is it doesn’t offer any Facebook remarketing options, however, for colleges starting smaller, Facebook generally costs more per conversion. Remarketers with the budget often choose to use both Google Display Network (GDN) and Facebook.

The basic concept of remarketing is audience segmentation followed by targeted nurturing until the desired goal is achieved. Defining and creating various audience segments based on interest or behaviour is the first step to generating effective results so you can create customized ads. To define each audience, create a new remarketing list in Google AdWords, specifying which website visitors to include or exclude. You could target non-converters who came to your landing or application page without completing the action or create a separate remarketing list for each program page that prospects window shopped.

If you’ve set up goals in Analytics, you can import them to build remarketing lists based on metrics like session duration and city or visitors that performed a certain sequence of actions on your site. These lists could specifically target visitors such as those who viewed over five pages on your site, those referred by a specific search query, or those who watched your recruitment video. Improve relevance and ad performance by targeting based on demographic and geographic data – try combining interest, behaviour and demographic criteria in Facebook or Twitter remarketing to reach narrow audiences of only the most qualified prospects.

With so many different audiences using higher education websites, it’s wise to be prudent so only prospects are receiving your ads – exclude visitors such as those to your login page. Segmenting different lists lets you show the most relevant ads to each group and choose to bid more aggressively for better ad positions with your higher valued segments.

Avoiding the “Creep Factor” with Frequency Caps

Colleges and universities should venture cautiously into the world of remarketing, starting slowly, constantly testing and refining campaigns to keep costs under control and maximize ROI. It’s best to extend this gradual approach to your advertising exposure so as to prevent ad fatigue, prospects ignoring or even forming negative associations with your brand from seeing you everywhere they browse. A frequency cap, adjusted according to response, limits the number of times a tagged user sees your ads – ReTargeter recommends 17-20 ads per month.

On the other hand, some experts believe the “creep factor” associated with remarketed ads following prospects around is overrated. WordStream’s results suggest remarketed ads fatigue at half the rate of regular display ads and conversion rates actually increase the more users see your ad. Although click-through rates decline over time, they found those that do click are twice as likely to convert. This data refers to all industries and we still recommend keeping caps for your higher education remarketing.

conversion remarketing impressions

Remarketing Setup and Ad Creation

When you begin remarketing, it’s important to update your website’s privacy policy to inform visitors that your site is using cookies. You are required to provide an appropriate description of how you’re using remarketing, how third-party vendors like Google show your ads and use cookies, and how visitors can opt out of Google’s use of cookies by visiting their Ads Settings. A small message informing about the use of cookies “to improve experience” will suffice for your homepage.

cookies remarketing education website

Remarketing lists must have 100 people to start running ads and you should consider which types of sites, content and ad placements where you don’t want your ads to be shown. Colleges and universities will generally at least exclude sites with sensitive content, error pages, parked domains and forums that may bring negative associations.

remarketing exclusions education

Although website visitors can continue to be retargeted for up to 540 days in the Google Display network, you can choose your own “membership duration” to correlate with your conversion cycle or develop different lists for recent or more distant visitors. Add a burn pixel to your thank you pages to untag converters from receiving further ads. Avoid ad fatigue by rotating through multiple ads per campaign with unique reasons to connect. Try offering value-added content, such as invitations to information sessions or appealing discounts to build connections with these already engaged prospects. Consider messaging that invites prospects to have a direct call or messaging with an admissions rep to answer their questions.

Be sure to create ads in the GDN’s varied sizes and formats to maximize your message reach, so you’ll be eligible to show on any site. In addition, diverse ad formats don’t compete against each other for positioning in the auction process. AdWords has a free Ad gallery tool with over a hundred templates to easily get started so you only need to add unique text, colours, images and your logo. Better ads with higher click-through rates will get a better Quality Score and much cheaper click prices. Well designed custom image ads (including text ads that have been formatted into an image) have higher click-through rates and far lower costs. As always, test many copy variations and drop the underperformers.

remarketing sizes display ads

Remarketing to your YouTube Channel

 Since everyone loves watching videos, advanced remarketing on YouTube is an exciting opportunity for higher education institutions to resonate more deeply with potential students. Viewers of your videos or YouTube channel(s) can be shown tailored ads to reinforce your messaging while they surf other video content, expanding your reach to prospects who may not have visited your website. You only pay for these TrueView video ads that people choose to watch without skipping, so return on investment can be quite good.

Remarketed videos can be targeted according to specific categories for each assigned group, such as topics, interests, content or search keywords, other remarketing lists or demographics. You can target prospects that have specifically viewed, interacted and/or commented on your videos within your channel. Linking your AdWords and YouTube accounts to add annotations with links within your YouTube videos for no cost, allowing viewers to interact with your videos in progress.

Here’s a helpful overview:

YouTube video

Testing and Optimization

Remember that remarketing builds off of your present website traffic so is dependent on the success of your other initiatives. After Western Governors University added remarketing to their marketing initiatives, their overall conversion rate for remarketing was nearly twice their search campaign and both cost-per-lead and cost-per-click were about one-third of search metrics. “The bottom line is we’re now bringing in future graduates more efficiently than ever before,” says Mandi Hudson, WGU’s online marketing manager.

Remarketing has the potential to greatly improve direct and repeat visitors to your website, increase engagement and amplify your valuable content, but to maximize its effectiveness for education lead generation it requires constant attention and adjustment. Monitor your views, CTRs and conversions, A/B testing your ad messaging, CTAs, landing pages, ad scheduling and budget allocation. Inevitably some websites your ads are displayed on will deliver stronger or weaker conversions – justify your investment and adjust your bids by evaluating performance on GDN sites showing your ads.

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Has your school found success with remarketing efforts?