Universities that use pay-per-click (PPC) advertising face a number of unique challenges. With years of experience managing digital marketing campaigns for universities, the Marketing Mojo team has learned how to overcome these challenges through optimization management, communicating value, and a whole lot of good ol’ fashioned perseverance.
Since each degree program is treated as a separate entity, with isolated advertising schedules, budgets, website access, analytics tracking, etc, each program’s advertising plan is unique. Your team or agency needs to be prepared to adapt through extreme organization, scheduling, time management and project management.
It is up to you, or the agency you hire, to manage all of the degree programs separately while remaining attentive to the budget, scheduling and applying specific degree optimizations and strategies to improve performance.
University Search Competition
As we’ve expanded our repertoire of university PPC advertising, we’ve seen varying degrees (see what I did there?) of competition for keyword bids. Healthcare-related degrees geared toward high-paying, in-demand healthcare positions see an average cost per click (CPC) of $9.97. That is 64% higher than the average CPC our other degree campaigns report. This trend is true for a variety of degree programs and varies depending on how keywords are targeted, location and, of course, how many other universities are offering similar programs and bidding on those keywords. This is further compounded by the abundance of online degree offerings, which means not just targeting ads to your city or state, but nationally.
- Use available optimization tools. This could be ad scheduling or applying bid modifiers on device, location or times of the day.
- Don’t listen to Google. I know that we tend to *sometimes* blindly follow Google’s guidelines, but if they are telling you the estimated first page bid for a keyword is $72, don’t automatically up your bid to that. Test and see what kind of impressions and clicks you can achieve with a lower, more conservative bid.
- Analyze your keywords based on performance data. Are you bidding higher than the average CPC? Is your search terms report telling you general keywords aren’t bringing in relevant traffic? Make strategic, educated adjustments based on your findings.
Degree Program Overlap
In today’s age of granular degrees and online options, degrees offered by one university may overlap with one another. For example, a master’s program for Technology is based on a partnership between the schools of Computer Science, Engineering, Design … you get the idea. This can complicate your targeting options, whether it is search keywords you want to bid on with AdWords or the target audience you want to reach on Facebook.
We’ve found a few techniques that work well to combat program advertising overlap so they aren’t competing against each other in the ad auction.
- Keep keywords and targeting as specific to the degree program as possible and stay away from more general options: With so many targeting options available, this strategy works more often than you may think and also means that the users searching on the highly relevant terms will be more interested in the program’s offerings, increasing engagement and conversion rates. Is one program offered online but the other isn’t? Does one focus more on design engineering versus computer engineering? Your keyword and targeting choices (and copy) should reflect those differences.
- Use exclusions to make sure your ads aren’t showing for keywords or targets that are more relevant to a different degree offering.
- Alternate schedules: Implementing alternate ad schedules can help ensure only one degree program is bidding in the auction at a time.
Google Analytics Complexities
One of the most important aspects of digital advertising is the ability to track performance data at an increasingly granular level. Not only do the advertising interfaces provide you with a wealth of information, but third party analytics platforms help you dive deeper into how visitors are arriving at your site, who they are and what they’re doing once they get there.
Due to the segmentation of university organization structure I previously mentioned, Google Analytics tracking can be much more complicated than managing a single website. Every degree website may have a different analytics profile which requires separate access, code and profile management, goal setup, etc.
Marketing Mojo has combated this through intense project management and not giving up, even if it doesn’t happen the first time around. Old standbys like keeping track of project progress in Excel spreadsheets/project management software and persevering to get Analytics set up and tracking key performance indicators have worked well for us. Use the value and opportunity of the potential data to make your case if you’re seeing push back, and remember that Analytics isn’t just for digital advertising. Using Analytics lets you track EVERYTHING having to do with your site, and can benefit not only the marketing team but anyone working hard to promote the university online in any form (organic, direct, email, social, etc.).
Goal Tracking Limitations
To add to the complexity of separate Analytics tracking for each degree website, universities tend to use special online application software that helps them manage and track online applications. Those tend to exist on a different domain or website. What does that mean for Google Analytics tracking? A separate domain that has many degree programs with separate Analytics profiles directing to it means that to really track who arrives there and what they do, we would need Google Analytics code for all of those separate degree websites on every step of the application process. Needless to say, this tends not to be possible. More often than not, we can’t get any Analytics tracking (let alone multiple) on the application process because the system doesn’t support it or the site isn’t managed by the university.
So, while our preference would be to track completed online applications from advertising, we are instead tracking different types of engagement and conversion actions. This may be pages per session, bounce rate, key page views, email signups, request for information via form submissions, webinar RSVPs, etc. Using these metrics to showcase the positives of paid advertising when application tracking is not available is not a perfect world, but it certainly showcases the value of advertising.
You can also use these engagement metrics to adapt and progress your advertising strategy. Tools like remarketing, Customer Match, Custom Audiences and more can give you additional touches on interested site visitors and keep your degree program in the forefront of their mind.
Long “Sales” Cycle
Would you make the decision to attend graduate school and fill out an application after clicking on an ad for the first time? Probably not.
You are going to complete your due diligence: explore different universities, attend an informational webinar or two, research the Master’s degrees available, etc. This final challenge universities face in PPC advertising isn’t the biggest, but it’s certainly one to be reckoned with. The long “sales” cycle of when a user first visits your site to when they fill out an application could be months. More than likely, they aren’t going to click on your ad again when they do apply – maybe they will go directly to the site or click through from an email reminder.
Our solution is to continue to demonstrate the value of paid advertising through website visits, engagement rates, email signups and other important conversion metrics. Do you think paid advertising on your programs is worth it? Do they increase awareness and drive traffic to your site? Set expectations appropriately and provide the best data you can to showcase why those advertising dollars on AdWords, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, etc., are worth it.
Are they proving not to be? Readjust your strategy. Test new tools, settings, copy and landing pages. Try out new optimization techniques. It may not be an easy road to travel, but it will be worth it. We’ve overcome a lot of challenges with university PPC advertising, and so can you.