10 Tips to Boost Your Higher Education Marketing Campaigns

Similar to the trajectory of the digital marketing industry, the millennial generation’s culture, values, and behaviors are constantly evolving. Higher education practitioners have to constantly align their institution with the shifts in technology, culture, and society as it pertains to the target (mostly millennial) generation they are after, which requires thoughtful consideration of strategy, solutions, and channels. In fact, according to National Center for Education, the total projected undergraduate enrollment is projected to increase to 19.8 million students by 2025. We’ve compiled a tangible list of higher education digital marketing tips to satisfy this influx of student enrollment.

Higher Education Digital Marketing CampaignsWhen we co-founded Katana, I had the opportunity to participate in setting up the University of Phoenix’s first digital campaigns, endured the shift in compliance with the Department of Education and have journeyed all the way to the modern knowledgeable student prospect target that is conscious about student debt.

Our executive team speaks at several national digital marketing and higher education conferences annually, and we are constantly asked to divulge tips that could be implemented without any extraneous effort or budget allocation in order to quickly boost an institution’s lead generation campaign. I asked Katana’s senior media team to highlight their top 10 digital marketing tips for augmenting our clients’ higher education campaigns, and here is a higher level summary of their responses:

TIP #1: Set up and measure your paid search campaigns by buckets

Most higher education marketers are still amazed by how incredible the performance of paid search advertising is in relation to other ad channels. The search network is undoubtedly the primary conduit for online users to actively search and receive results for their inquiries. However, most higher education marketers ignore the concept that each keyword does perform to an equivalent level.

We approach paid search campaigns by constructing four major keyword buckets:

  1. Branded keywords
  2. General degree detached keywords (ex: MBA, Bachelor of Science)
  3. Degree-specific (ex: Criminal Justice)
  4. Relevant academic or school-related keywords (ex: graduate school, cost of MBA)

Once you have these set up and conduct a thorough analysis of each campaign’s performance, you’ll quickly realize that each bucket has its own dynamic and subsequent CPCs, conversion rates, etc.

For each bucket, measure all metrics independently and set up individual performance goals. If you want to make an impact, you can take this data and develop unique bidding, messaging, landing pages and other unique strategies for each keyword bucket.

TIP #2: Measure leads for contact rate AND calculate the cost per lead goals for each tactic based on cost per quality contact

Ultimately your campaigns must deliver the highest quality prospective students across all media channels. An online user might fill out a submission lead form, but that doesn’t guarantee or translate to an on-campus visit, meeting with an academic advisor or filling out an application.

Even if the objective of your campaign is to create overall brand awareness, you will still want to track how many submissions actually led to a formal contact or interaction between the online user and a representative from your admissions team.

From our experience, nine out of 10 higher education marketers are stuck evaluating the performance of their online campaigns based purely on how many leads are received and the cost at which the leads are generated.

Of course, this is an easy way to evaluate advertising budgets considering the student enrollment process takes between 90 to 120 days, on average. However, we highly encourage exploring further into the campaign’s analysis and measure the performance of a prospect beyond leads generated and cost.

You can approach this with limited means and low technical setup by simply aligning lead generation data with contact data and measuring quality contact rates segmented by media source (we’ve seen budget effectiveness yield over 50% in improvement).

In advertising dollars, how much is it costing your institution for each online user to submit their information (name, email, phone number and academic interest)? Of those that submit their information, how many leads are actually contacted and express interest in pursuing a secondary touchpoint, whether that be an on-campus visit, discovery call or actually filling out an application?

TIP #3: Identify GPS patterns from your ideal student or lead base

A simple way to optimize your media budget is to target the geographical location where your students most likely come from or reside. Create a report of your most attractive student or lead base and query it against the geographical location of their locations.

Paid Social, Fandom Marketing
Target the geographical location where your students most likely come from or reside.

This tip is applicable to the full spectrum of higher education institutions, ranging from national online universities to regional brick-and-mortar colleges because even at the local level, you are able to target specific parts of a city by leveraging the latest precision targeting technologies. In summary, begin by geo-targeting your ad campaigns against the top five location hotspots of your student and lead base.

TIP #4: Create an exclusion list for your retargeting

By this point in time, marketers are hopefully implementing retargeting tactics as part of their integrated digital media plan. Retargeting campaigns notoriously work and perform well in relation to ad spend.

Retargeting Cycle

When it comes to retargeting, we recommend that you focus on channels that allow for email matching – specifically Facebook and Google – since it’s a more sophisticated and higher performing approach.

Step 1: Create an exclusion list that consists of your entire student body email addresses. This ensures that no current or past student will waste any of your retargeting budget by serving an ad to them.

Step 2: For more advanced executions, consistently create custom exclusion audience lists for prospective leads in the sales cycle, filtering by the enrollment stage the lead is currently in. Similarly to Tip #1, you then have the ability to target each retargeting audience with unique messaging and bid levels.

Marketers are obviously more willing to be aggressive at CPC bidding when they’re targeting against members of their retargeting audience lists whose admittance applications have already been approved and are just awaiting tuition payment.

TIP #5: Use a banner campaign for initial engagement

A quality, eminent banner ad delivers concrete brand exposure which can then be leveraged to reach users across different mediums throughout various levels of engagement.

Many higher education marketers are challenged with generating scale in their ad campaigns to increase student count. Typically, ad dollars are allocated beyond paid search, directories, and SEO, with some budget apportioned towards banners.

It’s common that these ‘higher awareness’ level tactics have not provided you with the desired return on investment or cost per lead, but that’s because you are looking at performance from the wrong perspective.

Banner campaigns should be held accountable to make initial contact of your school with a prospective student. Students won’t just immediately sign up for your program or apply to your institution because of a banner ad.

Banner ads drive great initial engagement.

However, once they have clicked your banner and landed on your site, you now have an opportunity to leave an impression on them. Chances are, if a user clicked on your ad, you effectively made some impact on their decision-making process. What does this mean?

Once someone clicks on your banner ad, most marketers will bucket these users into the same retargeting group as all other channels. If someone clicks on the paid ad but doesn’t fill out the form, they’re still being measured under the same retargeting bucket, but this is malpractice!

Here are the steps to make banner campaigns perform well and ensure you’re tracking the right metrics:

  1. Measure the cost per lead performance of your banner campaigns as usual.

Hint: It will look terrible!

  1. Set up your retargeting campaign to separate and clearly identify the budget that has specifically been spent against users that have clicked on your banner campaign, but have not filled out the lead form.
  2. Count the leads you have received from your retargeting campaign from those banner click-through users.
  3. Now, add the total amount of leads received directly from banner click-throughs and indirectly from banner click-through retargeting.
  4. Add up the sum of spending on the banner campaign and your banner click-through retargeting campaign
  5. Calculate your cost per lead as usual, and now you’ll have a more accurate depiction of banner performance by the campaign.

TIP #6: Create a mobile-specific approach

The purpose of your landing page is to nurture the user experience, enticing them to convert and fill out a submission form. On a desktop, video can be a powerful vehicle that propels audience engagement, simply because users prefer to watch video content than read it.

However, 56% of online users will conduct research on their mobile devices, so it’s important to not lose valuable conversions from an unresponsive landing page. In order to optimize for mobile, keep the body text brief and the lead form simple.

With the explosion of mobile usage, it is important to be strategic to this user group. It’s common practice to optimize responsive mobile landing pages, but this is just the starting point. I have seen campaigns improve by more than 30% in lead conversion when a comprehensive mobile approach has been implemented.

What is a comprehensive mobile approach? It includes the following:

  1. Separate and track for each channel. For example, segment your Google ad campaigns into mobile-specific user data.
  2. Create and implement mobile-specific ad messages to include different attributes, such as a call extension so users don’t have to actually click through to a landing page.
  3. If you include call extensions, be sure to have call tracking set up since the larger majority of people will have a higher propensity to call rather than fill out a lead form.
  4. Filling out a landing page’s lead form on a mobile device can be difficult, so explore the various opportunities around automatic form field population through Facebook or Google login connectivity.

TIP #7: Move away from single page marketing sites

In order to accommodate any potential inquiries a user has once they arrive on your landing page, your website should be optimized to have multiple tabs of content that answer any overarching questions about specific programs, majors or general campus queries (like housing, meal plans or collegiate sports).

Multi-Page Website for Higher Education Digital Marketing Campaigns
The following example conveys a multi-page website that fosters a valuable user experience.

Our team has learned over the past couple years that a student prospect is resource rich and information empowered. Today’s students are fueled by data, and expecting their personal information from an uncredited, a short landing page is a faulty strategy.

We have guided our higher education clients to multi-page landing pages that are rich in degree and curriculum information, credibility overview and general campus news. As a result, we have seen conversion rates exceed the 10% mark and have received countless appreciation from enrollment teams commending the quality and increase in lead submissions. Spending the time to curate meaningful content yields prospects who then meaningfully interact with your landing pages.

TIP #8: Implement audience segmented retargeting campaigns

It’s essential to track user behavior (including how they are interacting on your site and what they’re searching for on Google) in order to segment their propensities into audience categories relevant to certain majors or programs your institution offers. If a user has expressed interest in a nursing program – either by clicking on a nursing ad or visiting your website’s nursing program page – it would be counterproductive to serve ads for a teaching credential or MBA program.

Take a page from how Amazon implements audience segmented retargeting campaigns.

If you’re an avid Amazon user, you’re certainly been exposed to Amazon’s retargeting ads that seamlessly follow you around the internet, but this strategy works because it creates product relevance for each user. It’s fascinating to me that this simple strategy and logic hasn’t been implemented by higher education institutions globally.

Although an oversimplification, this approach can be set up by attaching a pixel to a school’s website in order to identify which department or degree an online visitor has spent the most time on. Once identified, instead of sending a generic retargeting message to this user, you can enhance campaign performance by making specific to the degree, and guess what? Click-through rates will jump beyond the 1% mark.

TIP #9: Develop channel-specific enrollment scripts

There is a difference between an online user who searches for an academic keyword in the search query versus an individual who fills out a lead form after clicking on your banner ad; one user is looking for information while the latter is being propelled to information. These users are at different points in the sales funnel, so you should have a strategic approach to how your outreach team is speaking to each persona.

Our media team has successfully helped schools implement this approach, and we’re able to actually break out call center scripts by ad channel specific to majors/programs/departments.

An example of this would be the development and use of a script for leads that have been received through brand-specific search keywords. Let’s pretend that the student prospect seems to be familiar with the school’s brand since they searched for a branded keyword, so the script doesn’t have to emphasize the sales component on the school, but rather focus on the technicalities of the enrollment and admissions process.

For a recent higher education campaign, we were able to identify the persona of someone searching for a branded keyword (i.e. school name) versus an online user searching for a degree-specific keyword, which provided optimal insight for the sales team to then create specific conversations based on where the users were on the customer journey.

TIP #10: Use the power of day of the week (DoW) data

Another simple way to optimize a media campaign is to analyze and understand the performance of a media channel based on DoW data. Typically, you see significant variances in lead performance, traffic conversion rates and ultimately cost per enrollment by the day of the week.

A typical best practice is that Friday through Sunday is normal touchpoint days (aka the prospecting portion of your media campaign) while earlier weekdays generally perform at peak for lead generation.

Based on your campaign’s objective, you can use this data to allocate budgets against the DoW time patterns.

As you become more proficient in this knowledge path, you can implement unique messaging and accountability metrics that allow you to fully harness this opportunity throughout the entire week.

Higher Education Digital Marketing Campaigns


I hope you’ve found value in these top 10 tips to boost higher education digital marketing campaigns. While there are a plethora of opportunities beyond this list, beginning with the aforementioned items will make you feel more empowered and cultivate a successful path that leads to more advanced executions.

It’s important to stay current with general higher education marketing trends by forging alliances with other marketers in your space, participating in higher education trade groups or working with marketing organizations like Katana who have access to a larger set of higher education clients to continuously establish benchmarks that your specific campaigns can be measured against.

Our founding team has a combined 55 years of agency experience with a specialized focus in higher education. Here are some aggregate findings that our team has accomplished in the past year for all of our higher education clients:

  • Branded keyword search volume increase indexed 116 in January 2017 over the previous 11 months.
  • Meanwhile, non-branded keyword search volume increase indexed 138 in January 2017 over the previous 11 months.
  • Lastly, quality of click-through traffic from search increased by 11% during the same time evaluation (a quality visitor is defined as a visitor that stays on a landing page or website page for longer than 30 seconds).

Katana is an audience media solutions provider that takes advantage of large data sets and real-time advertising inventory to provide our higher education clients with the most personalized and effective paid media campaigns.

Also published on Medium.