Grow Enrollment and Brand Scale in Higher Education – Case Study

Katana is a digital marketing partner that takes advantage of large data sets and real-time advertising inventory to provide our higher education clients with the most advanced and effective paid media campaigns. Our client, Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU), was seeking to drive campaign scale and ultimately grow enrollment acceleration from its digital media campaigns. See how we increased prospecting of highest quality prospects and increase quality visits by 28% and click-through rates by 110%.


Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU) is a private evangelical, Christian university with campuses in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. IWU is committed to changing the world by developing students in character, scholarship and leadership through established ethical standards and premiere academic quality. The university was founded in 1920 and has grown to be the largest member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and the largest private college in Indiana based on enrollment. IWU offers more than 80 undergraduate degrees, 38 graduate degrees and 5 doctorate degrees for over 10,000 students across their three campuses and online.


IWU came to Katana looking to:

  • Increase the scale of reaching highly qualified student prospects to ultimately grow enrollment
  • Increase brand awareness among adults aged 21-44 interested in pursuing higher education

Historically, IWU made business and marketing investment decisions based on a cost-per-lead (CPL) basis, targeting audiences who already exhibited interest in their university or any other competing institutions. As such, IWU historically measured and optimized all digital marketing campaigns based on their CPL performance. One outcome, which is typical for this approach, was that IWU hadn’t been able to accomplish a meaningful increase in quality lead volume.

Katana recognized the opportunity to provide IWU with an advanced approach that guided its marketing team towards an updated business evaluation process as well as a new foundation to restructure the digital campaigns. We implemented a funnel-based approach with unique key performance indicator (KPI) metrics and tailored creative ads.

We implemented new creative assets that helped emotionally connect with consumers, and we also customized the ads specifically to where each audience segment was in the student journey. The outcome was the ability to considerably increase the brand velocity of IWU’s individual campus locations and the generation of high-quality leads.

Before and After of Katana Ad Targeting


When Katana began working with IWU, the institution was at the forefront of a highly competitive region with a weak economic climate and changing targets (shifting from older to younger demographic). An audit of IWU’s creative elements allowed Katana to quickly realize that the school was executing on a “one-for-all” creative targeting approach. With this model, a student prospect was served similar sales messages to every other prospect, regardless of where they were along the student journey.

Since IWU measured all digital campaigns on a CPL basis, only lower funnel tactics, such as branded and degree-specific keywords or affiliate marketing made sense. Every time IWU tried to execute on initiatives outside of these traditional tactics, their ensuing efforts translated into reduced engagement levels (such as click-throughs), and consequently, IWU couldn’t justify business value because this approach drove limited scale that did not meet business growth goals.


Katana developed and implemented a digital campaign that increased interest (response rates) and leads (ultimately enrollments) from IWU’s target audience through multi-look and impression analysis of the student journey.

Katana’s multi-look analysis: existing campaign data reveals significant drop-off in user engagement.

One of the key findings from our analysis revealed that original creative assets did not perform well against the target audience when segmented against stages of the marketing funnel. Katana did this analysis by utilizing micro-conversion events, aligning impressions, clicks and conversions against various keyword groupings (e.g. degree specific, brand or peripheral), targeting methodologies (e.g. demographics, contextual or behavior) and tactics (e.g. banner, social or search).

Mapping the Student Journey: Prospecting, Consideration, and Conversion

Taking advantage of our breakthrough multi-look analysis, Katana’s media traders restructured the entire digital media campaign through a funnel of prospecting, consideration, and conversion.

Top of Funnel | Prospecting:

The goal: reach targeted demographics to drive initial engagement
Prospecting KPI = cost per impressions against the target audience

The objective of this stage was to reach target demographics at the lowest possible cost. In IWU’s case, the core target audience was comprised of the following key  demographics:

  • Age: 21-44 years
  • Geography: 60-mile radius around the three campus locations
  • Education:
    • Community college
    • Undergraduate degrees in business, marketing, healthcare, accounting, management, hospitality, management or business information systems
    • Master’s degrees in accounting, human resource management, organizational leadership, healthcare administration, personal financial planning, business administration, management and school administration
  • Profession: student or individual with 2-4 years of work experience
  • Household Income: $50-80k

For this funnel stage, we established the evaluation KPI based on the cost to reach the above-stated demographics. The benchmark CPM goal was $2.85 and our analysis allowed us to eliminate any media tactic that did not meet this value.

Middle of Funnel | Consideration:

The goal: hone in on prospects ready to explore IWU
Consideration KPI = cost per high-quality visitor (CPHQV)

During the consideration tier, the objective is to have users engage with IWU’s brand. Here, we establish a KPI metric that Katana has been at the forefront of promoting in the higher education industry, called high-quality visitor (HQV). A high-quality visitor is significantly more than a click-through, ad is defined as a user that has clicked on IWU’s ads and engaged with them meaningful ways. In our analysis of landing page and historical data, we identified and categorized a visitor browsing with a minimum of three page views as high quality.

All clicks below that were not considered as optimal and were subsequently disregarded for the restructuring of the campaign.

Bottom of Funnel | Conversion:

The goal: take users that a ready to talk and capture them as leads
Conversion KPI = cost per Quality Lead (CPQL)

As mentioned above, the conversion phase was the focus IWU had for many years prior to Katana’s partnership. In this phase, IWU traditionally received and captured call-in leads, which were then handed off from IWU’s marketing team to the enrollment team. Upon Katana restructuring IWU’s marketing campaign, the contact ratio, and lead data were better aligned, only counting lead sources and tactics that had an identified quality ratio of 25%+. This means a source needed to have a minimum of 25% of leads be reachable via phone or email, and all other sources were disqualified as low quality.

In the conversion phase, we wanted to have prospects reach out to IWU, or at least provide their information for future contact from the enrollment team. Since the audience in the conversion funnel is already aware of IWU’s brand, we implemented retargeting and targeted users who had previously searched for IWU-branded keywords. Performance and engagement were appraised based on quality cost-per-lead (QCPL).

Before and After of Katana CPL Strategy with IWU

Introducing an aligned execution approach

Upon the analysis of the campaign data in accordance with Katana’s scalable restructure, it became very apparent that over 75% of the existing campaigns did not provide any business value proposition. IWU’s core approaches of paid search and a handful of affiliates remained due to their conversion-oriented performance. As a result, Katana implemented a brand new set of campaign tactics that can be organized as the following:


  • Banners, Facebook, and Videos
    • Demographic (3rd party audience and IWU look-a-like data) and context targeting
  • Paid Search
    • Education exploration keyword groups (e.g. career improvement)


  • Banners and Facebook
    • In-market Katana student dataset (proprietary to Katana)
  • Text ads
    • In-mail contextually targeted ads
  • Paid Search
    • Degree keyword groups (e.g. MBA degree)


  • Banners and Facebook
    • Retargeting of non-converting users
  • Affiliates/Directory
  • Paid Search
    • IWU brand searches

Results: aligning creative ads to this funnel provided above-average engagement metrics.

In order to improve response rates, Katana crafted new ads that corresponded to each audience targeting segment depending on where they were in the student journey – either the prospecting, consideration or conversion phase. This approach allowed the campaign to be highly relevant based on the mindset of an individual user.  

In general, our new creative elements had varied levels of disruptiveness and focused on the specific next step that we wanted users to do based on the stage-specific KPI of where they were in the student journey.

Phase-specific creative:

  • Prospecting: Highly disruptive, minimal content, increased exposure to IWU brand
  • Consideration: Quick facts, high level of curiosity, clear call to action
  • Conversion: High-level urgency, a showcase of credibility/confidence booster, contact oriented call to action

Example: Creative for Consideration Stage


IWU Banner Ad — Old


IWU Banner Ad — New


After the complete campaign overhaul and restructure, IWU was able to experience unprecedented levels of acceleration in business activities. For the first time, the school experienced a comprehensive set of improvements on all categories of measurement: volume, quality, conversion rates, and overall leads.

Katana Results with IWU

For Katana, the metrics also provided results that exceed previous benchmarks captured in over 70+ higher education school relationships. We were able to reach targeted users at cost-effective levels of $2.12 on average, while the ratios of traffic to high-quality visitor reached an average of over 38%.

All in all, our creative alignment campaign for IWU was an exemplary reminder of how higher education institutions need to think beyond the industry’s obsession with leads and consider the entire journey of a prospective student. Aligning tactics, KPI’s and creative messaging alongside this strategy has the potential to drive exponential growth that is of highest quality and scale.

Interested in results like these? Find out how Katana can help you reach your business and marketing goals.

Contact Katana – your advanced digital marketing partner for higher education: | 619-255-0903

Katana is a leading digital marketing partner for higher education. We take advantage of large data sets and real-time advertising inventory and grow enrollment for over 120 universities and colleges nationwide.  For more information, please visit

Also published on Medium.