Quick Tips To Improve Your Higher Ed Marketing Campaigns

Just 20 years ago, prospective university students didn’t have the luxury of social media and internet search to research products and services. Now, we don’t think twice about students searching for postsecondary education, entering “best online college” or “nursing programs near me” into any search engine in order to determine the institution that best suits their needs.

As technology shifts and advances, so must advertising. The prevalence of online advertising and rise of mobile usage means that marketers need to account for both social media and paid search advertising to generate qualified leads and ultimately increase enrollment. At this point, the majority of higher education marketers have been (and should be) leveraging paid search advertising to generate qualified leads, yet marketers constantly tell me that campaigns aren’t yielding the right results. Some external factors, such as tuition inflation and reduced student demand have negatively affected prospecting, and ultimately enrollment. Despite this, the value of paid search shouldn’t be questioned or dismissed.

We’ve worked within the higher education sector for 17 years, and we’ve come to understand that there is a large disparity between EDU marketers’ understanding of paid media and the agencies they work with. All too often, higher education marketers are disillusioned by agencies who promise a lower cost per lead or an increase in quality leads. The unfortunate reality is that the majority of these promises never come to fruition, resulting in institutions changing paid search agencies an average of four times over the last 10 years (according to research we conducted on our client base). It has become increasingly important for marketers to analyze campaigns at a granular level and assess the various levers that can elevate their campaign performance; this requires a much deeper understanding of how paid search works.

Since 2010, higher education institutions have increased an estimated 9.4% of marketing spend as a percentage of revenue, and Katana has been at the forefront of this sector’s adoption of digital marketing. Our team of media experts has consolidated the most valuable paid media approaches that can easily be applied to any institution’s Google AdWords or Bing campaigns.

Higher education marketers can reference these user-friendly tips to boost online marketing campaigns right away— even without the more advanced technical know-how.

1. Separate branded versus non-branded keywords

Many advertisers commonly believe that investing in branded keywords over non-branded keywords provides the desired cost per click (CPC) or cost per acquisition (CPA), but the opposite is actually true most of the time. Upon analyzing the past 17 years of our clients’ historical campaign data, our research confirms that nine in 10 consumers initiating product/service research don’t know which brand they’ll choose or even how to begin looking.

Understanding the value of branded versus non-branded keywords requires deeper analysis and lower level thinking. When a typical user path is considered, the branded keyword user is already aware of a brand while the non-branded keyword user might not be. Converting the non-branded keyword user is actually more valuable because you’ve acquired them at the expense of your competitors.

Branded and non-branded keyword traffic is driven by different factors. Consider the following examples as it pertains to the higher education vertical:

Branded: Branded keywords explicitly include the brand’s name, and users searching for a branded keyword generally have brand awareness.

  • Branded keyword campaigns ONLY have branded keywords, such as “Strayer MBA degrees,” “Strayer majors,” or “Strayer online programs”
  • Ad copy should be focused on the benefits of the school and why students should attend

Non-branded: Non-branded keywords are more general and don’t include the brand’s name anywhere in the keyword. These users are conducting general research and might not have brand awareness.

  • Non-branded keyword campaigns have a degree or program-specific keywords, such as, “MBA degrees” or “business degrees”
  • Ad copy should be more about the program/degree benefits instead of the advantages of attending the specific school
  • These campaigns can also have more general terms, such as “college degrees” or “graduate degree”
  • Another non-branded keyword approach would be to use geo-modified keywords, such as “top-ranked colleges in California” or “graduate colleges in California”

I also recommend creating a negative keyword list, which is a list of keywords that you don’t want to be associated with your ad. Negative keywords can be managed at the following levels in AdWords: account, campaigns, and ad groups.

  1. Your account is associated with a unique email address, password and billing information.
    • If there is a term you definitely don’t want any ad to be associated with, then you would negate that keyword at the account level. For example, if you’re a liberal arts college, you would negate “nursing program” at the account level since that keyword is not applicable to your school’s offerings.
  1. Your campaigns have their own budget and settings that determine where your ads appear.
    • At the campaign level, you can negate branded versus non-branded keywords (within your branded and non-branded campaigns).
  1. Your ad groups contain a set of similar ads and keywords.
    • If a marketer is trying to show ads for an MBA degree, but his/her institution only offers on-campus programs, then the marketer would want to negate the term “online” at the ad group level for all MBA campaigns. This ensures that an ad containing “online” is not being triggered by users looking for an “online MBA degree.”

Depending on the campaign’s strategy, most marketers should proactively manage campaigns to ensure they aren’t running out of budget for branded keywords. It’s important for brands to own their own real estate on branded keywords because competitors can and will bid on other schools’ names.

2. Prepare and organize keywords at the keyword group and account structure

Having control of a campaign requires a deep understanding of how keywords are performing. To organize and manage campaigns properly, paid search marketers need to create slim keyword buckets, meaning individual keywords are placed into individual ad groups (also known as buckets).

All too often, I see campaigns with keyword groups that are stuffed with too many keywords, which negatively affects performance. Here, quality should be valued over quantity! Understanding a campaign’s keyword performance is crucial; from there, marketers can make the necessary changes to avoid negatively impacting quality score. Google’s quality score rates the quality and relevance of both keywords and ads. If an ad is deemed ineligible, then Google might not show them or they’ll be extremely expensive.

At the account level, the structure and organization are essential to do any programmatic or scripting for automation of ad rank or bid adjustments. Within an AdWords account, campaigns should be grouped by theme, and ad groups should be arranged with small, concentrated keyword buckets.

To best manage keywords, we recommend implementing a “flat” keyword group structure with no more than five keywords in a single group. This structure provides the highest control for analysis and quality since keywords are specific to each ad group.

Another benefit of having few keywords per ad group is the ability to ensure that ad copy is very specific to the searcher’s intent. For example:

  • Keyword/ad group: “wedding gowns”
    • Ad copy headline: Custom Wedding Gowns

Using the fewest keywords per ad group will ensure that relevant ads are being served based on the searcher’s intent.

In the end, a well-structured account with ad group-specific keywords will help marketers assess how different buckets perform. This will ultimately reduce the time that people are working on campaigns by an estimated 50%, allotting marketers time to focus on other initiatives.

3. Kill keywords that don’t generate traction

For many active accounts that we acquire and take over managing, our media team continues to see campaigns flooded with thousands of low-quality keywords. These low-quality keywords have meager search volume or the keywords don’t follow a user’s natural search pattern. Consequently, low-quality keywords can increase your CPC and decrease overall performance.

When setting up an AdWords account, conduct extensive keyword research to build accounts, campaigns and ad groups with natural search queries. A natural search query uses everyday language and reads as if you were saying it out loud.

Google Keyword Planner, for example, gives actual search queries that enhance keyword relevancy. Google will also give a status on the keyword’s search volume, categorizing each as either:

  • Eligible: A status is given to ads that are active and ready to be served.
  • Low search volume: This means that the keyword will remain inactive and won’t trigger an ad until search traffic increases.
  • Rarely shown due to low-quality score
    • Google diagnoses quality score based on ad copy relevance, landing page relevance, click-through rate (CTR) and a balanced use of short-tail keywords. Overdoing short-tail keywords compromises quality score, and chances are, if a marketer uses shorter keywords like “men’s shirts,” click-through rates are probably low.

Taking out low performing keywords will reduce the amount of time spent optimizing keywords. Instead of looking at 2,000 low performing keywords, pause or remove them because they’re essentially wasting space in your account.

4. Analyze all of your keyword buckets based on key value optimizations

There are three major value parameters that marketers can optimize around in order to normalize spend and pay the value that each keyword is actually worth. Once a campaign is structured, identifying optimization opportunities is key to cultivating unremitting campaign success. Below, I will navigate through optimizations for geolocation, dayparting and device type:

Geolocation: AdWords allows location targeting so that ads can appear around the geographic locations a marketer wants. This includes countries, specific areas within a country, a radius around a location or location groups. Location data is important for any digital marketing campaign because regardless of an ad’s quality, it most likely won’t perform well if it’s not showing to the right audience at the right place in the right time.

Determining How to Target

A regional retailer or store might want to target locations as granular as a neighborhood. Targeting prospective consumers who are in-store would be an ideal geolocation targeting opportunity, but the campaign should have tighter targeting in place around the store’s parameters.

On the other hand, an e-tailer might target on a national basis, but they would have to bid more aggressively and spend more budget in order to capture national audiences without brand awareness.

In order for marketers to determine the locations to optimize around, pull different reports to assess which cities, DMAs (designated market area) or zip codes should be geo-targeted. In order to capture the most leads or prospective customers, bid more aggressively around the DMA and manage this on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

Depending on a retailer or business’s location, certain product or services have certain demands. We know that based on historical campaign performance, “air conditioning unit” campaigns perform better in Florida than they would in Maine.

Dayparting: AdWords also allows marketers to schedule ads to run at specific times of the day (ToD) or on a certain day of the week (DoW). This is an important metric to optimize against because marketers don’t want to run out of daily budget early in the morning – especially if they’re dealing with a small budget, to begin with!

Time of Day (ToD):

Assuming a brand does have a smaller budget, marketers should bid lower at certain points throughout the day as to only spend at the most valuable times. Just as you would with geolocation, marketers can pull reports to see which times of the day have the highest CTR and CVR. At noon, if there is a high search volume but low conversions, then you would actually want to pay less. Just because people are active online doesn’t necessarily mean that they are converting! Similarly, if 8:00 PM has a high lead volume and cheap cost per acquisition (CPA), then we recommend bidding more.

Day of Week (DoW):

Based on our experience, we know that Monday and Tuesdays hardly convert, but Wednesday and Thursday warrant higher conversions. Our media team interprets and analyzes this data to make sure there is plenty of budgets allocated for the best converting days.

This image shows what the bid adjustment percentage should be for ToD and DoW based on an aggregate of our e-Commerce clients. Depending on the e-tailers, this chart offers different bid factors that should be accounted for and implemented.

Device Type: By this point in time, marketers should have a resilient mobile presence to cater to their technology-adept audience. In AdWords, marketers can customize campaign targeting to specific devices and operating systems to enhance precision and control who is seeing your ads.

For example, nursing students who are looking for more advanced degrees are heavily reliant on their mobile phones, especially while they’re researching during a graveyard shift at work. Since the path to purchase has become increasingly mobile, marketers have to also account for mobile responsive websites. For some of our clients with insufficient mobile websites, we would decrease the budget for mobile devices since we know they won’t convert or students will bounce from their website due to a poor mobile site.

Again, you marketers can pull reports to determine where to allocate budget, taking these performance factors into account:

  • Tablet, computer, and mobile
  • Product/service type (some products or services will perform better on mobile)

Campaign optimizations are one of the most powerful yet underutilized aspects of paid search. Upon correct implementation, paid search campaigns will have an immediate positive impact.

5. Don’t be afraid to be aggressive on bidding

Marketers should have a thorough understanding of the ‘ideal ad rank’ before confidently allocating budget to campaigns. An ad rank is where an ad falls on the search engine results page (SERP), and this is generally calculated based on the max CPC and quality score.

Traditionally, marketers want to show up as position one on the SERPs, but before determining this, be sure to analyze historical campaign records to know the ideal ad rank for specific search queries. If reports convey that the second or third ad position is converting better than the first position for a certain query, then adjust bids so that they fall within the cost of positions one and/or two. Novice marketers automatically assume that the first position on the SERPs merits more leads and conversions, but you might end up saving budget if position two is historically the highest performing ad rank.

Furthermore, some of the better converting keywords (for certain industries) will have anywhere from a $25 to $65 CPC, so invest wisely. Sometimes it’s okay to pay more for a CPC if it’s a keyword that converts better. For one of our clients, we increased investment and spend, but in turn, generated:

  •      240% more conversions
  •      Only a 3% increase in CPL
  •      54% increase in CPC

Once the ideal ad rank for certain keywords has been established, be surgical when it comes to analysis and optimizations of those queries.

6. Use scripting and programmatic solutions to manage your campaigns

AdWords defines scripting as having programmatic control of your AdWords data by embedding simple JavaScript in a browser-based IDE (integrated drive electronics). In simpler terms, scripts are lines of code that marketers input to communicate with their AdWords campaign to automate mundane daily tasks, such as making predictable bid adjustments or normalizing campaign behavior.

For example, if we know that at a certain time of day we don’t want to bid on the first ad rank position, we can put scripts in place to adjust bids to get our ad in certain positions.

We’ve managed so many digital marketing campaigns, that our team now has nearly 17 years of historical knowledge to reference. These insight benchmarks help us discern which behaviors are normal or abnormal throughout the course of a campaign. With this archived data, we are able to cross-reference it with each new account that we begin managing to help govern campaign decisions and ensure optimal setup. For instance, past campaign data confirms that lead volume appears low when it’s viewed by day, but with scripting implemented, we historically know that this is standard behavior for certain industries, such as higher education. In other words, viewing data by day may show low performance, but scripts help us understand whether behaviors are normal in the long run. Further, if a campaign exhibits abnormal behavior or spikes on a traditionally low-performing day (such as Monday), then scripting can automatically course-correct the bid trajectory back to normal levels.

Per our second tip above, “prepare and organize keywords at the keyword group and account structure,” scripting is impossible to implement if the account structure isn’t cohesively designed.


These are just a few starting pointers to help higher education institutions get the most out of paid search campaigns. After years of implementing a paid search strategy for EDU clients, we still find that Google and Bing amass the highest quality student prospects at the most cost-efficient price.

Higher education paid search marketing has significantly more opportunities that extend beyond branded keywords, but marketing teams need to be staffed with adequate knowledge to circumvent the competition. Use these recommendations to generate website traffic, increase quality leads, improve ranking and increase enrollment.

If institutions are truly invested in implementing more advanced paid search strategies, it’s crucial to first master the fundamentals of successful digital marketing.

Curious about learning more? Read our 10 Tips to Boost Your Higher Education Marketing Campaigns to discover additional digital marketing solutions for higher education.

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 katana.media.

Also published on Medium.