How to Audit Your Paid Media Targeting and Pinpoint Common Problems in Higher Ed Marketing
Many higher education marketing departments outsource paid media to external agencies. The rationale here is solid: paid media strategy and execution require specific technical skills along with the ability to monitor campaign performance, so you can pinpoint problems and opportunities. Agencies can provide both at scale, plus they tend to have sophisticated reporting capabilities, such as live dashboards, providing their clients with actionable insights on their target audiences in real time.
However, outsourcing all paid media strategy and execution to an agency also comes with risks. It is fairly common that in-house higher education marketing departments feel left in the dark when it comes to their paid media campaigns. Uncertainty about targeting, spend allocations, and the overall strategic vision can damage trust between the agency partner and its client. Higher ed decision makers may be left wondering if they are leaving substantial opportunities on the table and whether large amounts of money are being misallocated and, ultimately, wasted.
If you’re in charge of overseeing an agency relationship in higher ed marketing and want to assess the performance of your paid media campaigns, here are four specific areas to investigate:
- Make sure your geographic targeting is informed by your enrollment and applicant data, not just lead data or search volume. This is a common mistake of agencies who are less experienced in higher education and bring a packaged consumer-goods mindset to the engagement. At Viv, we recommend aligning 70-80% of your geographic targeting with the geographies that dominate your enrollments from the past three years. The remaining 20-30% should be aligned with trends indicated in your enrollment, applicant, and lead data.
Because higher education programs are so expensive, search volume is never a good indicator of opportunity because it may be misaligned with a market’s ability to pay. This is especially relevant for international campaigns, as demonstrated by our work with a top university in the UK on their online short courses for professionals, where making the simple switch of aligning geographic targeting with enrollments when we took over for their previous agency allowed them to exceed their enrollment goals for the first time ever.
- Make sure to suppress unproductive or redundant geographies. When we audit media spends for colleges and universities, we often discover that there are certain geographies that are redundant in the targeting set. For example, if you’re running a campaign specific to the states or countries that are the most productive for you in terms of enrollments and applications, you should suppress those geos in larger campaigns targeting the entire U.S. or global region.
In addition, if you know that leads from a certain geographic area tend to be very low quality or even generated by bot activity, you should suppress those geos to avoid wasted spend. Finally, if you’re running retargeting campaigns, it’s important to also suppress geos that tend to be unproductive for you, unless organic traffic from those areas is proven to convert better than on the paid side.
- Avoid bloated spends by limiting bids on hyper-competitive keywords. There is no doubt that paid search in higher ed marketing has become very competitive and expensive, especially when it comes to graduate and online programs. MBA and online business keywords often exceed $4 per click. Bidding on them can quickly eat up budget and also result in leads who are unlikely to convert in the short term because they are in the beginning stages of their search and haven’t narrowed down their interest to specific programs.
- Add a robust program-specific keyword strategy. If your agency partner is using templated approaches across multiple college or university clients, it is unlikely that their team is familiar enough with your programs and what makes them distinct and appealing to their target audiences. Granted, on the undergraduate side, program-specific keywords may make less sense because prospects and their parents are more interested in whole institutions and may remain undecided about their intended major.
On the graduate and professional education side, however, it is critical to develop keyword sets and search ads that align with specific programs and their related benefits. Alongside a strong set of branded program-specific keywords (e.g. Drexel Online MBA), your agency should be evaluating search volume and opportunities for program-specific ads that highlight particular program features related to outcomes, completion time, and available scholarships.
The more specific the search, the further down in the marketing funnel a prospect will likely be, increasing their likelihood for becoming a qualified lead. When working with a small private institution in Boston on their institution’s executive education programs, we saw first-hand how much money can be saved by eliminating online keyword bloat – and how effective reinvesting that money into program-specific keywords can be.
- Reconsider bidding on competitor keywords. Bidding on competitor keywords is a common practice. A recent (not statistically significant) Viv poll of higher education marketers revealed that 10% bid on competitive keywords all of the time, 45% some of the time, 15% not anymore but have in the past, and 30% never.
At Viv, we believe that heavy reliance on competitive keyword bidding creates inefficiencies in an institution’s media spend and that, in order to attract qualified leads who are likely to convert to applicants and enrollments, it is a better choice to only bid on keywords that your institution can actually deliver on.
If you do choose to bid on competitive keywords, ensure that they are in their own campaign and watch them closely to see how expensive they are and how they convert. This equips you with the data you need to recommend the best approach to competitor keywords to your academic and administrative stakeholders.
Demographic and Psychographic Targeting
- Align your targeting on paid social with your enrollment and applicant data. Similar to your geo-targeting, your demographic targeting should be rooted in your enrollment and applicant data. Many agencies use targeting that is too broad and not informed by any data outside of the platforms they’re using. Paid social channels like Meta and LinkedIn offer very robust targeting options, and utilizing their in-platform reports can help marketers gain important insights about where key opportunities lie.
Similar to geographic targeting, we recommend 80% of your demographic targeting should be informed by demonstrated trends in your enrollment data, and 20% should be informed by trends indicated by industry and enrollment data. Also keep in mind upcoming changes due to Google’s transition to GA 4 and related implications for targeting.
- Situate your campaigns within a solid understanding of your most qualified candidates, what motivates them, and what obstacles they face. Many agencies launch paid media campaigns without robust persona research or even discovery conversations with faculty members and program managers who know prospects and students in their programs intimately.
Persona research is critical in informing both targeting and messaging. In the absence of existing research and well-developed marketing personas, we recommend conducting low-investment research through online focus groups and surveys. Paid media that is rooted in effective differentiation and messaging that addresses prospects’ goals and obstacles is significantly more effective than generic messaging, as demonstrated by our work with Tufts University College.
- Make sure your media spend is aligned with your priorities for your marketing funnel. When assessing your agency’s media spend allocations, it is important to understand which platforms are best suited for which parts of the funnel. As a rule of thumb, programmatic and paid social channels lend themselves to awareness and top-of-funnel lead generation, paid search is best suited for middle to lower funnel lead generation, and paid social and display are best for retargeting.
- Don’t forget about lead nurture. Many enrollment marketing agencies use the number of leads their campaigns generate as their key performance metric. This is problematic because it absolves them of the responsibility to bring in the most qualified leads, which is not achieved by prioritizing quantity over quality.
For example, when taking over media campaigns from other agencies, we deprioritize the use of in-platform lead forms and instead emphasize high quality content on landing and program pages that engages prospects in meaningful ways. In addition, if budget and content resources allow it, we integrate a lead nurture spend into the paid media strategy.
LinkedIn is a particularly effective platform for doing this because it allows marketers to upload existing leads and match those email addresses with existing LinkedIn profiles. We have worked with several clients to integrate LinkedIn into their nurture strategy, serving up relevant content that creates additional touchpoints between prospects and programs.
Sample Media Strategy
Want a concrete example of a Viv media plan that creates a winning combination of awareness, lead generation, and lead nurture tactics? You can view a sample media plan we have used for multiple graduate and executive education clients to maximize results across all stages of the marketing funnel.
At Viv, we frequently help colleges and universities assess their current media campaigns to recommend a more strategic alignment with enrollment data and institutional goals. We offer several mini-audits and would be thrilled to meet with you to help determine your needs.