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Guide to Higher Education Paid Advertising Budgeting & Strategy

Spend Wisely.

Today’s higher education institutions spend big bucks on paid digital advertising, including paid social and various types of pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. But maximizing the return on investment (ROI) of that advertising spend can be tricky. That’s why our higher ed paid media experts recently sat down to put together key insights from our decades of experience running digital ads for our clients.

But we didn’t stop there. We wanted to know how our strategies stack up against what some of the largest higher ed institutions are doing with their paid media budgets, so we pulled the data, crunched the numbers, and identified trends. The result is this guide to getting the most out of your college or university’s digital advertising budget.

Common Problems With Higher Education Ad Spend

When we looked at the data from the largest institutions and compared it to our experience with our own clients as well as consulting on other institutions’ advertising accounts, we identified some common issues that most higher education institutions struggle with.

  1. Tracking and attribution: Many higher education institutions have gaps in their paid advertising tracking. As a rule, schools should be tracking all the following metrics from their advertising campaigns: cost per form fill, cost per request information, cost per application, and cost per enrolled student. (Generally speaking, the cost associated with each stage in the student’s journey.)
  2. Goals: Many higher education institutions do not have program specific goals, objectives, and budgets.
  3. Strategies: Many institutions focus too heavily on the bottom of the funnel keywords and ad strategies for students.
  4. Platforms: Institutions are trying to have success on too many platforms (i.e. Google search, TikTok, Meta, SnapChat, Google Display, and Microsoft) rather than focusing on a few, getting results, and then expanding beyond that.

How Are Higher Education Institutions Managing Their Paid Ad Budgets Today?

We know what our higher ed clients are up to with their PPC budgets, of course, but what about other schools? To answer this question, we turned to our trusty competitive research tool, SpyFu, which lets us analyze all kinds of data about different universities’ PPC strategies.

Here’s how we did it:

  • We chose the ten largest universities by student body.
  • We used SpyFu to pull the paid advertising keywords for each university on our list.
  • We then grouped together and filtered these keywords into categories.

PPC Keyword Categories for Universities

  1. Program Keywords: Any keyword that indicates a school is running paid ads to promote specific programs. (E.g. Master’s of Business Administration, BS In architecture, Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Nurse (CHPN), etc.)
  2. Broad Keywords: Keywords grouped around general university and higher education terms. (E.g. Best universities, best colleges, colleges with best campuses, colleges with best athletics, etc.)
  3. Branded Keywords: Keywords containing the university’s own branded terms. (E.g. University of Central Florida, UCF, etc.)
  4. Non-enrollment Keywords: Any other terms not related to education or programs offered. (I.e. anything related to job openings, academic research, or other informational based topics not designed to drive student acquisition.)

University PPC Budget Breakdown

Our research found an estimated average monthly paid search spend of $779,990 per month for these top universities. Here’s how that estimated budget breaks down:

  • 63.65% Program keywords
  • 21.84% broad keywords
  • 3.87% branded keywords
  • 10.65% other keywords

A pie chart showing the percentage of PPC budget universities spend on different keyword strategies.

Higher Education PPC Strategy

In addition to the amount spent on each type of higher ed paid advertising keyword, we uncovered some interesting insights into these universities’ PPC strategies.

  • It appears that most of the spend and strategies are used to promote bottom-of-funnel keywords on program specific keywords. That means these schools are targeting mostly prospective students who are close to making a decision to apply to a school.
  • Second to program-specific keywords comes spend on overall university brand awareness and promotion via broad keywords. This strategy casts a wide net and aims to get a school’s name out there for people who are deciding what colleges and universities they may want to apply to. The downside of this strategy is that it is generally expensive, competitive, and low-yield (it’s also often necessary for schools that lack name recognition). That being said, it can still be highly effective with the proper landing page and offer strategy.
  • Many of the universities we looked at lack strategies that target keywords that indicate that a prospective student is higher up in the decision-making funnel (i.e. They’re researching things that indicate that they’re interested in attending college, but they’re not yet ready to apply or even request information from a specific institution). For example, very few universities go after degree comparisons like “MBA vs. MHA vs. MPH” or “BSN vs MSN”. Instead, the majority of the keywords we saw were mid- to bottom-of-the-funnel.

In PPC and content marketing for businesses, we obsess over the “buyer’s journey.” We create ads and content for every stage of the funnel, from awareness to consideration to decision. Yet our research shows that it’s fairly common for higher education institutions to focus almost exclusively on the bottom of the funnel — missing out on the chance to market to potential students earlier and position themselves as a helpful, expert resource on areas of study students are interested in.

How Your Higher Ed Institution Should Spend Its Ad Dollars

Vital has worked with dozens of higher education, education tech, and specialty education organizations. We have spent millions of dollars on advertising campaigns, and attributed those millions of dollars directly to leads, form submissions, applications, and enrolled students.

In addition, we have interviewed dozens of marketing professionals at these institutions, reviewed competitive campaigns, and launched extremely successful campaigns — as well as campaigns that haven’t achieved our goals and objectives.

This has led us to some pretty valuable insights for our current and future clients.

Here are some major takeaways from our experience and research:

  • It is often necessary, and very common to have advertising budgets associated with each program or offering of your institution. Dedicated budgets allow for proper measurement of success across specific programs, as well as the discipline to focus on specific areas.
  • Bidding on keywords that are higher up on the student decision-making process often reduces competition, cost per click, cost per conversion, and, through proper lead nurturing, reduces cost per application and cost per student enrollment.
  • Many higher education institutions lack the early- to mid-funnel content necessary to maximize the results of their paid advertising campaigns. Some of the biggest universities with the largest ad spends are the biggest culprits, leaving even schools with smaller budgets ample room to carve out advertising niches that can yield positive ROI.
  • Earlier stage content and ads have proven to be some of our most successful campaigns.
  • Even highly competitive keywords and programs can have success, as many of the top institutions lack quality ad copy to increase CTR and drop cost per click, quality landing pages to maximize conversion rates, and proper lead nurturing sequences to successfully bring students through the funnel.
  • Testing landing page offers, ad copy, and landing page copy has been crucial for continuous improvement.

Allocating Your University’s Paid Advertising Spend

When it comes to allocating your advertising spend, there are many factors to consider, including:

  • Do you have new programs, or programs that need greater application numbers?
  • Do you have programs that have plenty of quality candidates, and don’t need additional promotion?
  • Do you have programs that have plenty of applicants, just not the “right” applicants?

The answers to these questions would change your allocation of budget and the overall goals and strategies of your advertising campaigns.

Roughly speaking, like the country’s largest universities, our clients spend the majority of their budgets on program-specific advertising, and put a much smaller chunk toward brand awareness and broader strategies.

Vital’s clients, however, focus much more on the mid- to top-of-funnel searches related to specific programs — much more so than the larger institutions that we researched for this post.

Vital’s Higher Ed Paid Advertising Recommendations

Here are some suggestions that may help your college or university drive greater ROI (and more quality applicants and enrollments) through PPC budgeting and strategy.

Want Help Optimizing Your College or University’s Digital Advertising Budget?

We’d love to talk. Fill out this form and we’ll be in touch to start the conversation about how to help reach your school’s enrollment goals through paid digital advertising.

Digital Enrollment Marketing for Higher Education

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Digital Enrollment Marketing for Higher Education

What’s in the eBook? This 30-page guide is your digital marketing playbook for attracting more qualified applicants, building your academic brand, and bridging the gap between acceptance and enrollment to fill more seats and grow your school’s programs.