Climbing the Heights of Digital Marketing in Education


Digital marketing has increasingly become the primary vehicle for higher ed and independent school advertising. The rapid growth and evolution of many digital channels offers strong audience targeting, highly trackable results, and in many cases, superior performance compared with other marketing options.

The recent fascination with digital marketing has also exposed a substantial divide in the capabilities of education marketers. The use of digital and social media advertising such as Facebook ads and

Google Ads, along with other display ads, retargeting, and video ads, has produced clear distinctions in the aptitude of the marketing practitioners. While a few have mastered the strategy, targeting, execution, and analytics, a majority in schools and even in higher ed create basic digital ads for ill-defined audiences and fail to fully leverage program results to improve future digital campaigns.

Let’s dig into various digital marketing options, tackling enrollment recruiting and fundraising, elements to build and analyze digital initiatives, and the importance of campaign data in continually improving your digital programs.

What is Digital Marketing?

Most traditional discussions of digital market contain the following; I am including Facebook ads, also categorized as social media advertising, because they have become a major factor in digital marketing. This analysis covers the categories with the largest impact on education marketing.

Google Ads: one of the two firms that have transformed digital advertising, Google has developed a powerhouse ecosystem of search engine dominance, intensive knowledge of macro trends and

personal profiles, and diverse advertising options. They integrate data from users’ web browsing, travels and searches referencing Google Maps, device usage, and many other factors, allowing them to present your ads to a highly targeted audience on the platform preferred by the recipient. Google offers you two primary digital advertising methods:

  • Search engine ads: the hugely popular option is now in its 20th year of offering marketers advertising options for keywords used by web searchers. Initially called Google AdWords, this option is a close fit with Google’s dominance of the search business and lets advertisers bid to

appear when certain search terms are entered. These ads have a generally high click rate on average, over 3% (per WordStream), in great part due to the high intent shown by searchers. This search engine advertising is usually for prospective buyers who are somewhat to very far down the funnel, whether sales or enrollment.

  • Google’s display advertising program is part of a massive global network of two million websites that reportedly reach 90% of internet users. These sites are independent businesses that have an advertising relationship with Google and offer their platforms for Google to display ads that are a good fit with the site owner’s audience. Click rates and costs on these ads are significantly lower than the PPC (pay-per-click) ads.

Facebook ads: The fastest-growing area of digital marketing in education, Facebook ads can appear in Facebook’s news feed on a desktop, the news feed on mobile, and in the right column of Facebook on a desktop. Most significantly, Facebook offers a huge number of targeting options for you: you can

go beyond basic demographics and location to include many criteria built around user behavior and interests culled from Facebook’s nearly limitless data trove. The ability to select interests in say, the arts or a particular subject or sport in Facebook activity can match up well with the strengths of your institution as presented in an ad, and the company also offers “lookalike audiences” that enable you to select prospects based on profiles of your most valued parents or alumni/ae.. Facebook has intensive data on the preferred device of a student or parent, enabling them to reach various audiences on a mobile phone, laptop, or desktop computer.

Other display ads: In addition to ads from Google and Facebook, there are many other display advertising opportunities to get the word out about your school, college, or university. One of the early examples of this was for print magazines as they began to introduce their websites; if you advertised

with Northshore magazine’s print version, you could create synergy with a banner ad on their website. Now there are dozens of digital ad networks with robust demographic targeting audiences and many options for casting your image and message across the web, such as Yahoo, Bing, and broad-based options such as mMedia, Taboola, and AirPush (mobile only). In addition to classic banners ads, most of these networks can related options such as rich media (of which video is the biggest see below), advertising on apps, or interstitial advertising, where ads appear as a separate webpage before the reader is directed to the original page he or she planned to visit. While click rates are lower than with search ads, display ads are shown to enhance awareness and brand perception and potentially shift prospects’ thinking.

Retargeting: Do you recall the first time you visited a website for shoes, or hotels, or a particular college, and soon begin seeing ads for that company or institution? Many of us do, and after getting over the surprise, some thought it was immediately super cool, while others were angered by the privacy invasion. We were all partially right, because this ten-year-old technology is a master class in targeting user “intent” while also a harbinger of data breaches, privacy battles, and a legitimate

concern about “big brother.”

Retargeting – also known as “remarketing” – collects “cookies” (small files of computer data from your device) when you visit a website and uses them to track what other sites you then visit. Firms offering retargeting deliver your ad, whether for shoes or your independent school, to that visitor when he or she lands on another website that’s part of the retargeting network. Retargeting is offered by Google, Facebook, and many other firms such as AdRoll, in a wide range of ad formats. Retargeting delivers 250 to 400% greater click rates than average display ads and significantly higher conversion, often at lower cost than other Google search ads. It is often used to “close” an interaction with a visitor; in the case of education, you can give a past web visitor who looked at your enrollment or open house page but did not complete an inquiry or registration form an opportunity to reconsider. The power of retargeting alone is sufficient reason to develop campaigns driving prospects to your website.

Video: Online viewing of video remains a rocket ship: Zenith estimates it will move from 67 minutes of viewing by an average person in 2018 to an estimate of 100 minutes in 2021 – with rapid gains in video advertising to $61 billion in 2021 while traditional TV ad spending declines to $180B at that time. These figures include video watched on a variety of platforms, including Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and social media

There is tremendous opportunity for education advertising in this meteoric growth phase, as video ads are moving from a niche to mainstream offering. There are now many video advertising options,

including where the ads appear, their length, how much screen space they use, when they appear, and whether they’re skippable: YouTube describes their options as “display,” “overlay,” “skippable and non-skippable video ads” (play before a video starts, interrupt a video, or play after the video), and “bumper ads” of six seconds that must be watched before a video plays).

Native: This genre of advertising is often misunderstood and is still infrequently used in higher ed and schools. Native advertising is paid advertising integrated into the form and function of a website and uses similar content, so it is often difficult to recognize it is an ad. Native ads can appear as editorials, videos, infographics, or other visual content, and can reference “influencer” or third-party endorsements. Publishers are required to identify native ads with tags or notes such as “sponsored content” or “ad.” Native ads typically produce much higher engagement than traditional banner ads, most likely due to the unusual content and because many viewers still do not know they’re looking at an ad.

Email and Blog: While email in particular is best known for its impact on retention, it is also a viable digital prospecting tool. In education, email is the most common tool to communicate with your existing students and families. Open rates are very high, often between 50% and 80% for your current constituents for weekly newsletters and related updates. Prospecting emails, especially when personalized and targeted to an applicant’s interests, can increase applications and yield. The most crucial factors in emailing to prospects are ensuring you have permission to email them and micro-targeting your audience to increase the relevance of your message. Likewise, blog posts are a strong vehicle to connect with both current and prospective constituents, as the posts can be shown on your website and in your social media channels, be referenced in your emails, and appear on third-party websites and publications.

The Emergence of Omnichannel Marketing

Thirty years ago, there was television, radio, print, and direct mail. Twenty years ago, the internet and email were gaining steam, and the mobile vision taking shape. A decade ago, social media, blogging, pay-per-click ads, and search engine optimization emerged. Now, marketing and advertising is hyper-personalized and dominated by social media, technology, and shopping colossuses.

It has repeatedly been proven that integrating your message across multiple channels creates more awareness and sales than using one medium alone. Today that premise is truer than ever, as the explosion in cell phones, coupled with the growing power and sophistication of wireless networks and the stunning capabilities of database systems, impacts each of us every day. Now we absorb advertising messages on nearly every channel, hundreds or thousands of times per day. Marketing on just one platform is no longer sufficient, especially to the info-hungry young people and their parents who are your primary education targets.

This is why omnichannel marketing is so crucial. Unlike its close cousin, multichannel marketing, omnichannel marketing is built around the consumer/customer/shopper/user behavior and creates a personalized experience in each marketing channel. Especially in education, with its tech-savvy constituents, it is crucial to present the institution’s brand, message, and calls-to-action consistently across cell phones, laptops, desktops, podcasts in a vehicle, and Smart TVs.

Spotlight on Omnichannel, Behavior-driven Advertising

AdTaxi, an omnichannel digital marketing agency, delivers integrated marketing based around its optimization platform, Quantum. The algorithm behind AI (artificial intelligence)-driven Quantum helps AdTaxi provide programmatic advertising and real-time bidding that ties together search, display, social media, audio, email, and “connected TV.”

AdTaxi’s differentiator is its ability to offer advertisers incredibly cost-effective digital marketing by optimizing their investments across platforms. Quantum is channel-agnostic and delivers critical insights for each individual advertising medium, then connects that data with all other platforms used by that client. Whether it’s behavioral targeting based on a prospect’s persona, seamless integration of activities across various channels, highly sophisticated real-time bidding capabilities, or knowledge of a user’s preferred device, Quantum connects the dots to maximize the return for each individual prospect. AdTaxi adheres to the tough GDPR standards and operates under a “privacy by design” philosophy.

AdTaxi is channel agnostic – the algorithm looks for the right person first and aligns the other paths they pay attention to. Behavioral tracking is critical in AdTaxi’s model, with behavioral elements layered on top of our media such as Facebook, Google, radio, and TV. AdTaxi is a classic example of the power of integrated marketing, as their omnichannel strategy consistently proves more effective than advertising in any individual medium.

AdTaxi has begun targeting education, with very promising results. In a recent case study, a university in Pennsylvania used advanced programmatic display and leveraged intensive audience learning, cross-device, and retargeting efforts to increase interest and applications. Leveraging the power of machine learning, the omnichannel optimizations created by the Quantum algorithm achieved an astounding 488% increase in “Apply Now” button clicks and a 47% decrease in cost per lead!

Additional Digital Marketing Experts

While AdTaxi offers a unique glimpse into our marketing future, several other agencies and companies offer a super-charged variety of digital marketing services. Firms such as KoMarketing, Perfect Search Marketing, Rise Interactive, Ansira, and Epsilon offer a stunning breadth of options to target the best prospects, tailor marketing channels and programs to them, and use data-driven strategies to personalize the advertising experience. Some of these companies have already targeted higher ed and schools as a vertical market, and the others will surely do so as education evolves in its strategic thinking and resource allocation. In the meantime, for institutions grasping the power of highly targeted, personalized digital marketing to transform their enrollment and retention now, you can get started with digital marketing education experts like Enroll Media Group or Kalix Marketing.

LEVELS OF DIGITAL MARKETING EXPERTISE IN EDUCATION

As you can see, digital marketing is already a very significant marketing channel in education, and more advertising dollars continue to migrate to digital. This raises the question: how well prepared are education marketers to capitalize on these opportunities to enhance the awareness, reputation, and enrollment of their institutions?

I continue to believe in a simple, yet daunting, notion: that a thoughtful, analytical marketing strategy is a pre-requisite to institutional success. And therein lies the rub for most independent schools, colleges and universities: many do not have the experience, skills, or even the interest to develop a strategic marketing framework to shape their rapidly-evolving future. That includes describing your institution’s mission, strengths and weaknesses, and competitive landscape; defining your target audience, its key characteristics and more than ever, its behavior patterns; determining what marketing channels are most effective; and understanding what factors influence constituents’ decision-making.

The frequent lack of strategic capabilities in education marketing is a key factor in the following

assessment of digital marketing skills in higher ed and schools. I see these four levels of digital marketing competence:

  • Level O: no digital marketing

  • Level 1: an institution doing some basic display ads, perhaps a few Google Ads or a tiptoe into Facebook ads, usually on its own (no agency support). But these programs are created with little strategic thinking, minimal focus on the target market, and often a lack of analytics and follow-up. Level 1 institutions often have a very limited budget.

  • Level 2: these institutions have sharp, analytical people running fairly sophisticated campaigns in several digital media, testing formats, making changes based on results - OR more often, that school or college has hired an outside agency or firm, having decided it doesn't have the knowledge or time to tackle digital marketing seriously but understands its value. These practitioners understand behavioral strategy, e.g. in using Google's platform that encompasses many individual activities on the web, Maps, etc, and on Facebook's targeting.

  • Level 3: these ninja digital marketers live in rare air, generally found only in the most advanced agencies such as AdTaxi and their larger, data-driven competitors. These experts have a full grasp of marketing strategy, targeted marketing fundamentals, and the potential to integrate behavior into audience and channel selection. They start developing the target market first, use powerful algorithms and programmatic advertising to create campaigns to target that optimal audience, and fully integrate search, display, social media, retargeting, video, and perhaps even TV. The groups continue to support their clients by reassessing the audience and the media based on the results of the advertising.

Key Takeaways for Education Marketers
  • Level 0: If you are not yet using digital marketing or advertising, it’s not too late. Start by developing a basic marketing strategy to define your strengths and target market. Consider some basic digital programs such as Google Ads or rudimentary Facebook ads directed toward a specific objective like increasing applications or setting up a visit. Use free resources such as Facebook Blueprints or YouTube videos to learn “how to” accomplish certain projects. Strive for basic, low-cost advertising that is easy to implement and measure.

  • Level 1: You are on a good path. First, ensure these campaigns are part of a sound marketing plan. Then, make a commitment to fully analyzing the analytics and results of your campaigns. Jake Youmell, co-founder of Enroll Media Group (EMG) an education and nonprofit-focused digital marketing agency, says marketers “should assess what is working. Specifically, what platforms, ad formats, and audiences performed the best for their institution. Validate measurement via conversion tracking, Google Analytics, cost-per-enrolled student, and other ROI metrics that are factored to improve over time.”

  • Level 2: You understand the stuff we’re talking about here, so it’s more fine-tuning. Are you doing extensive testing to see which channels and messages resonate with your audience? Are you able to connect your digital marketing programs to your goals in major buckets such as inquiries, applications, yield, and retention? Angie Ward, the other co-founder of EMG, also notes the importance of leveraging market research.Whether“ working in-house or with a vendor, rely on research that has defined your institution’s vision and goals to help refine your digital marketing. That data, in tandem with AB testing landing pages, ad copy, and design will help you reach and understand your audience further.”

  • Level 3: With this level of knowledge and technical sophistication, marketers in this category wouldn’t appear to have much room to grow. But that probably seemed the case a few years back, before algorithms came to dominate marketing and shopping, and behavioral targeting was just gaining steam. With the acceleration of artificial intelligence (AI), increasing development of personas and precision targeting, and advances in data collection and integration, who knows what these digital virtuosos will be working on in five or ten years!

I hope this article has been valuable to your understanding of digital marketing, the strategic opportunities it can offer for education marketing, and practical tips to help marketers of all levels step up your game and better support your institution. Best wishes in your next campaigns!

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank digital marketing experts Jake Youmell and Angie Ward of Enroll Media Group and Lew Sabbag of Publish Today Media for their insights.

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