Retargeter Blog

Higher Education Search Marketing

For most people not born in Generation Z (or the Millennial Generation), the only generation born not knowing a world without the internet, finding the college of our choice was done with the help of guidance counselors, parents, friends, favorite collegiate sports teams, and so on.  Those were the days when colleges used archaic advertising methods from the early twentieth century.  They sent out pamphlets and recruitment booklets to high schools across the country, created TV and radio adverts, and sent out letters and other information to alumni and prospective students through snail mail.  Ah, those truly were the days when conventional marketing and advertising would pay the bills and bring new students in by droves.  Alas, times have changed and so have the ways teenagers consume information.
In today’s society, teenagers have access to the internet on basically every device they own.  They have iPhones and Android phones, laptops, tablets, Xboxes and Playstations; even some of their cars and refrigerators can connect to the internet.  They can absorb information easier and faster than a Gen Y’er could ever have hoped.  Students today make decisions faster than they probably should, but those decisions are based on more information from multiple sources.  Therefore their decisions are more informed purely by the sheer amount of information available.  So how do university admissions offices compete in today’s world of Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and Google?
Admissions departments need to think like internet marketers, not just marketers from the twentieth century.  The conventional ways of attracting prospective students are still extremely crucial parts of a much broader marketing strategy that needs to be developed by the university.  There are multiple online marketing channels a university could choose to use, but I want to focus on three subsections of SEM today: PPC, Retargeting, and SEO.

Pay-Per-Click Marketing (PPC)

Paid search is one of the best marketing tactics a company can use to target potential customers and drive traffic with product specific or general text ads.  But why would a university want to use PPC as a marketing channel for admissions?  Simple, targeting potential students with relevant ads on keywords that are hyper competitive in the organic rankings can be a worthwhile short term investment until they are able to crack into the first page rankings.
Paid search can generate traffic much faster than SEO can, but the sustainability of using PPC as the main source of traffic is extremely low due to how a university’s budget is determined.
The PPC landscape has definitely changed over the past five years.  Five years ago PPC resembled the wild west of the 1800s; somewhat civilized, but definitely not conquered.  Bidding on keywords and determining your ROI was, at times, arduous and time consuming, but it was definitely necessary.  Clicks and impressions abounded and the higher you were in the sponsored listings, the more traffic and conversions were expected.  Higher educational institutions should jump into PPC marketing, but in today’s world, PPC is more of a science than guess work.  They need to start out researching simple, general keywords that will lead to longer tail keywords that will have lower impressions and clicks, but they will have much higher conversion rates.  Once they’ve found the correct keywords, they then need to experiment with ad positions.  Bidding for the number one slot isn’t always the best tactic.  The university and admissions page will get tons of visitors, but the cost may kill their ROI and the quality of those visitors may not be quite what they expected.  Finding the sweet spot when dealing with hyper-competitive keywords may take some time, but it’s a necessary process for the best ROI.


Retargeting is similar to the standard CPC method of pay per click, but with retargeting, ads are only shown to people who have already visited your site.  The increase of conversion rates on retargeting ads compared to normal PPC ads are upwards of 350% in certain industries, but why would a university want to try retargeting as a marketing strategy?  Brand recognition with highly targetable messaging to an already knowledgeable audience.  Brand recognition is huge for a smaller university trying to “steal” potential students away from the 900 pound university.  Keeping the university’s ads in front of potential students is a subtle way of staying fresh and competitive in a market that is largely owned by the 900 pound universities.  Obviously, the best way to bring those potential students back to the admission site is with a tantalizing message or offer.  Having the ability to have a highly targeted message displayed to a potential student will help increase click-through rates and more than likely conversion rates.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Simply put, if a company wants to have sustainable, long term search traffic, they must invest into SEO.  Searches on a search engine, mainly Google, are increasing daily and constantly changing.  The average click through rate per ranking is astounding.  The stats to the right are from’s study in 2011.  Trademark terms, shopping clicks, image clicks, and local/map clicks have been removed so these click-through rates represent general and long tail keyword searches.  But why would an admissions office need to worry about non-branded searches?  Doesn’t the university name bring in most of the traffic?  Probably so.  But what about keywords like ‘top colleges in the southeast’?  If a smaller college or university wanted to play with the big boys in the southeast, they could gain a huge upper hand by targeting that keyword.  If they could rank in the top three for it, then they would be taking traffic away from non-college sites and possibly the larger universities.  Having non-branded keywords bringing in traffic means that brand recognition is working on more than just branded searches.  People realize the importance of that college and will remember that they are ‘one of the top colleges in the southeast’.
Research, research, research.  That’s what it will take to find out who and what admissions offices should target and rank for.  It will take time, more time than most people want to admit and/or commit to, but in the long term plan SEO will pay off immensely.  Choosing to combine PPC marketing with SEO/Inbound Marketing will no doubt help alleviate the struggle of the delay in ROI that comes with SEO, but it will take time and research to maximize both channel’s ROI.

What Does It All Mean?

Think strategically and understand it won’t happen overnight.  Just as a sales or marketing team wants to maximize their budget and spend, admissions offices and universities want to maximize their prospecting time and budget. Thinking like a marketing team instead of a prospecting team will help transform the way universities find prospective students.
This blog on higher education search marketing was originally posted by Eric Evans from Merge, a digital strategy agency.

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