Integrated Agency Blog

Online Marketing and PPC in Higher Education

These days, online marketing in higher education, specifically digital paid and organic lead advertising, is once again in a challenging transition. The cost-per-click for the best terms attracting your best students is increasing to astronomical values and the competition is incredibly fierce. 

In the race to the bottom of undercutting one company’s keywords or duplicating the content of higher education PPC advertising, everyone loses. It can be tempting to simply give up on what most effectively sustains most online education brands, and instead focus on the thousands of “other” channels that work best for other industries. The conundrum, PPC has proven to be so prohibitive that even when a niche is found, it is bid up by keyword copycats. And unlike organic, PPC cannot scale to half, twice, or 25% more search of that phrase the following month the corresponding same percentages of cash increases, for less results.  PPC can’t be scaled.

Add up all the losses from the DIY crowd trying to find those one-in-a-thousand niche keywords and then when you do, that magic keyword is unable to scale to achieve growth goals. This leaves universities in the same boat again, trying to scale an unscalable channel of leads.

Something to ponder for executive leaders: Why in higher education, year after year for three decades, no matter the tech, cohort or situation, almost 90% of converted applications that persist are concentrated in three channels? These channels represent only 3% of the options that are screaming for your advertising money or what the new guy wants to try next with the budgets available. 

To learn more about where you should be spending your marketing dollars, check out this white paper that discusses why putting digital marketing spends into testing new channels is beneficial … but never by throwing away the scalable channels for the non-scalable ones. 

Keep in mind, one reason so many colleges and universities advertise online is because that’s where future students and their posse are. And more directly, when actively looking for education options, these students are searching online. If a college/university isn’t advertising online, and in the right places, at the right time and saying the right thing, those students will end up at someone else’s school. So, education online advertising can’t afford to not figure out online advertising and how to maximize their exposure on search engines. The favorite move of any single media vendor, source, or channel is selling what they have to sell. It brings to mind the old saying, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

To draw enough qualified leads to fit niche higher education programs, online education brands must be in the line of fire of direct search intent. Prospective students need to be able to find programs and compare their options online. The golden wisdom here is, it becomes increasing critical to attract wider audiences in which specific curriculum is ideal and best fit for the students.

The key is to separate the what and the how. The what is attracting the widest groups that can leverage the curriculum to achieve their goals. The how is providing an informative path forward for the student to self-qualify online if they wish to progress with questions or make contact, which starts the engagement.

In the early stages of graduate education, there are millions of different search references that terminate on a particular degree. Can you afford all those keywords and run them long enough to hit any ROI? And, which ones for how much? At the current cost-per-click, it may feel like you can’t afford to do PPC advertising.  

As an integrated agency, we are often called in to clean up the mess when media or PPC vendors place a university’s entire digital effectiveness at risk. This usually happens for one of two reasons, true PPC fraud, usually occurring when a media vendor is not even aware of the endemic media fraud occurring at the source of placement.  The second predominantly  occurs because of spreading their budgets over the millions of places the ad could show up to the tune of $40 per program or per day. 

We usually find the challenge is the use and understanding of the automation tools by those who just the read the blog, watch the videos, or take the two-week class. Become the learning expert, is exactly what Google and any media platforms or representatives of a single channel are designed to entice. When we apply the common sense after we wipe away all the SEM buzzwords, of course this type of strategy runs out of ads or is serving up your keyword triggers by 7:30 AM in the morning. Think about it: What percentage of the market of your best prospects can be reached between 7:30 AM and 7:32 AM? And all your allocated PPC money for the next 24 hours is exhausted and your ads or keywords are not served for the next 23 hours and 58 minutes. This is not scalable day after day. 

It amazes us how the big media companies hire these consultants who actually sell this thinking to clients all over the world for billions in waste per day. Finally, the bait is swallowed and the hook is set for at least 12-24 months of media spends with those wonderful department-trumpeted lead reports that show dramatically increased leads from the first 6 months. When we have the lagging results of educational marketing, multiplied by the deep trench plowed by touting the additional lead flows, the media vendor game is played. And let’s not forget, the budget spread easily across that ad console with the auto bid and limited budget for the day technique picked up from Google’s own video blog, which is also designed to increase your spend.

The very act of using the tools in the way they provide as “best practices” in order to sell the most ads, whisks away the only budget we had for that program to connect to a new student. It’s gone, nothing working for the day and the digital brand never even had a chance to start connecting with prospective students searching for their best fit program. All day, day after day.

In higher education, the PPC advertising space is full of retraining forces. The price for one click (let alone a lead or a sit) in education is one of the highest in all industries—turning a click into a lead or an actual body in a seat can be a long and complicated process that gets longer and harder the higher you climb the education ladder. 

Google says it clearly for those digital brands with the real products and services that are accurately represented. It does not take paid ads to get your message to connect to your best targets. It takes a mix of evergreen conversion and subject or programmatic-specific content comprised of approx. 74% of the budget, with very specific and highly segmented targeting on your ads for about 26% of the reach budget within education. The answer is simply building better, more engaging, and more relevant content that organically attracts more users to your brand, product, or service. This can be achieved for zero dollars per click with the right content that is relevant to the student based on their current perspectives, references, and student outcomes.

For higher education, a mastery of the right mix of variable organic content for lead generation and conversion is required with a synchronized targeted mix of paid ads to reach cohorts searching to buy now.

As an integrated agency with expertise in deploying multi-channel dynamically personalized advertising, FabCom brings a strategic and research-focused marketing methodology to our clients in order to generate the highest possible ROI. As a mid-sized agency located in Scottsdale, AZ, we can deliver on our promises affordably, rapidly, and responsively. Contact us at (480) 478-8500 or [email protected].


Brian Fabiano


Madison Miller