Tips to optimize higher-ed PPC
Digital marketing is, increasingly, a major area of focus for education institutions across the country, with “paid search” advertising (advertising on search engines such as Google or Bing) being one of the major channels schools rely on for help in growing their enrollment. With this increase in focus, competition has been steadily growing over the last few years, which makes deciding which programs to market an increasingly difficult task.
In order to help provide some context on the estimated costs associated with marketing a specific program, the Collegis Education digital marketing team compiled keyword research (utilizing Google’s keyword research tool) to look at which programs have the highest estimated marketing costs. We then validated the information against our own internal metrics to see how close it came to our actual numbers. (The outcome of this research is included below.)
How do I use this information?
If, when you do your research, the cost estimates seem prohibitively high for some programs, don’t let that single factor discourage you from marketing your programs. When looking to identify which programs to market, it’s important to base the decision on your own internal data and metrics. Understanding your inquiry-to-enrollment rate for the channel is extremely important to making sure your marketing efforts are impactful.
Work backward from the estimated tuition of a given program. From there, you can use your average inquiry-to-enrollment rate to identify the estimated tuition per inquiry, per program. This will enable you to set your cost-per-inquiry goals and will help ensure that your marketing efforts are working in support of your institution’s growth.
What if my conversion rates are too low for the program to be effective, should I focus on a different program?
The answer, again, is: “It depends.” While it certainly makes sense to focus on the most efficient programs first, there are several things you can do to help bolster the performance of a given program, or even a whole institution. The two things we have seen make the greatest impact, time after time, are conversion rate optimization (CRO) and admissions training. Of course, for either of these to work, it is essential to have accurate tracking and reporting.
If, when you do your research, the cost estimates seem prohibitively high for some programs, don’t let that single factor discourage you from marketing your programs.
Conversion Rate Optimization
Conversion rate optimization (CRO) is the process of making changes to a website or landing page in order to improve the visit-to-conversion rate. (For higher education, the “conversion” is usually an inquiry or application form that an institution wants a potential student to fill out.) CRO can have a major impact on an institution’s performance, as it helps to get more out of existing traffic to your digital properties without having to increase advertising spend. Because of this, having strong developers and designers is essential for designing top-performing pages. With paid search, improving a given page’s performance is the easiest way to improve your cost-per-inquiry, and – by extension – your cost-per-enrollment. Even if your cost-per-inquiry is where you want it, improving your conversion rate will allow you to increase your competitiveness with a given campaign while maintaining your current performance goals.
An institution’s admissions team has significant impact on a marketing campaign’s effectiveness. Everything in the admissions process will impact your inquiry-to-start rate – from the amount of paperwork required, to how fast you are contacting an inquiry after they reach out. Even a small change in the process can have large ramifications in performance.
Before launching a marketing effort on a highly competitive program, make sure your admissions team is ready to quickly respond to the resulting leads. Equally important is that your team must be prepared to monitor how the leads are progressing through the process.
Tracking and Reporting
In order to enable the other strategies, it is essential to have effective tracking and analytics reporting set up in the platforms you use. Getting your CRM to import advertising information can make a massive difference when it comes to optimizing your campaign’s performance. Make sure you can accurately track enrollments back to every possible source whether it is a channel, campaign, page or keyword. Once you have this data, you will be much more informed as you make decisions regarding how to improve performance.
Does high cost mean high quality? Should I focus on high-volume programs?
While cost can reflect the potential return on a program, it isn’t a good indicator of quality traffic. Some programs have so many online programs being offered that the market is saturated with programs. Two examples of this are “RN to BSN” and MBA programs. Many different education institutions offer these online programs, which makes standing out in the marketplace very difficult.
Before launching a marketing effort on a highly competitive program, make sure your admissions team is ready to quickly respond to the resulting leads.
When reviewing the list (the full list can be found at then end of this article), a few programs jumped out as clearly being the most expensive. Master’s programs, for some of the more common areas of study, have very high estimated costs. Programs in Business Administration, Education, Social Work, Criminal Justice and Health Administration all have an estimated cost-per-click of over $60. (See Table 1)
Table 1: Master’s programs with highest estimated cost-per-click during February 2018
It should come as no surprise, then, that master’s programs, on average, had the highest overall estimated cost-per-click rates. On the other hand, the two biggest surprises I found when reviewing the data were the cost estimates for associate-level and doctorate-level programs. Bachelor degrees in some of these same areas (Criminal Justice and Business Administration), also ranked among the highest estimated CPCs (coming in at $62.67 and 48.38, respectively). They were joined by bachelor degrees in Management, Psychology, and Accountancy. The same top two fields were numbers one and two for associate-level degrees, as well, with Business Administration coming in at $45.89 and Criminal Justice at $44.76. (The highest-ranking doctoral program was Education, with an estimated CPC of just $42.35 – more than $20 below its master-level counterpart.) (See Table 2)
Table 2: Comparison of estimated cost-per-click by degree type during February 2018
Associate-level programs tended to be much more expensive than their bachelor equivalents (the top two categories notwithstanding), being closer in cost to master-level programs. This is likely due, in part, to the wide availability of many associate degree-programs online, which has significantly driven up the level of competition. Conversely, doctoral programs have the lowest cost-per-click by a wide margin, most likely because fewer institutions provide online offerings in those areas.
The Heart of the Matter
While this information can be useful, remember that it’s your institution’s own performance that matters. A $60 cost-per-click for one program may be more sustainable then a $20 cost-per-click for another. Instead of basing your decisions on individual inquiry costs, keep a close eye on your conversion funnel and make sure you’re generating the right inquiries, while addressing any landing page or admissions issues as they occur. The rate at which the traffic turns into enrollments for you –and the true cost per start for each program – is what matters at the end of the day.