PPC for Higher Ed on a Budget

What you need to know to get the biggest bang for your SEM dollars

Without fail, at the beginning of each fiscal year, my customers at colleges and universities come to me with a myriad of statements and questions. They want to know which engines they should run on; what’s new in the world of paid search, PPC, SEM (or whatever the kids are calling it these days); and what they should do. As a higher education advertising agency, we can give them an answer if they first answer two simple questions: What is your budget, and what are your goals? It might sound generic, but usually this opens the gateway to a lengthy conversion about how to prioritize PPC spend and how to get the best ROI from paid search.

Whether you are giving this a go internally or working with an agency, here are a few things you need to consider:


  1. What is a realistic budget for my paid search strategy? In the world of higher education, there are countless ways to spend money. A lot of money. Sure, you could spend your entire marketing budget on display and display along (for the record, I do not condone that), but chances are you won’t see the best return. Determine a minimum and a maximum you are willing to spend. From there, you can decide how extensive your strategy will be.
  1. What am I hoping to achieve from my PPC strategy? Oftentimes, the answer I get will be “more students” or “better qualified students,” and that’s great. But consider what you’re seeing work well in other channels to drive these students. Do on-campus visitors enroll at a much higher rate? Do students who have requested more info get personalized messaging and 1:1 attention? Depending on what works well for your school, you may want to tailor a landing page to that step in the funnel. On the other hand, your school may have recently undergone a major branding initiative. In this case, you might want to get the message across and display may be the best avenue for you.
  1. Which programs are important to our university? This is very important. If you are spending money on programs that are at full capacity or have a tremendous reputation as is, you may be wasting your money. Consider focusing on programs that need some extra help or awareness.
  1. What is search volume like for our programs? Are you offering an Associate to Bachelor’s to Master’s Degree in Applied Socioeconomic Reform and Policy Management? Guess what? Nobody is looking for that. Be sure to see what kind of traffic you can expect by program. If you’re allotting funds to a program that is not going to spend, you may have to make up that budget later on (perhaps when interest is down a bit). Similarly, if you have complicated or unique programs, think about what potential students who are interested would be looking for. Those may be the right terms to go after.
  1. I know what to focus on – but how do I divide up my budget? This can differ depending on your goals. If your goal is to generate as many leads as possible, I typically recommend a search to display ratio of 80/20 (all good things follow the 80/20 rule, right?). This is, at the very least, a good place to start. See what your conversion rates are and if you are limited in any areas. Shift budget from there. We can make an educated guess up front, but nobody has a crystal ball. Be on your toes and willing to make adjustments.
  1. When do I stray from AdWords and AdWords alone? In general, AdWords is the best place to start. It’s a great way to learn and gauge results. But if you can’t spend all of your budget wisely, it may be time to expand. Consider taking your top performers and placing them into Bing Ads. If results are as good or even better, consider expanding further. If you’re looking to go the route of LinkedIn or Facebook advertising, proceed with caution. This is a whole new world with different metrics and targeting. Keep in mind that leads will likely cost more. But, again, if you are branding this could be a great route to go.

Whatever you choose to do, simply be sure you feel good about your higher education advertising plan. As long as you have a reason for spending the way that you are, you’re in a good position to make changes and improvements as you go. Don’t be afraid to ask for a little help along the way!

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