Beginner’s Guide to Launching Digital Ad Campaigns for Higher Ed

Posted: August 15, 2016

Getting started with digital advertising can be overwhelming. With so many channels, ad sizes, segmentation options, targeting criteria (and more) to consider, many higher ed marketers are left asking the simple question, “where do I begin?”

Step 1: Start with Business Goals

As with any marketing initiative, goals inform your strategy, planning and tactical execution. When you’re first getting started with online advertising, resist the urge to set goals solely on granular indicators like clicks and impressions. Instead, focus on what you’re really trying achieve.

Business goals, such as increasing enrollment in X program by 10%, will inform where you invest – and where you don’t invest – your advertising budget. For example, when there is a lot of competition around the type of degree or program you’re promoting (MBA programs come to mind), your digital strategy might focus first on building awareness of your institution at the top-of-the funnel, and secondarily on nurturing those leads to convert.

Helpful Hint: Goals are the beacon for all decisions. If you set clear goals, the path toward achieving them will that much more clear.


Step 2: Know Yourself and Your Competition

In order to create an advertising strategy that achieves your goals, you must first understand your brand and what sets you apart from the competition. Your positioning in the competitive landscape will drive the content and messaging of your ads, as well as the visual design, placement and targeting criteria.

Start by getting to know yourself. What benefits does you institution offer? What do your stakeholders see as differentiators? What are students saying about their experiences? Conducting on-campus interviews, sending out surveys and talking with prospective students and alumni are all ways to identify attributes, factoids and stories that can be communicated to a broad audience through your digital advertising to pique an interest in your institution.

Next, look at what your competition is doing. Do you know if your competitors are actively advertising? What is their messaging? What is the brand story on their website trying to communicate? Collecting as much information as possible about yourself and your competition will enable you to create more effective ads down the road.

Helpful Hint: As far as advertising goes, your competition may not always be exactly who you think. For instance, online-only schools won’t be geographic competitors, but you will compete with them for online ad space.


Step 3: Know Your Target Audience

Understanding your audience is commonly regarded as the most basic principal of marketing. Who are you trying to reach? What are they looking for? What challenges are they facing? How are they researching their options? Where do they get their information?

Having a thorough understanding of your target market allows you to create ads that are truly compelling and place them where your audience is already looking.

Helpful Hint: This might also be a good opportunity for you to do some preliminary keyword research. Whether you’re doing a Google AdWords campaign or not, it’s a good idea to see what people are searching for and get some ideas on traffic. You can do this through Google’s keyword analysis tool.  


Step 4: Set the Strategy

With measurable goals in place, it’s time to put together a clearly defined strategy and determine which channels you’ll want to leverage based on your goals, audience, positioning and budget.

The most time consuming part of figuring out your online advertising strategy will be channel research (e.g. Google AdWords, Facebook Advertising, LinkedIn, etc.). If you’re new to this, we recommend starting small and looking at Google AdWords and maybe one other channel (Facebook is a great place to start). Both are pay-as-you-go with no minimums, and have great support built into their platforms to help get you started.

Helpful Hint: It’s important to note that each channel is different. You’ll have different targeting options, different price models and different dashboards to manage. Becoming as familiar as possible with each channel will help you make the most informed decisions possible when finalizing your online advertising strategy.


Step 5: Set Up Your Ads and Landing Pages

The type of ads you create will depend on the channels you’ve selected. In general, here are some best practices to creating ad concepts:

  • Maintain a consistent message and visual approach to enhance credibility
  • Remember that the words you use are equally as important as the images
  • Give your audience a clear call-to-action so they know exactly what you want them to do
  • Create engaging ad copy and incorporate high-quality, memorable images that, if possible, are not stock photography

The landing pages that your ads point to are critical to the success of your campaign. Once users click on an ad, these pages should enhance their experience and move them further along in their relationship with your institution.

For those of you who are new to the online advertising business, a landing page is the webpage to which users are directed when they click on your ad. Your landing page should aim to engage users as quickly as possible. Here are a few tips for creating effective landing pages:

  • Align the content on your landing page with what you’ve promised in your ad
  • Use the design and content on the page to direct users to their next step
  • Remind users what they’ll get when they convert with phrases like “Talk one-on-one with an admissions counselor!” or “Download our digital viewbook!”
  • Give your call-to-action (CTA) a prominent location at the top of your landing page and repeat the CTA at regular intervals on the page
  • Exclude your site’s normal navigation to keep users from navigating elsewhere

Step 6: Launch Your Campaigns

The most important thing to remember when setting up your ads is to take your time and be extremely thorough! It may seem like you are being overly detailed, but this will pay off in the long run. For example, when creating a Google Search campaign, you’ll want to think about your goals and set up ad groups based on each specific audience segment you’re targeting. Be as specific as possible.

Once you’ve set up each channel included in your strategy, it’s time to launch! Congratulations, you can start your ads with confidence knowing that you’ve done your research and have clear goals in mind.

Helpful Hint: Ad groups are sets of ads that are all closely related by content, the target audience or by a specific goal. Use ad groups to organize your ads by a common theme. For example, try separating ad groups into the different programs you’re advertising.


Step 7: Manage and Optimize

Despite all of the research you’ve done ahead of time, you’re not going to get everything right on the first try. The key is to keep a close eye on performance and on industry trends. Don’t over-adjust or make changes too quickly, but don’t be afraid to take chances either.

We recommend having pre-set reporting periods where you can analyze your results and make informed decisions to improve. This will allow you to compare data from set time periods and holds you accountable for monitoring and updating your ad campaigns. Remember, always measure against your goals to ensure that you are accomplishing what you set out to do.

Helpful Hint: Continuously check your ads to ensure they’re still linking to the right place and your conversion codes and forms are still working. For example, it’s possible for a web developer to make a change to a site (without realizing the effect of changing the URL or updating a page template) and modify all of your tracking pixels.


While we can’t make you an expert overnight, hopefully you found this quick guide helpful. If you have specific questions, or want to chat with one of our experts, feel free to reach out or leave a note in the comments below.