We’ve all seen this phenomenon when we cruise around the web:
You visit a video streaming site to check out their selection of zombie flicks for October viewing. Then later you’re on some unrelated site like Facebook and suddenly there are ads for The Walking Dead. Or you shop Etsy for a funny coffee mug to give your coworker for a gift, and then every other site you visit for a while suddenly has ads obsessed with coffee mugs. Research some marketing topics, and the next three YouTube videos you watch will be preceded by ads for online B2B software.
Sometimes these triggers are really touchy. It’s all you can do to look up the lyrics to a Bangles song and not have Monday.com follow you around for the rest of the day.
That’s remarketing in action. Sites you visit and ads you respond to set a cookie, or a variable flag in PHP, or some other signal as a trigger. That trigger then fires off on Google, Facebook, Instagram, and other sites. Even if the site you’re visiting isn’t part of the same media hub, they might have Google display ads, so the page looks like it “knows” your interests anyway.
Remarketing is a proven effective tactic. Retargeted ads have a CTR (click-through rate) ten times that of ordinary display ads. Now for even better news: retargeted ads don’t cost ten times as much as regular display ads.
The practice of ad retargeting is a hot trend, even though it’s not suited for every industry. It’s often not worthwhile to retarget ads for low-cost products or one-time-purchase items, for instance. The point of retargeting ads is to latch onto a consumer who lightly considered your brand solution, but needs time to “sleep on it.” Think cars, contract services, home remodeling, large appliances—any industry where the average customer is likely to remain an open prospect over a period of time. This includes higher education.
Higher Ed and Remarketing Are a Perfect Match!
For any website at all, the average number of visitors who “drive by” without making a transaction is 98%. That includes any and all websites, however, from social networks to personal hobby blogs. University websites would likely see a higher ratio of “no commit” first-time visitors since almost nobody signs up for courses on their first visit.
Planning out one’s academic path is one of the most important decisions to make in life. It shapes the course of a person’s destiny. People spend years going over the pros and cons of a career course, weighing the cost vs. the opportunity. During that decision-making journey, you want your higher education institution to be in the foreground, an enduring presence.
It isn’t always as simple as “display ad, customer buys.”
Granted, advertising is never a guaranteed game. TV viewers hit the mute button come commercial time, magazine readers thumb past ads, website visitors turn to anonymous web browsing, and so on. But no matter how much we make ourselves “ad-blind,” the content is still in our peripheral awareness. Even if you go through life with your head down, haughtily dismissing the influence of advertising in your life, it still creates “brand awareness.” You cannot “unsee” the ad. You likely know about dozens of companies through their ad campaigns alone, even if you’re nowhere near being in their market.
With retargeted ads, there’s some additional concern about user privacy. Harvard Business Review calls it the “Privacy Paradox.” They conducted a study measuring consumers’ response to retargeted ads on third-party websites and found some backlash. However, this was a small effect, some 17% of respondents being less interested in purchasing. They also found that the backlash could be mitigated through measures such as transparency with a “why am I seeing this ad?” info-box, or controls such as allowing Facebook users to change their privacy settings.
Universities enjoy a reputation of being a trusted staple institution in society. Universities also advertise without retargeting, so it’s not always easy to tell when an ad is just there by coincidence.
But the biggest factor making it different for higher ed is their target market: young adults. The younger the audience, the more accepting they are of targeted marketing technology.
In other words, part of the backlash comes from plain old “future shock.” Changes in media technology have traditionally had their little reactionary period until people get used to it. Younger generations grew up in a digital landscape, coming to accept advanced marketing methods along with their social networks and geo-targeted mobile data.
Bottom line: Do not be too aggressive, pushy, and in-your-face with remarketing. There’s a fine line between creeping people out with digital stalking, and delighting them with your service helpfully guiding them in a long-term decision. Consider putting a cap on the frequency of your ads so that you don’t overwhelm users. Test different ad frequencies to see what works best for your school and target audience.
Now, let’s look at a few examples of remarketing using the Facebook advertising platform…
Higher Ed Ad Remarketing In Action
There are a few different ways that you can build custom audiences. In this next section, we’re going to focus on two of the most popular: website visitors and email addresses. Now, within these two main categories, there are many different ways to segment prospects based on their specific actions. And different actions call for different ad campaigns. A student’s intent when visiting the sports program web page is much different than their intent when they visit the financial aid web page.
We’ll walk through a few scenarios and discuss the types of ads that are appropriate for each action and how they can help persuade prospects to take the next step.
Scenario #1:Visits program web page
Let’s say a STEM career candidate visits your university engineering program page. The kind of student who would be interested in Carnegie Mellon’s Gates Center for Computer Science. That’s your trigger. Get out your STEM career buyer persona and think about what this student is looking for:
Achievements of the engineering department. No arm twisting here, we’re just sharing this happy story about our success. Keep us in mind if you’re looking for a great engineering program. We call this the “ad disguised as a news story” approach, which we’ll see more of here.
This ad exhibits much more hard-selling. You might want to save this one for leads who have shown a tad more buyer intent first. Still, this is a handy little unit that makes efficient use of the ad space – you have links to learn more and even a call to action right there.
Perfect! This is a “soft sell” even though the whole ad is one big call to action for an event open to the public. No commitment here, because we’re just selling a fun day at a workbench playing with a bunch of gadgets while we rub elbows with other STEM geeks. What engineering student can resist? While they’re here, maybe they’ll tour around the campus a little.
Scenario #2: Visits financial aid web page
We have a slightly higher buyer intent this time. A visitor checked out your campus’ financial aid page. Nobody researches this off the cuff. It might be a parent, guardian, or counselor researching for the student, but you’re still likely talking to whoever is writing the checks.
We can afford to get right to the point this time. The lead is asking how to pay for college, and we answer it, or at least we tell them where to go to find answers. Notice that this is a webinar and it requires a registration to attend – useful for custom audience remarketing, which we will explore below.
Here we see the “news story ad” again. The great thing about this approach is that it doesn’t feel invasive, and the lead has no feeling of being targeted. It’s just helpful information put out there in case anybody’s interested. It gives the lead that “just what I was looking for” feeling.
Here’s our “hard seller.” The ad specifically mentions “half the cost of many 4-year state colleges.” Instead of talking about grants and scholarships, it offers a price incentive upfront with a sturdy call to action. This feels more targeted, but again the lead was looking for affordable college or we wouldn’t be here.
Scenario #3:Visits tuition schedule web page
An interesting thing happens when a lead researches your tuition schedule but not your financial aid page! This potential student is behaving like somebody who already has a financial plan in mind, be it student loan or working their way through. They went straight to the price tag, but remember, we’re retargeting here. That means that they came, looked at the price tag, and then did not commit.
We often say that marketing is at least 51% psychology. What is the lead thinking? They are wondering, “Is it really worth that price?” Does this higher ed institution offer value for its tuition? So we answer them differently.
This playable video ad drives hard on the point of university value. “Life-changing,” “1750 majors,” and the word “value” used generously. Selling the dream of success.
Why else might the lead be hesitant? Maybe they’re worried about acceptance, fitting the classes into their current career schedule, or pandemic safety. This ad says “Guaranteed Admission,” a fully online program, and a flexible schedule.
For specialized career schools, the lead is likely wondering what this university will do for their career goals. This ad promises you a future as a judge or community leader, with tantalizing network opportunities. The power can be yours.
Ad networks let you build a custom audience using email addresses: where might this data come from?
- Mailing list subscriptions
- Blog feed subscriptions
- Application package downloads
- Attendance of a webinar
- Attending a campus tour
Once you have an email address attached to a record of any of these activities, you have the base for a custom audience. These are all examples of high buyer intent behavior. They’ve already shown enough interest to engage with you before. At this point, you’re closer to “customer service” than advertising.
Scenario #1: Downloaded an application but hasn’t submitted it yet
An admissions update. ACT/SAT waived, and no application fee. We also mention the pandemic, showing that the school is aware that students might be struggling with unusual circumstances and it’s doing something to make it easier. This is a highly targeted, even empathic ad that still feels like a general announcement.
This is classic remarketing, simply putting the same offer out there again. It doesn’t feel targeted here, because universities advertise campus tours all the time, but it still has a tone of “come on back, we missed you!” “New Visit Opportunities” is there in case the lead had a schedule conflict.
The “hard sell” again all in one package. This effort tries to remove all barriers to applying: a workshop in case you had difficulty applying, an “affordable” and “FREE” application, and you get a toaster or something for a door prize. Honestly, this feels more like they’re selling a car. The point is, the lead was as interested as they can be, so if they’re waiting at the threshold, you can offer to close the deal.
While all of these examples come from Facebook ads, the approach is the same for other ad platforms. Develop remarketing ad campaigns that align with your prospect’s intent.
What Have We Learned About Higher Ed Remarketing?
We learned that with targeting and using custom audiences, we can speak more directly to the individual lead, no matter if they were casually curious or would be enrolled already were it not for a couple of snags.
We learned to take the “Big Brother” feeling out of targeted remarketing. For the most part. We are all getting saturated in advertising that uses customer data, and we’re all getting more used to it every day.
We learned that many different approaches exist to handle any kind of remarketing scenario, using a little bit of psychology and some practical marketing logic.