Paid Search Marketing 101: A Guide to PPC for Your University


Universities and colleges have unique challenges when it comes to online advertising. While PPC campaigns should be a staple of your overall strategy, these campaigns can become particularly costly – or ineffective – if you don’t know the do’s and don’ts of this type of online advertising.

Our PPC company in Atlanta has tested several strategies over the years. Below are six tips designed to help you create paid campaigns that will deliver results, without exhausting your budget.


Advertise Throughout the Entire Year

For many higher institutions, there are expected dips and rises throughout the year. A typical reaction to this is for these colleges and universities to boost their online advertising when application deadline time nears.

Of course, that’s perfectly logical.

However, we also see these institutions essentially shut down – or neglect – their advertising during those natural lulls. Here’s why you should remain aggressive throughout the year.

Consider the Average Lead Time

It usually takes a long time to acquire new students, and students often start researching their options at various times throughout the year. That, alone, makes it worthwhile to advertise all year long, even if your application deadline may be several months away.

If You Have Graduate Programs

In our experience working with higher education institutions, we’ve seen that although undergraduate programs see typical peaks and valleys, graduate programs tend to be less predictable. If you offer graduate programs at your school, a year-long advertising strategy will maximize your reach and increase the likelihood of prospective students converting.

Rolling Stones Gather No Moss

Forgive the old proverb, but it actually serves a great purpose here. If you neglect or scale back your advertising at any time throughout the year, then you risk falling off the radar of your prospects. You’ll also quickly learn that it’s a steep climb to get back to the level of brand awareness you were at when you were regularly advertising.

In fact, you might discover that you’ll have to spend even more on your advertising to make up for the lost time, compared with if you had just remained consistent all year long.


Bid on Your School’s Brand Name

Many institutions fail to actively bid on their brand terms because they assume the work they do with search engine optimization will cover their bases. Sure, SEO is key toward cementing your branding, but it’s not the magic wand. By bidding on your brand terms, you have greater control over your messaging and can ensure that your visitors are funneled to key landing pages.

There is, of course, one other reason you want to bid on your brand terms: there’s no guarantee that your competitors aren’t going to bid on your brand. Take, for example, what we see when we conduct a search for “University of Phoenix.”

Fortunately for the online institution, they rank #1 on the page for their branded ad. But their competitor, Concordia University, shows up in that second ad spot. Clearly, they are actively bidding on the University of Phoenix’s brand in an effort to steal away prospects from their competitors.


Use Sitelinks Effectively

Ad sitelink extensions are additional links you can include in your ads that take customers directly to specific pages on your website. For higher education institutions with specific programs and degrees (such as a B.A. in Business Administration and a Master’s in Education), it can be tempting to link to these specific program landing pages with your sitelink extensions.

But that’s actually not an ideal solution. Here’s why:

Let’s say that you have a prospective student interested in a B.A. in Marketing. They come across your ad (after a search for “B.A. Marketing degrees near me”), which contains sitelinks for the following:

  • B.A. in Marketing
  • B.S. in Accounting
  • B.S. in Business Administration

You can assume that prospective student has no interest in any other degree aside from your B.A. in Marketing program. That’s why you want to create sitelinks that speak to the mindset of the searcher.

Here’s an alternative approach.

Look at those sitelinks above, which appeared after a search for communications degree. Rather than promoting other programs that the school offers, Gonzaga uses its sitelinks to provide more value to the searcher. Scholarships. Discounts. Programs. Each of these sitelinks is relevant to a person who conducted our communications degree search. Now, that person can click on the entire ad itself, or one of these more specific sitelink landing pages, based on what they value most at that time.


Bid on “Wrong” Terms

That headline seems off, doesn’t it? Why would you bid on the wrong terms? But here’s what you have to remember – not all prospective students know what they should be searching for. They might know the field they’re interested in, but they may not know the specific name of a program, or whether they are looking for a B.A. degree, a B.S. degree, a master’s degree, and so on.

You might have to bid on wrong terms; for example, if you offer a Writing degree, you might consider bidding on “Creative Writing” to cater to that type of search.


Vary Your Campaigns

Most schools know where the bulk of their students come from. For example, a school in Tennessee might draw most of their students from Tennessee and Georgia, and a lower number from states further away.

In makes sense, then, to vary your ad campaigns to meet the unique needs of these audiences. Run the majority of your campaigns within the coverage area where most of your students come from (based on your data), and expand to other states and regions accordingly. If your data suggests that students from Miami, for example often apply to your school, you should create a focused campaign there.

In each case, you want to adapt your message to your audience. What a school in NYC says to its audiences in Manhattan shouldn’t be the same type of message that school uses to attract prospects from New England.


Think Beyond Applications

More likely than not, the goal of your PPC campaigns is to get more application submissions, but that doesn’t mean that you should build your program around this lone goal. That’s because your prospective students aren’t going to be instantly persuaded to fill out an application with one ad.

Your goal should be to initiate a conversation and nurture a relationship. Create ads that direct your visitors to relevant and valuable information, such as tuition discounts, student life, and a background on your programs. Remember, the “sales” process for education institutions is long and complex. Before you can get the conversion, you need to build trust, demonstrate your expertise, and become a source of quality information.

The sale (or application submission) will eventually come.


Final Thoughts

PPC accounts can be a costly line item in your budget; at the same time, they should deliver more value than their worth. Our higher education marketing agency is driven by this principle.

To do that, though, you need to build campaigns that establish trust, keep your branding top of mind, and speak directly to the needs of your audience. Use these tips above for your future PPC campaigns and you should begin to see more value delivered from your online ads.


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