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The New Digital Advertising Order

Using online advertising to reach target audiences
University Business, November 2012

After the love-hate relationship higher education had with online advertising for many years, it’s finally time to move on. Have your institution’s leaders noticed yet?  

Since the early days, for-profit institutions have invested a noticeable part of their impressive marketing budget in online advertising. Whether they chose to rely on display and pay-per-click ad buys or built impressive lead-generation ecosystems of affiliate marketing websites, these institutions drove up the demand—and the cost—of auction-based digital ads like Google Ads for the rest of the industry. By investing so heavily online, the for-profits also managed, for a while, to literally own the digital advertising space.

In the minds of many prospective students and some non-profit marketers in higher education, online advertising has been perceived for a very long time as a piece of the “for-profit” exclusive branding territory—for better or for worse.

Fortunately, perceptions about online advertising have finally shifted in many not-for-profit circles in recent years. A 2010 survey on higher ed marketing spending of 212 CASE member institutions, conducted by Lipman Hearne, found that 73 percent of the 2008-2009 budgets included a line for online display advertising, and 46 percent for pay-per-click ads.

Not surprisingly, digital advertising budgets have benefited from the accountability quest of marketing expenses spruced by the new imposed financial discipline. Thanks to the measurement-centric nature of digital advertising, the return on investment—even in the case of display ads—doesn’t look as much as a leap of faith as it can with more traditional advertising. Last but not least, as more and more now rely on the digital space to stay informed and entertained, reaching target audiences online cannot be disregarded as wishful thinking anymore.

All these reasons have recently helped reposition online advertising as a viable, interesting option to reach targeted audiences for many institutions.

Digital Dynamic

“Most online advertising that we’ve done is far more cost efficient [than traditional advertising] for the number of eyeballs we get in front of,” confirms Rachel Reuben, associate vice president for marketing communications at Ithaca College (N.Y.). This explains why Ithaca has focused most of its efforts on digital advertising for the past year. While the college also included some radio and print buys in its rebranding efforts, the digital part was seen as a cornerstone of the advertising campaign.

At Ball State University (Ind.), Nancy Prater, director of marketing and communications for extended education, has been using digital advertising to help build awareness and grow enrollments for the 60-plus online degree and certificate programs offered at her institution. While she found out that not all the online advertising options are as inexpensive as people might think, Prater did manage to uncover some lower-cost and very effective opportunities to market specific programs.

Digital advertising was viewed as a cornerstone of Ithaca College’s recent rebranding efforts.

At the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, digital advertising has helped Liz Gross, director of university marketing and communications, to tackle a different challenge altogether. With nearly three-quarters of their students living in the county in which the university is located, there was a need to reach this small local audience in an effective way, explains Gross. The highly accurate geographic targeting required to meet this goal is only offered by online platforms and local newspapers—when or if they are still in operation.

A sign of this shift in higher education, digital advertising has even gained strong proponents at institutions across the world. “I am a huge advocate for social media advertising over traditional advertising: it is much cheaper, and you can actually see the rewards through analytics,” says Laura Rigby, e-marketing officer for the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Over the past 12 months on the Australian market, the costs associated with digital advertising have actually increased, reflecting the growing demand for these types of ads.

Social Media Specifics

While digital advertising had been limited to search or display ads for more than a decade, social media platforms have totally changed the deal over the past two years. Now that the major social media players Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter have matured into digital lifelines for millions of people, they have started to develop and have diversified their advertising offerings.

At UW-Waukesha, the fight between display ads and their Facebook counterpart has been fought—and won—after 12 months. Liz Gross chose to discontinue display ads and dedicate all her online advertising budget to Facebook ads. “Our 2011-2012 Facebook advertising campaigns cost 33 percent less than our display advertising and returned 77 times more impressions and 10 times more clicks,” explains Gross.

In 2011, the pre-IPO Facebook made $3.15 billion in ad revenues. Since it went public in spring 2012, the popular social media platform has multiplied advertising product launches and announcements, clearly showing where its priorities now stand. By filtering out content from its user newsfeeds via the algorithm called EdgeRank, Facebook has also created a need for institutions to bypass the said filters to make sure their messages reach the intended audience of their Facebook “likers.” Combined with the powerful demographic, geographic and interest segmentation features offered by the Facebook Ad Center, this tactic has led more organizations to spend their advertising dollars on the social media platform.

At the other end of the online advertising spectrum, Google, the other search engines, and the main display ad networks have been busy keeping up with the “social competition” by integrating search more deeply with social, offering new ad products, and further developing their performance measurement tools.


Thanks to the integration between its comprehensive online platform, Google Ads, and its popular web analytics application, Google Analytics, the search engine company provides a comprehensive solution to ROI-conscious university marketers as well as any digital agency they choose to work with.

Retargeting (also known as remarketing) has given the good old online banner a fresh start.

Higher Ed Marketing, a Montreal-based digital agency specializing in higher education, has witnessed a growing interest among Canadian and American institutions for its data-driven marketing services. In a recent analysis of more than $400,000 in online advertising buys made from January to June 2012, the agency reported an average conversion rate of 3.52 percent on computers, 2.66 percent on tablets, and 1.86 percent on mobile phones. (In this study, a conversion was defined as a filled admissions inquiry form.)

Web analysts at the agency were also able to calculate associated costs ranging from $34 up to $59 per conversion depending on the device and the campaign timing. There’s no doubt that many educated advertising decisions can be made with this kind of data.

However, display ads haven’t said their final word yet. By democratizing, adapting, and rebranding the once highly controversial cookie-based practice, retargeting (also known as remarketing) has given the good old online banner a fresh start.

According to a study conducted with 5,313 online buyers on display advertising by BizRate, 85 percent “feel neutral or positive towards online advertisements for products or services they recently looked at elsewhere online.” Retargeting is offered by many display networks, including Google Display Network, but also through the Facebook Exchange network. The practice has gained enough momentum in higher education—which is often cited as a great match for it—for earning itself coverage in mainstream media.

“We chose to do retargeting because of its unique abilities to show our banner ads to people who have been to our site before, as a subtle reminder to not forget about us, and hopefully strengthen their impressions,” explains Reuben.

There is no doubt that the rise of social media has caused a major shift in the way institutions communicate with and market to their target audiences. It has also profoundly modified the signal-to-noise ratio, making it more and more challenging for any institution to break through the noise. Social media advertising is finally coming of age. Display and PPC ads are still up for a fight on the web as well as the mobile front. Challenging and exciting times lay ahead for higher ed institutions in a very competitive market with huge and small players alike. The battle of digital advertising is on, and by-standers are the only ones who will be sure to lose it. So, what will you do?