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Turning “likes” to action—and higher ed revenues

Paid advertising on social media gets mixed results
University Business, July 2016
Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also the founder of www.higheredexperts.com.
Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also the founder of www.higheredexperts.com.

The free lunch for marketers is over on social media. Now that Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and, more recently, Snapchat can boast millions of daily users, they can set the prices—and encourage users to pay through the algorithms ruling user feeds.

Social media might be about the people, but for the top players it’s about business.

Following the lead of big brands, small businesses and other organizations, higher ed institutions have accepted—sometimes reluctantly—the new, potentially more expensive social media order.

Schools still occasionally get lucky with a great piece of content, such as an emotional video or a stunning photo shared widely by their tight-knit campus community. But huge organic reach and engagement now often comes at a price. 

Pay to play

Many schools have reached for their wallets to keep social media views and likes flowing through a strategy called “boosting.” A boosted post is one that, for a fee, can appear higher on your target audience’s timeline.

Some 59 percent of 1,100 surveyed members of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education have paid to boost posts on Facebook, according to the 2016 Survey of Social Media in Advancement conducted by Huron Consulting and mStoner. In 41 percent of the cases, respondents said boosting an update to increase event attendance presented the greatest value of social media ads. 

It’s not surprising then to see “paid social” showing up as a line item in marketing spending plans. With monthly budgets hovering in the four-digit range, however, most schools are still in the testing phase with paid social.

“We started experimenting with paid Facebook posts in 2013 when the algorithm began to change,” says Cara Rousseau, digital and social media strategy manager at Duke University. Her office now uses paid social for fewer than 5 percent of its updates, and only in specific cases.

Getting users to take actions—subscribing for a newsletter or requesting more information, for instance—can be hit or miss. “We were paying between $3 and $4 per newsletter subscriber with Facebook and Twitter ads targeting our campus community members, so we tried a different tactic,” says Rousseau. 

Offering a donut to every new email subscriber at a few campus events proved to be a better solution, at a cost of only $1.50 per conversion.

Catherine Roy, communications and marketing specialist at the Virginia Military Institute’s Center for Leadership and Ethics, promotes several conferences targeted to government employees, educators and administrators. She often uses social ads to promote these events. 

Increased reach and engagement doesn’t always correlate with greater conference registrations. “Paid-for promotions are key in exposure and getting your content seen, but may not increase revenue,” Roy says.

Promising leads

At Mercy College of Health Sciences in Iowa, social posts have resulted in surprising conversion rates.

“We experimented with ads to promote a weekend format for our well-known associate nursing program in February and it did well with likes and shares,” says Sally Hawkins, online marketing specialist.

She later launched a campaign for two lesser-known programs: surgical technology and medical assisting. Targeting a segment of the school’s regional audience—namely, big healthcare employers—the medical assisting ad resulted in 59,000 views and almost 8,000 clicks to the program landing page, where email addresses were captured in exchange for access to a PDF program brochure. 

“Our cost-per-qualified-lead for this program was $113 on Facebook, compared to $195 for Google Ads,” she says.

While it’s still too early to rule on the performance of paid social to drive measurable actions beyond the media platform, it’s time for schools to start testing to optimize paid social for higher education marketing. 

Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also the founder of www.higheredexperts.com.

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