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The Top 5 Mistakes Made in Digital Advertising for Higher Ed

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Digital marketing has been one of the most robust and reliable marketing tactics of the past ten years across nearly every industry, and colleges and universities are no exception. As technology continues to evolve and advertisers increase their offering, it seemingly makes things more complicated, yet more manageable at the same time. It becomes easy to fall into traps that benefit the advertiser instead of you or, more importantly, your audiences without realizing it. We’ve compiled a list of the top 5 mistakes we see colleges and universities make in their digital advertising efforts.

1. Not Diversifying Your Advertising

Far too often when onboarding a new partner or speaking with our existing partners, we hear that they rely almost exclusively on a single advertising platform, usually META (Facebook/Instagram). When I hear this, I cringe because putting all of your eggs in one basket is never good. Here’s a great example of why. As we’ve discussed in
previous blogs, in August of 2021, META announced its decision to prevent the ability to advertise to those under 18 years old. This left many marketers scrambling as they were living off the previous successes of META Advertising and had to develop new strategies and new campaigns on new platforms while learning the tool themselves, all while attempting to optimize and grow enrollment.

A better strategy is always to diversify your advertising. This protects you from potential changes from a platform and, most importantly, helps get your message to users in multiple places. The META platform, for example, is limited almost entirely within the Facebook/Instagram experience, so as soon as they leave those apps/websites, you’re unable to reach them with ads. Diversifying with other advertisers allows you to reach them beyond those apps and throughout nearly the entire internet.

While it’s important to diversify, it’s just as important not to chase the shiny new object. Not every advertising platform makes sense for your audiences. It is essential to make sure that the content, audience, and deliverability all make sense as opposed to spending, and likely wasting, money on a platform because they’re the popular one at the moment… yes I’m talking to you, Snapchat and TikTok. While these platforms are growing by leaps and bounds, the advertising capabilities are still new, and the types of content and audience targeting are not consistent for reaching high schoolers who are interested in going to college.

2. Not Taking Advantage of All of the Targeting Possibilities

This is one of the most significant missed opportunities we find when auditing or onboarding new partners. Far too often, we see the only campaigns running are prospecting campaigns, and on top of that, using minimal parameters to try and reach their targeted audience. I’d like to tackle two things here:

First, sadly we commonly see prospecting campaigns that are only using age, gender, and location parameters. Most platforms have access to data that allows you to refine your prospecting better to reach prospects who are further down the funnel. For example, on Google/YouTube, there are affinity, in-market, and custom intent audiences that allow you to reach people who are actively searching for college-related terms or visiting college websites as well as target users based on keywords they’re actively searching.

Secondly, when we take over a new partner account or are auditing others, we see on many occasions advertising accounts that only run prospecting campaigns instead of using some of the most valuable assets you have, lists, and website retargeting. Instead of relying exclusively on prospecting, build out campaigns that utilize your inquiry pool, applicants, retargeting, etc., and you should see exponentially better results as you’re able to curtail a powerful message.

3. Ads That Fail the 2-Second Rule

In today’s world, users are inundated with advertisements. It’s believed that the average person sees between 4,000-10,000 ads in a single day. Because of this saturation, a widespread belief in the digital advertising industry is the 2-second rule. That means you have at most 2 seconds to get a click before they scroll past your ad.

And, the best chance of getting a click or engagement is to be direct and intriguing. We always tell clients that the goal of a digital ad is to get a click, not to educate and inundate someone with information. I call it, “blunt advertising.” Be straightforward in your ad copy and tell the user WHY they should click your ad to learn more about your offerings/product and HOW engaging with your ad benefits them. Far too often, digital marketers attempt to paint a beautiful, pie-in-the-sky, prolific picture with a lengthy message with excess words in an attempt to portray an enticing message within a single ad. (See what I did there?)

Instead, when it comes to ad copy, I always recommend following the methodology of Thomas Jefferson “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

4. Relying too Much on AI and Dynamic Ads

Another rule that I tend to live by when it comes to advertising is, “at the end of the day, Google and META only care about themselves.” The reason I bring this up is that over the past several years, they have released more dynamic or AI-based advertising capabilities designed to make our lives as marketers easier. These tools are designed to be plug-and-play and let us input a website, and Google/META will do the rest for us; they’ll create the keywords, the ad copy, the CTA, etc.

I’ve used nearly all of them at length and found that while these tools can make my job a LOT easier and sometimes provide great digital KPIs, including CTR, impressions, and clicks, they nearly always miss the mark on the metrics that matter.

Google, for example traditionally uses a Pay-Per-Click model. This means they only get paid when a user clicks on an ad, so it’s in their best interest to get ads in front of as many people as possible to garner a click. This means often showing ads to people not in your target market. They may see and click an ad, but they rarely, if ever, complete an RFI, become an inquiry, or apply. This is similar to many of the new form ad layouts. I have run these and seen incredibly high conversions, but when analyzing a step deeper, none of these are legitimate or result in any sort of inquiry or enrollment activity.

Instead, while it takes more work and expertise, the old-school way of doing things within Google and META has always come out with better results where it counts. When taking the time to manage your own campaigns you should always see better results where it counts…your ROI.

5. Setting It and Forgetting It

Last and certainly not least is a practice I’ve seen far too often and it grinds my gears. When looking back on accounts in their change history, you can see that people will create ads and let them sit without making any edits to the copy, imagery, budget, etc., for months. This is a surefire way to ensure your ads are not performing up to snuff and miss out on a lot of low-hanging fruit.

“But Max, doesn’t it take some time for the algorithm to work and learn, sometimes weeks?”

Yes, that’s a great question, and you are correct. You should not be going in every day and optimizing your ads, audience, budget, etc., for several reasons; most importantly, if you’re optimizing data after a short period, can you trust the data? After a short period, are you sure the data you’re looking at is statistically significant and not a trend or blip? But also, you need to give the platform time to learn your ads, audience, etc., and work its magic. My rule of thumb is to provide a campaign about two months before going in to look at potential optimizations. This ensures that the campaign has had enough time to learn and enough data has been collected, and you’re taking into account any data blips.

When it comes to digital advertising, managing campaigns can seem overwhelming. That’s what we’re here for. We love digital advertising and can help audit your existing campaigns to provide unbiased recommendations. If you’re looking for some support with your own campaigns, we can help.

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