4 Tips to Stretch Your Higher Education Media Budget


By: Christopher Tashjian Mar 03, 2017

We’ve all been there. You’re expected to produce the same or better enrollment results with the same or less budget than you had last year. You know, like creating something from nothing?

Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of a perpetual motion machine as much as the next guy, but unfortunately, German physicist Julius Mayer’s “Conservation of Energy Law” doesn’t allow energy to be created only transferred. So, how do you transfer underutilized energy (money) within your paid media accounts in to more enrollments?


Dig into your data and make some creative adjustments to your media buys. If all goes well, you’ll not only pick up more enrollments, but also collect enough data to make a solid case for increasing your marketing budget next year.

In this post, we’ll look at a few quick and simple methods for making the most of your media budget across all channels from paid search and display advertising to social media and SEO—and of course, your inquiry generation and affiliate partners.

Let’s do a quick summary of what I mean by inquiry generation and affiliate partnerships in higher education. These are generally PPI (price per inquiry) relationships where you’ve contracted a third party to send you qualified inquiries for the programs you are interested in filling. The inquiries then fall into your contact strategy as any normal prospect would. Inquiry generation has less upfront risk to your media spend than paid search, social, and display advertising channels since the legwork and cost of finding the original prospect is done by the partner.

From my experience acting as the agency of record for all types and sizes of schools, my recommendation is to always have a blend of channels in your media budget. The recipe that comprises this blend often depends on your goals and the degree programs that you are looking to fill. It’s also important to have consistent and open communication with your media buying team or the agency account team that you work with. The most integral part of this relationship is the ability to pass both qualitative and quantitative feedback between organizations. You won’t be able to accomplish any of the tactics below without a solid data loop.  

Click Here to Learn 11 Ways to Convert Prospective Students into Enrollments

  Let’s look at some ways you can improve your media allocations:

  • Use Geo Targeting. By definition, it is buying or placing media in specific countries, states, cities or radiuses. The ability to be strategic and agile with geo targeting is what will likely save you thousands of dollars, and also increase enrollment rates. This is also where the solid and open relationship with your media buyer comes in.

Here’s a situation that often comes up for my team: You’re spending hot all quarter and have used 75 percent of your budget, but still have 45 days left until your application cut-off date. What do you do?

  1. Continue spending at the same pace, run out of budget in the next 15 days.
  2. Throttle your spend by giving your inquiry generation partner a daily cap (leaving qualified inquiries on the table).
  3. Adjust your geo targeting to only buy prospects from areas where your brand is the strongest and enrollment rates are highest.

If you answered 3, give yourself a pat on the back. That’s what I’d recommend as well. Sure you may leave some qualified prospects on the table, but your conversion rate will increase while keeping the same initial spend.

  • Consider Dayparting. Same rules apply as geo targeting: you’re restricting inquiry flow but now it’s based on time of day and even day of week. At its core, you’re asking inquiry generation partners to only send inquiries at the times when you believe that your contact and conversion rate will be highest. This is where your data becomes critically important.

Let’s say we have the same spend constraints as above but on a more specific degree: you have one of the top ranked, online MBA programs in your region. Unfortunately, as you may already know, MBA inquiries are among the most expensive to generate and you’re still overspending on inquiry generation partners. You look at your enrollment data and realize that Carol is your highest converting advisor for this program but she only has the bandwidth to speak to prospects in the afternoon. What should you do?

  1. Let the inquiries flow around the clock; she’ll call the qualified prospects as soon as possible.
  2. Throttle your spend by giving your inquiry generation partner a daily cap (leaving qualified inquiries on the table).
  3. Adjust your dayparting to only buy prospects when you know Carol is going to be able to call them right back.

Again, answer 3 is correct. Surfacing your inquiry and enrollment data is important for you to be able to make these types of observations. Don’t think it’s imperative to follow up with an inquiry immediately? Listen to what your prospective students think: According to the 1,500 prospective online students surveyed for the 2016 Online College Students Report, almost half (49 percent) enrolled in the first institution to respond back to them after they inquired, nearly a 10 percent increase from 2015.  

Click Here to Learn 11 Ways to Convert Prospective Students into Enrollments

  • Negotiate Your Scrub Terms. Scrub terms are the conditions put in your contracts and insertion orders to allow media buyers to essentially return or not pay for “bad inquiries.” Depending on your definitions of these conditions the scrub terms can be anything from prospects who are uncontactable to inquiries who don’t have the right prerequisites for your program, and everything in between.

Now, I’m not saying to take advantage of your inquiry generation partners at all. They work hard and invest their own money to provide you qualified prospects. However, I am of the belief that you shouldn’t be paying for any prospects that your team has a zero percent chance of turning into a student. As always, your relationship with your media buyer or inquiry generation partner is important in negotiating these terms, and the data both parties can provide will go far in deciding what is a scrubbed inquiry.

  • Negotiate Your Price Per Inquiry. This is probably the most obvious option that is overlooked, since it will likely involve multiple teams from both your school and your vendor. That said, don’t overlook it.

There are two options here:

  1. Re-negotiate your overall contracted price per inquiry. If you are not hitting your cost per enrollment goals and believe this has something to do with the quality of traffic you are receiving, you need to get the data that backs into that cost number and show your vendor where you need help with quality. Oftentimes they’ll be happy to. Remember, an extra $10 on 100 inquiries nets out to $1000 in savings. On the other end of the spectrum, your inquiry generation vendor may be providing amazing quality prospects. Don’t be afraid to spend a bit more to increase the volume of inquiries coming in from these vendors.
  2. Ask for a discount on unfilled allocation. Inquiry generation partners occasionally run out of allocation towards the end of the month, even though they are still generating inquiries on their own. It will never hurt to ask for a discount come the fourth week of the month—these inquiries need to be sold to someone.
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The price you pay per inquiry is always negotiable so it never hurts to ask.  Even if you have to bring in your finance or legal teams to make it happen, it’s a small price to pay to stay within budget and surpass your enrollment goals. In the end, they’ll be happy you met your goals, too. As you’ve read, all of these methods are dependent on not only your relationship with your inquiry generation partners but also the inquiry and enrollment data that you collect. While higher education marketing can sometimes be confusing, as long as you have data to back up your decisions, more often than not you’ll see an increase in your student enrollments and perhaps you’ll even break a few laws of physics finding new enrollments in your data.