Make the Most of Your Higher Ed Marketing Budget

By: Sarah Russell Jul 29, 2022

Make the Most of Your Higher Ed Marketing Budget

4 Steps to Optimize Your Marketing Budget and Allocate Your Spend

Whether your marketing budget is big or small, it almost never feels like “enough”. We get it – as marketers, you are always driven to optimize your efforts and limited resources, maximize ROI, and help your school grow enrollments as much as possible. 

The old “spray and pray” strategy of throwing up as many ads as possible on various platforms is really no strategy at all. There are so many media channels to choose from: paid search, social media, OTT and connected TV, audio, traditional media… Being everywhere at once means you may not even know what’s working. Deep breath. There’s another way.

Ready to achieve better results from your marketing efforts? Here is an easy-to-follow process for building your budget and media placements one step at a time.

1. Get your Organic Marketing House in Order

Before you even start investing in paid marketing channels, take a look at your own website. Do you have search engine optimized content? How’s the user experience? Have you optimized your website for conversions?

You want your website to be a lean, mean, student converting machine. This isn’t just important, it’s foundational. Your website is the hub of your brand. Most of your media placements will drive students back to your website. They need to like what they see when they get there.

Get this right, and you’ll reduce your overall cost per enrollment across channels. Organic search is a low-cost and high-intent marketing channel, so make the most of your marketing budget and maximize your return from this channel first.

2. When Thinking About Your Marketing Budget, Focus On Quality Before Quantity

Ready to start allocating media dollars? Focus on channels that are likely to bring in the highest quality inquiries. That means focusing on branded and program paid search. We’ll get to general search terms later. For now, focus on terms that directly reference your brand or program.

These are terms people will only use and convert on if they already know your school. That’s a limited pool, but it means the searcher likely has high intent to enroll. You’ll get fewer spam results, higher contact rates, and a better likelihood of conversion.

The cost per inquiry on program keywords is likely to be higher than other channels, but that’s okay. The inquiries you gain here are most likely to convert, which makes them extra valuable.

Keep in mind that infinite growth probably isn’t possible. Eventually, you’ll hit a ceiling where you can’t generate greater volume without driving up cost-per-enrollment. That means you’ve captured the existing demand and it’s time to move on to the next step.

But first…

2.5 Assess Brand Awareness

Call this step two-and-a-half. Either before you start branded and program paid search, or while ads are running, take a look at brand awareness. If you’re not starting with a strong brand presence, you’re going to have a harder time attracting inquiries. Consider whether you need to invest more heavily in brand awareness before moving on to the next step.

On the other hand, some colleges and universities get stuck in a brand awareness loop. They invest so much into branding efforts, that they never get beyond this step. If your brand is strong in your region (I’m looking at you, public universities) it might be time to try the broader approaches in steps three and four.

3. Expand Your Reach with Search and Social

The next step is supplemental placements. This is where you test general paid search and paid social. Now you’re starting to bring in prospective students who aren’t searching specifically for your brand or programs.

Lookalike audiences are a useful tool here. Their intent is lower, but cost-per-inquiry is likely to be lower too. Being successful on this channel is all about managing the economics of a lower conversion rate but more positive cost-per-inquiry (CPI) so you can achieve an effective cost per enrollment.

Since you may be reaching a wider audience, branding comes into play again here. At least some of your general search and social ads need to help introduce people to your brand before pushing for enrollment.

4. Have an attribution model for indirect inquiries on your media marketing budget

So far, we’ve talked about channels that are easy to track. You can log in to an ad manager and see who clicked on what, when, and whether that resulted in contact. The next level takes us into less than certain territory.

Traditional media, OTT, display, and audio are all harder to track. A student may see your billboard on the way to work and decide to search for you, but you won’t necessarily know that. Still, if you want to make the most of your media marketing budget, you need a way to attribute these inquiries.

One simple way to do it is by changing just one thing at a time. If you’ve been running the same mix of search and social ads for a while you have a baseline. When you introduce that new OTT campaign you can bet the spike in inquiries came from Hulu watchers.

A more sophisticated (and accurate) approach would be to use attribution modeling or other tools alongside media placements so you can monitor lift. Keep in mind, that even the best attribution models are still inexact. Savvy marketers use the data as one piece of their calculation to determine what is and isn’t working within the media mix.

Pulling it together at any budget

If you follow these four steps, you can be pretty confident that you’re maximizing your marketing budget. But confidence isn’t enough. How do you prove it?

Consider cost per enrollment (CPE). If you can deliver an acceptable CPE as you scale up, you’re doing well. If your cost per enrollment is spiking, you might need to take a closer look at your incremental spend. Don’t scale up any further until you’ve optimized at your current level of spend.

You can think of these four steps as a pyramid. You shouldn’t try to place the next block until the one below it is firmly seated. If you take care with each step, this process can work at any budget.

For small budgets, focus on the areas with the greatest return at the lowest investment. This is usually SEO, conversion rate optimization, and content marketing. Those are high-impact actions that can be affordable.

For bigger or highly optimized budgets, the next step is expansion. You can experiment with new geographies or forms of media. Consider influencer marketing, new channels like TikTok, or other emerging opportunities. It’s smart to test these and see how they work for your program.

Let us help you optimize

EducationDynamics is a full-service higher education marketing agency. We guide our partner institutions through all of these steps with an eye toward maximizing enrollments and creating graduates. From SEO optimization to branding to OTT and connected TV, get in touch with our higher education marketing experts to see how you can find opportunities to improve performance and maximize your marketing budget.