Education Market Research Tips for Programs in Higher Ed and K-12

What is Program Market Research?

The goal of program market research is to understand the competition, demand, and trends for specific programs or courses within a university or K-12 environment. Program market research can also provide insight into how a program or course should be designed based on current and future demand, in addition to how it should be positioned from a creative standpoint within the larger education market. This type of analysis can provide much more confidence to an organization that a program will be successful once launched.

Why is Higher Education Market Research and Program Feasibility Important?

The world of education has only gotten more competitive over the last ten years. With the rise of for-profit education, in addition to the adoption of online learning and MOOC’s, education has become both more accessible and more competitive. Prior to launching a new degree program or course, schools must complete a stringent market research analysis in order to ensure success.

Why is K-12 Market Research Important?

Completing market research for K-12 environments is important as it can shine light onto not only what is in demand from a course perspective, but also how it should be delivered. Classrooms continue to advance in regards to what medium subjects are delivered to students in, and keeping up with trends around how information is consumed by adolescents can be demanding. Market research for K-12 can ensure that the right programs and courses are created, which will in turn deliver education in a mode that is successful.

What is the Market Research Process?

The market research process can generally be broken down into three core sections, with each focusing on the three core principles of competition, demand, and trends.

1. Primary Research

Through a combination of qualitative strategies (focus groups and stakeholder interviews) and quantitative research, information is gathered around education drivers as well as large data sets upon which to formulate and execute plans. We follow a research trajectory that begins with qualitative findings that, in turn, inform cogent, useful surveys. We partner with an Ivy League university’s Survey Research Center to manage data-gathering efforts from hundreds or thousands of stakeholders to provide quick, efficient, and illuminating data with which to make decisions about online programs. Primary research tools include:

  • Surveys
  • Focus Groups
  • On ground program data

2. Competitive Analysis

Understanding the competition is an extremely important step in determining program viability. While understanding program demand is important, many times the barriers to entry and the cost to compete are too high to warrant an investment. Benchmarks are generally used to determine how a program or course stacks up compared to others, and can be a good way to determine ROI. Competitive research tools include:

  • Google trends data
  • Google keyword planner data
  • Keyword Spy (analyze competitors paid advertising strategies

3. Secondary Research

Looking to outside resources for insights into program demand can help ensure success. Compiling and analyzing data from existing resources, including the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Department of Labor, local/state/regional agencies, IPEDS, job search web sites, and accrediting bodies can determine benchmarks and requirements, as well as short and long term labor market demands.

What Are the Best Market Research Tools?

There are a wide array of free and low-cost tools that are available to individuals looking to complete market research around a program. The following are just a handful of what is available:

  1. – Insight into consumers via surveys, trends over time in search queries, and benchmarks for display related efforts.
  2. – Understand the cost-per-click and search volume around core keywords that your potential audience might be searching.
  3. – Centralized location for federal government data including insights into career and education data.
  4. – Complete surveys of core stakeholders and faculty.
  5. – Large data sets to help provide insight into potential program target markets.

How Can Market Research Inform What to Introduce?

The insights acquired from program market research can shine light onto what programs to introduce based on demand and current competition. Insights from BLS data and other job related data can help to determine what types of degree programs are going to be, or are currently, in demand based on career data. Google trends and keyword data can inform how saturated a market is and can also illustrate how much it will cost from a marketing perspective to enroll a student.

How Can Market Research Be Used to Define Marketing Strategy?

The competitive analysis that is performed during program market research will also focus on the brands of the competition. With education continuing to get more competitive, having a brand that is unique in the market can help to attract students and lead to more organic PR. Insights from this analysis and internal stakeholder interviews will provide insight into what the creative messaging should be for the programs in addition to  what markets to enter and which demographics to target.

By completing a thorough program market research initiative, universities and schools will enter the program creation process more informed about what should be introduced and how it should be positioned within the market. This type of information will help to ensure program success and will also provide upfront insight into costs and metrics, which can prove to be instrumental during the planning and budgeting phase of a new launch.


Robert LeeRobert offers a decade of demonstrated digital marketing expertise, and he has provided results to clients both within and outside of higher education while working as an analyst, team lead, and director. He has planned and implemented digital marketing campaigns for a number of large universities throughout the United States, and he leads Circa on all aspects of client strategy. Before founding Circa Interactive, Robert led digital marketing teams at the higher education organization Embanet.

3 Tips for Finding Blog Topics For Your Degree Program: Advanced Strategies To Get Your University Organic Visibility

One of the core challenges that many higher education marketers run into is how to increase the online visibility of the programs that they manage. With higher education, and specifically online higher education becoming increasingly competitive, how can a marketer effectively position an online program in front of potential students?

Blog content is a strategy that is part of most savvy marketers arsenal. For years we have been told by industry thought leaders that content is king, and that it is an essential piece of any effective marketing and branding strategy. But the reality is that the online landscape is becoming very crowded. An infographic shared by Digital Buzz stated that there are up to 2 million blog posts written every day! With that much content being produced, it’s not surprising that a lot of it fails to achieve results.

For many higher education marketers, just acquiring the green light to create and post content to university blogs is considered a win. For those lucky enough to have an actual budget for content, measuring ROI from this content is going to be essential to keeping that budget. So how can marketers find blog topics that receives visibility, drives traffic, and helps produce students? Well, there are two elements to a superior content marketing strategy: high quality content creation and effective content distribution.

Today we are going to provide three tips on a very important and sometimes overlooked element of content creation: topic creation. Creating blog content that is in demand, not overly saturated by competition, and relevant to your target audience all starts here. The following tips and tricks can help you research blog topics that can provide the visibility you crave for your online programs.

Keyword Research

This is the foundational step for any content creation strategy. My esteemed colleague provided an in-depth analysis of keyword research back in 2013, and apart from Google’s keyword tool now being called the Keyword Planner, everything else in this article still fully applies today. But with the Keyword Planner name change came some more advanced options when completing keyword research, such as Ad Group Ideas, which is a much more advanced way to figure out how Google makes connections between keywords. For example, if I wanted to produce some blog content relating to health informatics jobs, then I would input “health informatics jobs” into the Keyword Planner. Google will provide me with ad group categories and keywords that it fines relevant and could be less competitive, such as clinical informatics or business informatics.

Webmaster Tools

Back in 2013, Google stopped providing search query data (the keywords that individuals use to find your website). This was a huge blow to the SEO community, as marketers thought that they could no longer research the types of keywords that were driving traffic. Fortunately, Google has allowed marketers to connect Webmaster Tools to Google Analytics in order to share not only basic traffic data but also ranking and impression data. Without getting too in-depth, the main takeaway here is that marketers can now understand the keywords their program websites rank for. This is a massive opportunity for marketers to dive into the data to find long-tail keywords that a program might rank outside the top 50 for, and create new and more relevant content to capitalize on these keywords. Here is a quick guide on how to link Google Analytics to Webmaster Tools, which is the first step in uncovering this data.

SERP Competitiveness

By finding out how competitive the SERP (Search Engine Results Page) is for a specific query, a marketer can quickly eliminate any potential topics that might be too competitive. When perusing the search results, tools such as the Moz Bar can provide some great insight into metrics, such as Page Authority (PA) and Domain Authority (DA), for topics that are searched. Depending on the current SEO position of a website, it might be a good idea to set a baseline domain authority that’s viewed as being too competitive when completing this research. For example, the following snapshot provides insight into the competition around the query “big data skill sets in demand.” As you can see, there are some domain authorities in the teens and no .edu domains, and if the search volume warrants it this could be a good area of opportunity for a program.

Finding Blog Topics

Through completing the upfront research of identifying opportunities, search demand, and competitiveness, a marketer can quickly understand where the possibilities are when it comes to blog content creation. This foundation, coupled with the production of high quality content and an effective distribution strategy, will drive the type of program visibility needed for success.

Robert LeeRobert offers a decade of demonstrated digital marketing expertise, and he has provided results to clients both within and outside of higher education while working as an analyst, team lead, and director. He has planned and implemented digital marketing campaigns for a number of large universities throughout the United States, and he leads Circa on all aspects of client strategy. Before founding Circa Interactive, Robert led digital marketing teams at the higher education organization Embanet.

Understanding Demand For An Online Degree Program Through a Market Feasibility Study

During the presidential debates, many candidates have decided to dedicate a substantial amount of their talking points to addressing the state of the higher education industry. While it is true that the percentage of Americans enrolling in postsecondary education has never been higher, the combination of inefficiencies within universities as well as slashed state and federal funding has left many students and institutions riddled with debt. President Obama and the more progressive presidential candidates have proposed expensive initiatives to make college more affordable and potentially free for all students, and the more conservative candidates envision legislation that will penalize universities that charge exorbitant tuition rates. It is clear, regardless of an individual’s political preference, something has to be done to reign in university spending and introduce processes that will help universities to run more efficiently.

One area where universities can improve their processes is when and if they choose to create new program offerings. Universities decide to move forward with introducing new traditional and online programs for a variety of reasons, but proof of program demand through concrete data as well as market competition are two elements that are surprisingly overlooked. Many higher education institutions will simply introduce a new on-campus program because they have the resources in place, or introduce an on-campus program online simply because it does well on campus, but a market feasibility study should be introduced to make certain that there is a place within the marketplace for the program while at the same time ensuring that graduates can acquire professional positions.

A market feasibility study is an analysis into current and future degree program offerings with a focus on the viability of the program within the marketplace. This study consists of an analysis into program demand and competition, as well as an examination into current career data and future projections. Market feasibility takes the approach of examining program opportunity both before and after student enrollment: key indicators as to whether a program can turn a profit for the university while also positioning its students for future success. The aim is to provide concrete data through an analysis into search volume and market metrics, which are key indicators of program demand. The study provides the university with further insight into demand and costs associated with effectively marketing the program. Understanding the costs to compete is instrumental, and, coupled with insight into other expenses, universities can understand how to price a program.

Introducing a program that focuses on turning a profit for the institution is important, but making sure that the programs they are offering are setting their graduates up for success in the marketplace is essential to credibility and continued funding. A market feasibility study pulls projections from a variety of different career-related sources and can be helpful in providing an ROI calculation for universities and potential students. By researching and providing this information to potential students, an advanced degree can look more like a long-term investment that has a break-even point rather than an ambiguous venture, which could lead to future financial instability.

One of the areas that has been identified as a major factor responsible for increased university costs is an influx of administrators. Many of these administrators are responsible for ensuring program success, and marketing the programs as well as driving student enrollments can fall under their job descriptions. By ensuring that any existing or new programs that are introduced are in demand by students, a university can save costs both on the payroll side and when it comes to a program’s marketing budget, as costs to enroll a student will be much lower.  

A high loan default rate on federal student loans by program graduates can also raise red flags for a university. A program that enrolls students without taking into consideration career opportunities for graduates can put the university at risk of sanctions when it comes to federal student loans. As many potential students don’t have the cash up front to pay for a full degree program, enrolling students without the use of federal loans can be very challenging for a university.

A market feasibility study can be a step in the right direction for universities looking to balance their costs and position their graduates for success. While the trajectory of higher education does at times look grim, an opportunity exists for many programs to separate themselves from the pack and set themselves up for long-term success. The following article by Dr. Scott Levine helps to shine some light into what specific attributes point to program success, which can be a great first step in completing a program audit:

Robert LeeRobert offers a decade of demonstrated digital marketing expertise, and he has provided results to clients both within and outside of higher education while working as an analyst, team lead, and director. He has planned and implemented digital marketing campaigns for a number of large universities throughout the United States, and he leads Circa on all aspects of client strategy. Before founding Circa Interactive, Robert led digital marketing teams at the higher education organization Embanet.

Five Ways to Target Potential Students with LinkedIn Paid Ads

While LinkedIn’s network of working professionals and job seekers isn’t comparable in size to Facebook, it has introduced an advertising platform that is logical and effective. What LinkedIn lacks in volume, it makes up for in it’s straightforward targeting options and accurate audience segmentation, which, if leveraged correctly, will produce quality and relevant traffic that can turn into excellent leads and students.

LinkedIn is an essential advertising source for any higher education marketer looking to position their program brand in front of potential students. There is a perception that LinkedIn is composed solely of business professionals, but we have found this inaccurate and have produced great results for both our business and non-business focused programs. While cost-per-clicks (CPCs) can be higher in LinkedIn when compared to Facebook or the Google Display Network, traffic relevancy and quality also tends to be higher, which helps to keep your conversion rates to lead high.

There are two different types of advertising options: sidebar ads and sponsored content. Sponsored Ads will take up more real estate on the page and will generally have a higher click-thru-rate (CTR) than sidebar ads. If you have a large and broad audience segment, then sidebar ads can be effective at limiting irrelevant clicks. LinkedIn’s real strengths are in its ability to hone in on potential students through its targeting parameters. Here are five different ways in which you can target potential students using LinkedIn’s preset parameters, starting with the most effective:

  1. Job Titles – Simple and straightforward, LinkedIn provides job title groupings that position it as superior to Facebook when it comes to targeting individuals based on their job titles. This was a very smart move by LinkedIn, as Facebook’s job title targeting has become a jumbled mess composed of “Likes” and random titles. For any job titles that aren’t large enough to warrant their own grouping, LinkedIn will simply group them together with other similar titles in a logical way. While cost-per-clicks (CPCs) can be high, the conversion rate to lead of this traffic can be at 15% or higher, which quickly makes up for the higher click costs.
  2. Field of Study/Degree – A new addition to LinkedIn advertising, Field of Study/Degree targeting is similar to job title targeting in its simplicity and effectiveness. When targeting individuals, it is important to know what they studied in their undergrad, as this insight can greatly affect your messaging when positioning your graduate program. For example, if you wanted to market a master’s in health informatics to an audience segment who had graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, providing copy and imagery that speaks to how a nurse can benefit from an informatics education, while still utilizing their nursing skills, can be very powerful.
  3. Skills – This targeting option is unique to LinkedIn and can be very effective for honing in on potential student personas who might be challenging to target through jobs or degrees. For example, if you have a master’s degree focused on something like leadership, then it can be hard to understand whom to target as a broad array of people could be interested in a leadership degree. Through skills targeting, you can focus on individuals who have skills in executive leadership, or org. leadership/development.
  4. Groups – Targeting individuals who are part of relevant groups or associations can be a nice complement to the prior three targeting options. These can also be powerful for targeting individuals who are part of more niche industries, such as individuals who work with technologies that might not be mainstream. For example, if you were marketing a program that targeted web analysts, then targeting all of the various groups and associations relating to web analytics can be effective.
  5. Company + Industry – LinkedIn has put together broad industry categories that are less targeted but still effective. There are broad categories, such as accounting, that can be very effective for marketing a master’s degree in accounting but not very effective for more niche programs such as medical laboratory science or business analytics. Cost-per-lead (CPL) tends to be higher when utilizing this targeting option as relevancy is lower.

While we always recommend a diversified approach to marketing your program, LinkedIn is a platform that I would dedicate at least 30% of your budget. Coupled with an effective landing page, LinkedIn can be relied upon as a good source of mid-priced but high quality leads for an array of graduate programs.

Robert LeeRobert Lee is the CEO of Circa Interactive. He offers a decade of demonstrated search engine marketing expertise, working as an analyst, team lead and manager. Before founding Circa Interactive, Robert worked with higher education marketer Embanet

Landing Page Conversion Formula in Higher Ed Part 3: Incentives, Friction, and Anxiety

During our first post we were introduced to the Conversion Formula, a heuristic created by Marketing Sherpa, and we focused specifically on Motivation. Our second post was dedicated to V, or the “clarity of the value proposition,” which is an extremely important aspect when creating landing pages within Higher Education. Today we are going to finish up the rest of the landing page heuristic and review Incentives, Friction, and Anxiety.

C = 4M + 3V + 2(I-F) – 2A

Looking at the multiplier in front of the values, you would assume that Friction and Anxiety are much less important than Motivation and Value. While this can be true in some instances, having high Friction and Anxiety levels that are not offset by a user Incentive can have a detrimental affect on the success of any landing page.

Friction is something that always exists on a landing page, as the purpose of a landing page is to drive a user to take an action. Whether it be to sign up for email updates or fill out a form, you are always going to ask a user to take an action that they probably don’t want to do. The trick to getting the maximum number of users to take this desired action is to minimize Friction and increase the Incentive.

The following form is an example of how not to design a lead form for your program’s landing page. I would be surprised if the conversion rate to lead on this landing page was anything over 2%, which means that the organization is probably paying upwards of $300 per lead.


First off, there are entirely too many fields. Combine first and last name, remove “Confirm Email”, and you have already deleted two fields. Why do you need a mailing address? Don’t you think it’s worth having your enrollment team at least talk to the person before sending them a packet of information on your program? Remove everything there apart from the zip (leave country if you have a lot of international traffic) and your form already looks much more manageable.

For the next section, “Select a program that interests you” The landing page is dedicated to one program so there is no need to ask them what program they are interested in. Also, remove “Graduate”, this is information that can be asked later.

Another issue with this form is that Anxiety, or “A” in the heuristic, is probably very high. Anxiety represents the fear associated with completing a goal or task, and in this case, it has to do with a user providing their personal information within a web-based form. The form has no privacy policy and is not secure, and a savvy web user might think that their personal information could be sold to the highest bidder. Anxiety really comes into play during online transactions (when credit card information is being requested) but can still play a large part in the conversion rate of a simple four-field form.

Even if you shorten your form to four fields, and make sure the appropriate Privacy Policy and secure connection icon are displayed, you are still asking a user to complete a task in which they probably don’t want to do. One way to help to push them into filling out the form is by offering an incentive, such as a video or brochure. Whatever you offer, its perceived value must be higher than what you are asking the user to do. Here is an example of an extremely simple form that gets right to the point:


Brochures are great incentives as they make the user feel as though they are receiving something tangible, which has a higher perceived value then something web based (even though you might just supply a link to download a PDF version). Additional incentives that can work well in Higher Ed are Application Instructions as well as Application Fee Waivers, which can be a great way to increase and speed up applications towards the end of an enrollment period.

Introducing an effective landing page that speaks to your target audience’s Motivation, clearly displays the program’s Value Proposition, introduces an Incentive that outweighs the page’s Friction, and keeps Anxiety low can produce leads at a relatively low CPL, even if your traffic sources are expensive. But generating leads is only half the equation; if you don’t have an effective recruitment process in place, many individuals will lose interest or opt for another program. For recommendations and best practices when it comes to putting together a highly productive marketing team, check out Is Your Admission Team Ready for a Digital Marketing Campaign.


Landing Page Conversion Formula in Higher Education Part 2: Value Proposition

During our first post we were introduced to the Conversion Formula, a heuristic created by Marketing Sherpa. The Conversion Formula provides a way for marketers to understand how to craft landing pages that speak to and convert their target audiences.

C = 4M + 3V + 2(I-f) – 2A

During this first post, we also dove a little deeper into the first and most important variable in the formula: Motivation of the user. If this first variable is not accounted for, the chance of you being able to persuade a user to take the next conversion step unfortunately drastically decreases.

The second variable in the conversion formula is the “Clarity of the value proposition”. While not quite as important as the first step, it can have a very large effect on the outcome of a marketing campaign

The first step in understanding how to position your landing page and marketing collateral to clearly define your unique value proposition (UVP) is to understand what your program or brands value proposition actually is. A programs value proposition is what sets itself apart from any other program, as in why would somebody be interested in your online MBA compared to the hundreds of others ones available.

Defining a programs unique value proposition becomes even more important when talking about smaller brands, as a visitor has no prior experience with your university and due to the history of higher education, is probably slightly skeptical. One easy way to figure out how to define your brand is to take a look at your competition and how they are positioning themselves.

Examples of value propositions include:

  1. A widely published and acclaimed faculty
  2. A curriculum that is unique and will make you more marketable post-graduation
  3. An accreditation that isn’t acquired by many online programs
  4. A top ranking by a recognizable journal or organization
  5. The fact that your program costs half as much as the competitions
  6. Processes in place in which the student will be able to acquire your degree more easily then through a competitor

Most programs will combine individual value propositions to create something unique. The following example is for the University of Wisconsin Flex-Option system:


The University of Wisconsin Flex program combines a few different value propositions, but the first thing that pops up is the “Save time and money” header. Then right below, there is the follow up text that reads: “Study only what you need to learn. Never take courses that you don’t need”. 

The secondary element to this that makes the value proposition so strong is that the University of Wisconsin, a prestigious university, offers it.

Now there are probably a few other elements which the University of Wisconsin could add to make their case even stronger, but all in all they do a relatively good job of communicating the basic UVP to the visitor. One thing to keep in mind is that this is the homepage of the Flex website, not a landing page, but this is ok as I arrived here via an organic (not paid) listing.

Now for smaller brands, communicating a UVP gets much harder. Here is an example of a really bad place to send somebody that you already spend $35 acquiring:


So while the university did actually get the right program (I arrived here after Googling “online masters in nursing”) they got pretty much everything else wrong. First off, never send paid traffic to a website. Second thing, never send paid traffic to a place that isn’t solely dedicated to the initial keyword the user was searching. And third, you must have some type of value proposition.

The first thing that jumps out on this page is the stock image with the heading “Online Master’s in Nursing”, and then the lead form. This program has no brand recognition, no unique value proposition, and nothing that makes me enticed at all to learn more.

With that being said, here a few of Aurora’s competitors to compare against, do you see the difference?






Utilizing the Landing Page Conversion Formula in Higher Education – Part 1 – Motivation

Higher Education, and specifically online Higher Education, is an extremely competitive industry. According to a recent study completed by WordStream, the keyword category “Degree” came in at #8 of the top 10 most expensive keyword groupings within Google Adwords.

This is nothing new, as the cost to compete in the online degree marketplace has slowly been increasing over the last few years. Traditionally for-profit colleges have dominated much of the online advertising landscape, but as more traditional universities move towards offering online programs, costs to compete have continued to increase.

Many universities simply still setup basic Adwords campaigns targeting degree related keywords and drive traffic to the homepage of their university’s website.  Based on industry averages, that university is probably paying anywhere from $10-$50 a click, and probably converting that traffic to lead at around 2%. So what that translates to is a CPL range of $500-$2,500…

Even if they are driving program specific traffic (keyword: online masters in public administration) to a dedicated micro-site, they are probably not converting that traffic to lead much higher than 4%. When you factor in around a 2% conversion rate from lead to students, that student still costs $12,500 to generate just in marketing dollars.

So what is the answer to this? Unfortunately there are certain realities surrounding a Google Adwords campaign, Google just isn’t going to cut your CPC in half because you were able to increase your CTR by 20% or your quality scores across the board.

The answer to this is one of the most overlooked aspects of internet marketing: figure out a way to convert the expensive traffic that you are generating to lead at a higher rate.

This article is going to be part one of a four part series that focuses on something called The Conversion Formula, a heuristic that is backed by years of testing and data. It was created by Marketing Sherpa, and has been the basis for the creation of any successful landing page over last five years or so. This formula will point you in the right direction when looking to build a set of landing pages for your program, and could help you cut your programs cost-per-lead in half.

Here is the The Conversion Formula:

C = 4M + 3V + 2 (I – F) – 2A

C = Probability of conversion

M = Motivation of the user

V = Clarity of the value proposition

I = Incentive to take action

F = Friction elements present

A = Anxiety elements present


Within this blog post I am going to touch on M, or motivation of the user. The idea behind this is that you must create a landing page that matches the original intent of a user, otherwise your user is not going to complete whatever conversion process you put in front of them.

A basic example of this would be if someone Google’s the phrase “online MBA program” and clicks on one of your Google Adwords ads that mentions that your institution offers an online MBA program. When the user arrives at your website, the page they land on talks about all of the online programs that your university offers, and simply just lists your online MBA. Well considering that the page includes limited information on the online MBA program, and no information on why your program is different from the other 500 online MBA programs out there, the user is probably going to bounce (leave without completing an action).

For an audience segment as important and expensive as potential MBA students, you must create dedicated assets that speak to them directly. A user must arrive at a page that matches their original intent: to learn more information about an Online MBA that is offered by your institution. They don’t want to learn about any other programs apart from that MBA, so why put irrelevant information in front of them?

Motivation is a very broad element of the conversion formula, but is the most important first step. While it might seem obvious that you need to customize a landing page for what the user is looking for, many marketers will focus solely on driving traffic and not nearly enough on the user experience once they arrive at a site.

Here is an example of a program that does a very good job of optimizing their whole conversion process for the user:


Keyword “education law degree” generates a dedicated advertisement. Once a user clicks on that advertisement, they are driven to this page:


The next part of this series will touch on V, or clarity of the value proposition. The value proposition is the unique selling point to your program, or why a potential student should move forward with your program over a competitor’s.


Understand The Right Type of Keywords to Bid on When Setting Up an Adwords Campaign (Don’t Rely On A Google Rep)

Setting up a brand new Adwords campaign can be a complicated process, and much time and effort has to go into keyword research and account planning in order to make sure that a budget is used as effectively as possible. Due to the competition within higher education, single keywords in an account can quickly eat up budget without producing strong results. Google has figured out that individuals new to Adwords need help setting up these accounts, but don’t always have the client’s best interest in mind when they offer their services.

Typically people like and trust Google, which is understandable as they provide an array of great free tools and their search engine is the most widely used in the world. But as society’s reliance on the Internet to find goods and services grows, it is absolutely essential that businesses implement a website and traffic generation strategy in order to stay alive.

One of the easiest ways for a business to drive relevant traffic to its website is through the use of Google Adwords. Google Adwords, when setup correctly, can be used to effectively spend a dedicated budget and provide detailed metrics on web based brand interaction while painting a clear picture of ROI.

But with that being said, here are some facts:

1. Google is a business
2. Google makes a large % of its revenue from the Adwords platform (up to 97%)
3. A Google Reps job is to get you to spend as much money as possible within your Adwords campaign
4. The more competition there is within the Adwords platform, the more $ Google makes

So here’s where many marketers who are new to the Adwords platform run into issues: there is a massive conflict of interest between the goals of Google and its reps and your organization or university.

When a marketer is looking to setup a new Google Adwords campaign, they are generally provided with some type of Google representative. Normally this rep will provide you with some insight into “traffic generating opportunities” (through spending more money), and might even offer to build out the account for you. The problem with this is that your rep will most likely focus on keywords that produce a lot of volume. This rep generally has little to no knowledge about the products or services you offer, and even less about your brand as a whole, and they aren’t going to spend an exorbitant amount of time learning about it. Sometimes this rep doesn’t even work for Google, but is outsourced.

Tips for Launching a New Google Adwords Campaign

So if you are looking to setup an Adwords campaign for a larger budget program, my recommendation would be to find an outside firm who is familiar with Higher Education, and specifically your program. The money they will charge in agency fee’s is going to be lower than the money you might waste running the campaign yourself or trusting a rep to help run it for you.

This isn’t to say that a marketer new to Google Adwords can’t setup a campaign that performs well, but generally it’s a better idea to reach out to an expert. But if an outside firm isn’t an option, then here are some recommendations for keyword groupings that will help you to maximize your budget and minimize waste.

Start With Your Most Relevant Keywords

First off, determine what your top keywords should be and group them in a way that makes them easy to manage. I will normally draw out how I want my Adwords campaign to look prior to even thinking about building it in Adwords Editor. Once you have the basic skeleton of your Adwords campaign, you can dig a little bit deeper into your keyword research to figure out exactly what keywords should be included in what campaign/ad group.

For example, if you are managing an Online Masters in Computer Science then you probably want to create a campaign dedicated to your extremely relevant keywords (ones that include the words online + masters). Inside it you might include Ad Groups similar to the following (ad groups in bold, keywords in quotations):

Degrees: “online masters in computer science degree” “computer science masters degree online”
Program: “online masters in computer science program” “masters in computer science programs online”
MS: “ms in computer science online” “online ms in computer science”
Master of Science: “online master of science in computer science” “master of science in computer science online”

And any other Ad Groups that you can think of that would make sense. You want to keep them in their own groups because you want to have ads that are extremely relevant for those keywords, which will help you click-through-rate and quality score.

You probably want to spend a good proportion of your budget on these keywords, as they are the most relevant to your program and will most likely convert the highest to lead and student. Also don’t be afraid to bid up these keywords, as really you probably want to try and be in the top 3 positions.

Create Organized Secondary Campaigns

Next you want to create campaigns for secondary keywords that are relevant to your program, but might not be an exact match. Using the Online Masters in Computer Science example from above, you might create a dedicated campaign for non “online” masters variations. This campaign would still include keywords such as “masters degree in computer science” and “master of science in computer science”, but would exclude keywords like “online computer science degree”. You will notice that the volume around these types of keywords is most likely going to be higher, but being very descriptive in your Ad (mentioning that it is an online program) can help to ward off non-relevant clicks. This is probably going to be your second most important campaign, so allocate your budget here accordingly.

From there, create a campaign dedicated to “online” variations. Someone who searches for “online computer science degree” could be searching for a bachelors or an associates, but by being very descriptive in your ad, you should be able to keep your traffic quality high.

After this, I would probably create a fringe keyword campaign. There is actually some search volume around people searching for “computer science school” or “computer science university” so maybe include a campaign for those. Generally you should only implement these campaigns if you have some extra budget left over.

The main idea behind this is you start with a campaign with keywords that are extremely relevant, and then introduce secondary the third level campaigns for additional keywords if you have the budget. With a dedicated campaign for each of these groupings, you can increase and decrease your budget for them depending on performance.

Don’t Get Too Broad and Match Types

One of the trickiest aspects to setting up a new Adwords campaign is understanding how match types work. A whole other article will be dedicated to understanding the difference between phrase, modified broad, and exact, but generally a best practice is to never go just straight broad on any keyword.

Here is a link to Google’s guide on match types:

Unfortunately broad match is the default within an Adwords campaign, and Google deems what is a relevant keyword to the one in your campaign. This can get extremely messy, and your ad could render for keywords that have nothing to do with your degree program.

There are a lot of different strategies surrounding how to utilize match types to create an organized Adwords campaign. So without providing too much insight into our strategy, a general best practice is to create dedicated campaigns for modified broad and exact variations.

While the above content is meant to be a basic guide for selecting and grouping keywords for an Adwords account, it is by no means is a step-by-step guide on how to launch a full-blown campaign. While there are many resources on the web for how to effectively launch a campaign, because higher education is such a competitive industry it is recommended that you reach out to a trusted consultant that can help to point you in the right direction.

SEO Best Practices for Lead Generation in Higher Education

The following best practices are a great starting point for any university that is looking to launch a new or optimize an existing degree program.

Utilize Your Existing Root Domain or Find an Established Subdomain

For whatever reason, most university websites are obsessed with continuing to create new subdomains for schools and programs. While this might seem like a good idea from an organizational standpoint, it is the worst possible thing to do from an SEO standpoint.

Google favors domains that are old, have a whole bunch of natural and high quality links pointing at them, and are thick (have lots of pages with good content). They also tend to favor .edu and .gov domains over general .com’s or .org’s as there is a specific process and strict requirements for acquiring university or goverment domains.

So first off, never purchase a brand new .com or .org to start your degree program or launch a collection of programs. Unless you are going to invest a couple 100k into getting this domain to rank for competitive keywords, it is going to be very tough to produce any student generating traffic.

Secondly, only setup a new subdomain if you absolutely have to. In Google’s eyes, a new subdomain is almost the same thing as a brand new domain. While you are still going to benefit from some of the strengths associated with your extremely powerful root domain, there are still better options that can get you ranking faster.

If you have to utilize a subdomain, use one that has been around for a couple years. Does your university have an established Distance Learning dept, or could you launch an Online Masters in Nursing under the existing school of nursing? Try and find a subdomain that has its own link profile and has been around for at least 2 years (the longer the better).

If possible, launch a page utilizing a new folder structure off of your root domain. This way you acquire all of the strength associated with your root domain, and Google will view this as you’re simple creating a new page.

Below is a more detailed breakdown of the URL structures:

Brand New Domain (never do this)

New Subdomain (only implement if next two aren’t option)

Page Off of Existing Subdomain (good if subdomain is relatively old)

Page Off of Root Domain (best way to go)

Utilize a Keyword-Rich URL Structure

While not as important as it used to be, one of the major factors that Google uses to understand what a page is about is what keywords are included in that page’s URL. So for example, if you are launching a suite of online business programs and need to utilize a subdomain, implement something like this: (would be your general page) (would rank for any MBA terms) (would rank for any finance terms) (would rank for any marketing terms) (would rank for any accounting terms)

Implement Keyword Rich Copy and On-Page Elements

Another major factor that Google uses to understand what a page should rank for is the body copy and header text. Your keyword research (refer to a previous article) should have provided you with insight into what keywords individuals are searching for that are relevant to your program’s target market. When you are writing copy for your program’s landing page or website, go ahead and trickle those keywords into the body of the page. You don’t want to overdo it, and a general rule of thumb is to not use a keyword more than once every 100-200 words. Also, any pages that are going to be used for SEO purposes should have as much copy as possible, preferably 1,000 or more words.

Additional on-page elements are also used by Google to understand the theme of a page. Most of the major H1’s and H2’s on your pages should include some variation of your target keyword. It is also ok to include the keyword in a longer header phrase, such as: “What Can a Master of Nursing Do For Your Career”.

Finally, make sure you implement an appropriate title tag on every page. The title tag of a page is still a very important on-page SEO element, so including a title tag phrase with your keyword in it is a necessity.

Once You Push Your Page Live, Build Links From Your University’s Internal Pages

Whenever you launch a new website or landing page, one of the most important initial strategies should be to build as many links as possible from extremely high quality and trusted domains. This is even more important when you launch a new stand alone subdomain or domain, as these will have no history and in Google’s eyes will most likely be viewed as untrustworthy.

Once your program is pushed, an analysis should be completed to figure out what parts of the university’s existing website are relevant enough to be good opportunities to build links from. For example, for an online mba program, there most likely are sections of the site dedicated to the business school, a relevant on-campus program, a program directory, a news section, and a career section on where you can probably request links. Acquiring links from these sections can immediately help to increase your page authority and trust rank. Also, do whatever you possibly can to get a link from your university’s homepage, through showing up in the news section or on the rotating slider if possible (Google will love it).

Implement an Off-page Strategy

While a complete on-page SEO strategy can setup any program for success, an off-page SEO strategy is most likely needed for any relatively competitive program. For the most part, due to the competitiveness in the higher education space, a program or handful of programs have already implemented a complete on-page strategy that will position them ahead of your program. What can separate your program from the rest, especially when it comes to more competitive keywords, is the implementation of a powerful off-page strategy.

Your off-page strategy can consist of guest blogging, infographics, or any other type of high quality PR services, and at the end of the day that is what is going to get you ranking for the higher quality student producing terms. A strategy that can help to get you going in the right direction is to take a look at the backlinks that have been built to your competitor’s sites. There is a reason why they rank so well for certain terms, so take a look at what they are doing and then craft your own strategy based off of that.

For the most part, if you introduce a program that isn’t overly competitive and follow the above strategy, you should be producing natural traffic relatively quickly. But, producing this traffic is just part of the equation, convincing and incentivizing it to move forward and convert is a just as important element to any internet marketing strategy.

The Top 10 Ways to Generate Traffic and Leads for an Online Degree Program

The following top 10 list analyzes a variety of different ways to drive traffic and leads for an online degree program. The options were scored based on four different factors: cost, quality, volume, and ease of implementation. Every program is slightly different, and while this list is meant to be a general guideline for prioritizing traffic opportunities, some of these strategies might work better than others depending on your programs situation.

10. Traditional Advertising

Now it really is tough to put traditional advertising at #10 on this list, but if you are looking for an online program wouldn’t you expect to be marketed to via an online channel? I am not saying that traditional advertising (direct mail/magazine Ad) cannot work for an online program, especially if you are a larger brand. I have seen this type of advertising be successful as a touch point for brands and programs with very large budgets. But at the end of the day, the effectiveness of traditional advertising is extremely hard to measure and tends to be very expensive.

Cost: Generally High
Quality: Medium
Volume: Generally Low
Ease of Implementation: Medium

9. Social Media Campaign

Social Media is such a hot topic nowadays, how can it be so low on this list?? Well this list is focused on driving traffic and leads, which social media generally doesn’t do (unless you are using paid ads within social networks). Social Media is fantastic as a branding tool for a university or program, but is it going to directly generate leads? Unfortunately most of the time the answer is no. Social Media strategies and campaigns also tend to be pretty pricey, as large amounts of high quality content and different types of incentives have to be used to generate any type of user interaction. If you are a new program trying to drive revenue for your program, I recommend holding off on social media until you are more established.

Cost: Generally High
Quality: Low-Medium
Volume: Generally Low
Ease of Implementation: Low

7(tie). Email Buy

So tied at #7 on this list is the purchase or renting of a targeted email list. For some programs, highly targeted email buys can work extremely well. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of email blasts has slowly decreased over the last ten years or so, with lists becoming more spammed and less targeted. Individuals also do not trust email advertising like they used to, and many people utilize a totally different email account (which they rarely check) for any email lists and sign up opportunities. While some programs that offer highly specialized programs might find a golden opportunity through a targeted list, most online programs generally are going to invest a lot of money and receive a limited return.

Cost: Medium-High
Quality: Low-Medium (higher if more specialized)
Volume: Medium (but can wildly fluctuate depending on specialization and list quality)
Ease of Implementation: Medium-High

7(tie). Targeted Display (non CPC model)

So the reason targeted display that is sold on a non CPC model is at #7 is due to the risk involved with purchasing this type of online placement. You might put in some good time and find a site that seems to fit your programs target market, and pay a flat fee for a 3-month placement contract (guaranteeing a certain number of impressions) on that site, but receive next to nothing in return. That is why we recommend that generally if you are going to implement a display campaign you do so through a third party like Google Display or Doubleclick where you are in control if traffic is non-existant. Sometimes this advertising can work wonderfully, and you can drive a large amount of highly targeted traffic extremely cheaply, but generally if you are on a tight budget it’s a good idea to stay away.

Cost: Medium
Quality: Low-Medium (higher if specialized)
Volume: Medium (can fluctuate)
Ease of Implementation: Medium-High

6. Google Remarketing

Google Remarketing is a fantastic opportunity for programs to create customized lists of users that they can display targeted advertisements to. This is a great way to try and re-interest them in a program, especially if they originally arrived at an asset that wasn’t optimized for conversion. We have our own customized strategy for utilizing remarketing for our clients,  but every program should at least be building a list off of individuals who visit their homepage.

Cost: Low
Quality: Medium
Volume: Medium (can be higher depending on list size)
Ease of Implementation: Medium-High

5. Targeted Display: Google Display/Facebook Ads/LinkedIn Ads

Display advertising on a CPC model can be somewhat hit or miss, depending on a programs target audience. If you have a defined program audience, and have created different personas for this audience, then Facebook and LinkedIn are great avenues for hitting that market. The Google Display network is also massive, and if you put in the time to research different sites that offer advertising opportunities, you can experience extremely high ROI’s.

Cost: Low-Medium (you pay what you want)
Quality: Medium
Volume: Medium (you drive what you want)
Ease of Implementation: Medium-High

4. Google Adwords/Bing Ads Keyword Based Search

So most of the time, Google Adwords is extremely expensive, but it is by far the best place to find individuals who are interested in a degree program who might not be familiar with your brand. If someone is searching for an online MPA program, and you are marketing one, then what better way to drive targeted traffic than by having your brand show up at the top of the results. Bing also tends to be slightly less expensive then Google, and will not drive near the volume, but is a great complement and should be always be setup. One thing that is essential for the success of this traffic source is optimized landing pages.

Cost: Medium (bid on the long-tail, you pay for as many clicks as you want)
Quality: High
Volume: Medium (you drive what you want)
Ease of Implementation: Medium

3. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

The reason SEO comes in at #3 is because if you are able to get your program ranking high for a targeted keyword, you get all the benefits that Adwords offers except you don’t pay per click…. SEO is a no-brainer, but implementing a campaign around a highly competitive term can be very expensive. Finding a highly specialized firm of hiring an expert in the realm of SEO is mandatory if you are looking to succeed. The main benefit to SEO is while the costs up-front may be high, once you have attained a position you most likely are staying there for the long-term.

Cost: Medium-High
Quality: High
Volume: Medium-High (depending on the keywords you rank for)
Ease of Implementation: Low (you pretty much have to outsource)

2. Cultivate Your Existing Database

Wow this is at #2??? Well you would be surprised how many universities we work with who are sitting on a database of 100k potential students who never thought to let those individuals know that they are launching an online version of the program that they were originally interested in enrolling in on-campus. If you are about to launch an online program, why not let as many people know about it as possible, and drive the ones that are interested to a highly customized landing page that provides a unique offer to them. Politics can sometimes get in the way here, but at the end of the day this is a fantastic opportunity to quickly generate high quality leads.

Cost: Low
Quality: High
Volume: Medium (depending on your database)
Ease of Implementation: High

1. Redirect Internal Traffic

This somewhat piggy backs on #2, but why not target individuals who are already familiar with your brand, are looking at similar programs, and are ready to enroll now? If you offer an on-campus Masters in Computer Science, then why don’t you build a link from the on-campus page to the online page as an alternative? That is only the tip of the iceberg, get access to a universities analytics and use Google search operators to find what you are looking for.

Cost: Low
Quality: Very High
Volume: Medium-High
Ease of Implementation: High

The above list is vague for a reason; it is an overview of my organizations strategy for success when launching an online program. If you are interested in digging a little deeper, get in contact with us here.