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Launching an Online Degree: Where Should I Invest My Online Degree Marketing Budget?

By April 5, 2013 No Comments

By: Robert Lee, Co-Founder of Circa Interactive
You have proposed your idea for an online degree program, worked tirelessly at getting the right people on board with it, and it has finally been approved. You just know it’s going to be a success, you took your time and completed all the right research and know there is a large market of eager potential students looking for your specific degree program to meet their personal and professional goals.
You have proposed a budget, and while there was a little back-and-forth, it has also finally been approved. But how is this investment by your already cash strapped university going to get your inbox full of leads and the phone ringing?
Taking this budget and allocating it to the right places is an extremely important first step in laying the foundation for program success.
You are marketing an online degree program; the best place to try and target your program’s potential market is online. While direct mail pieces and taking an ad out in a magazine could be supplemental ways to expand your brand and possibly drive more traffic to your site, it cannot be your core source of traffic and leads.
The following list breaks down the top places to invest your budget. The importance of each of these can differ as each program is unique, but the core of your investment must go into some combination of these sources.
1. Landing Page Development
Landing page development?
This might seem like a very strange first place to invest your marketing budget, but it is by far the most valuable and will pay off ten-fold. Traffic that arrives at a website generally converts to lead anywhere between 1-4%. This can fluctuate due to the type of traffic, strength of brand, and the current conversion process of your site.  So what that means is that if 100 people visit your website, you can expect around 2 leads.
Traffic arriving at a fully optimized website can convert anywhere from 3-25%. The 3% would be for lower quality traffic sources (FB display advertising), and 25% would be for extremely high quality sources (internal high quality referral, repeat visitor). So lets say the average conversion rate on a landing page is 8%.
In an effort to show the importance of conversion rate, let’s use Google paid search traffic as an example. Let’s say you are marketing a Masters in Information Systems, with an average cost-per-click in Google of $10.
If you drive 100 visitors to your un-optimized website, your CPL will be:
100 visitors x $10 CPC = $1,000
100 visitors x 2% conversion rate = 2 leads
$1,000 / 2 leads = $500 CPL
And if you drive 100 visitors to your fully optimized landing page, your CPL will be:
100 visitors x $10 CPC = $1,000
100 visitors x 8% conversion rate = 8 leads
$1,000 / 8 leads = $125 CPL
Your CPL will be 5 times higher if you send the traffic to your website instead of an optimized landing page. The critics of the use of landing pages main argument is that the quality of leads will deteriorate with landing pages as a LPs main focus is just to convert a visitor to a lead. Well, I think that argument does have some merit, but landing pages are a great way to move someone who is earlier in the buying process further down the conversion funnel.
For example, if you produce two leads out of 100 visitors from your website, they are most likely relatively high quality.
From a landing page, if you produce eight leads out of your 100 visitors, you probably have 2-3 high quality, 2-3 medium quality, and 2-3 who are just shopping around. But isn’t 4 medium and high quality leads better than just two high quality leads? And then as a bonus you get 4 additional contacts to nurture in your database for future enrollment.
2. Keyword Based Pay-Per-Click (Google Adwords + Bing Ads)
One of the highest quality leads you can produce is through targeting people who are actively searching for your degree program through one of the major search engines.  The three major search engines are Google (approx. 70% U.S. market share) and Yahoo/Bing (approx. 25% U.S. market share). Yahoo and Bing merged and so they share the same algorithm and paid search platform (Bing Ads).
Most degree programs don’t already have an established SEO presence, which means that the only way to drive traffic to your website or landing page via actual keyword- based searches is through paid advertisements.   Pay-Per-Click advertising is also effective in driving leads almost immediately for your degree program, while SEO will take at least four to six months on average.
When launching a Pay-Per-Click campaign, it’s important to keep in mind  that not all keyword-based traffic is the same quality.  Searchers will use certain keywords in their search query, which will be more or less relevant to your degree program offering. For example, if you were marketing an online masters in public administration, then obviously the most relevant keyword for your target market would be “Online Masters in Public Administration”. But from there, you might try and bid on additional keywords like just “Masters of Public Administration” (no online denotation), or “Masters in Public Policy” (a similar degree program).
You need to think about this when setting up your Adwords campaign and more specifically setting bids for your keywords. If you take a step back and look at your budget as a whole, you probably want to spend as much money as you can on these highly relevant keywords, while possibly allocating the money that you could use to target these secondary keywords to other traffic generating opportunities (display advertising, SEO, etc.).
3. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
SEO is the process of optimizing a website and individual pages for specific keywords so that they rank higher organically in the major search engines, and is extremely important to invest in from a long term perspective. There is a lot of opportunity to drive a large amount of extremely high quality traffic to your website through SEO, but many major keywords tend to be very competitive. An SEO investment tends to work extremely well for programs that fall into the medium competition range, such as a Masters in Social Work or Bachelors in Public Health.
SEO is broken into two parts, with the first being on-page SEO. On-page SEO consists of edits that can be made to a physical website that is trying to rank for certain keywords. On-page SEO must be completed prior to off-page SEO, and generally is a much lower investment than an aggressive off-page SEO or link building strategy.
Off-page SEO (also known as link-building) is the secondary part of any SEO strategy, and can wildly fluctuate in costs depending on the competitiveness of keywords targeted. Content and infographic creation are a major part of the link-building process, as distributing high quality content to webmasters is a great way to build links back to your site.
The main benefit to SEO, and why its ranked so high on this list, is that generally once an initial investment has been made a campaign can float into more of a maintenance mode, which could be as low as $500/month. So if you are able to produce 200 organic visitors to your website, and are only paying $500 per month, your average CPC is $2.50. Your average CPC for paid search is most likely going to be around $10, so from a long-term perspective there are large benefits to SEO.
4. Facebook Paid Ads
While Facebook advertising might not be as cheap as it used to be, and its targeting parameters have actually gotten worse, it is still a great source for driving relevant traffic, especially when targeting a unique market. Individuals include so much personal information within their profiles, and if you really understand your program’s target market then the opportunity is there to create audience personas. You can then use those personas to craft audience segments that can be used to drive targeted traffic to your program’s landing page.
Take for example an Online Masters in Information Systems, with concentrations in Information Security, Networking, and Development. Just based off of the names of the concentrations, you can probably figure out that you might want to target lower level Information Security Managers, Network Architects, and Programmers. You can craft an advertisement that speaks to each audience, and target people based on likes, degree programs, or different IT organizations. This is just the tip of the iceberg though, as you will learn about many different ways to utilize Facebook once you spend enough time in the interface.
5. Google Display Advertising
If you have a generally large budget, then the Google Network is a great way to drive additional traffic to your landing pages. There are three different options when it comes to display advertising within the Google Network, and different types of programs can experience success with each.
Google Contextual Advertising– The Google content network can get kind of complicated so I am not going to get too detailed. The basic idea is that pages that are within their network that include text/content relevant to the keywords you include in your targeting parameters are selected to display your advertisements. So for example if you are marketing an “online mba”, your ad might show up on a site that has an article about online mba’s.
Google Managed Placements- Managed placements let you select exactly what sites you want to target, and can be fantastic if you know the major sites that your potential students visit. Not all sites are part of the Google Network, so there are some limitations, but this can be a great option if you are marketing a Green MBA (target all green/renewable energy sites) or another program that is slightly unique.
Google Remarketing- Google Remarketing is a great way to stay in front of individuals who might have already visited your website or landing page in the past and did not convert. It has been proven that sometimes it takes multiple interactions with a user before they are ready to convert, so this is just another way to nurture the relationship.
6. LinkedIn Advertising
If you have a large budget, and still have not maxed out your spend, then LinkedIn advertising is a good place to test. Sometimes LinkedIn can actually produce higher quality traffic than Facebook, but if you have ever been on LinkedIn, you know the experience is very different then FB. The targeting parameters are very similar to FB, so if you already created user personas or segments you can carry them over. LinkedIn isn’t going to produce anywhere near the volume that Facebook will, so keep that in mind when setting up a budget for it.
In conclusion, each program is going to respond slightly different within each advertising platform. I always recommend that a client implements a landing page and at least a Google paid search campaign just to start building some traffic to their program assets. If your program meets the criteria provided within the “How To Tell What Types of Online Programs Will Be Successful” post, then distributing your budget among the above sources can really help to move your program in the right direction.

About the Author: Robert Lee is the co-founder of Circa Interactive Inc, a San Diego based higher education search marketing and lead generation agency.  Robert is an expert SEM strategist and has worked with dozens of colleges and universities across the US.
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