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A Guide to How Native Advertising is Transforming Higher Education Marketing

By June 2, 2016 No Comments

What is Native Advertising?

Native advertising is defined as a form of paid media, where the ad experience follows the natural form and function of the user experience in which it is placed.  The form of native ads match the visual design of the experience the ads live within so that they emulate the look and feel of natural content. The function of the native ad must coincide with the native user experience and perform just as like natural content.

Why is Native Advertising Important and How Does It Play a Role in Online Higher Education?

A recently discussed topic in higher education is the disruption of traditional higher education with the continual dominance of the Internet and the increasing popularity of online courses and degrees.  With the increasing costs of obtaining a degree and the necessity of having one, students are looking for alternatives to paying six-figures for their education.
So why does this matter to universities and their marketing approach?  Because $21 billion is estimated to be spent on native advertising by 2018, it is increasingly becoming a popular answer to many organizations’ marketing needs.  According to Sharethrough research, 53% of users say they are more likely to look at a native ad than a banner ad, while 32% said they would share a native ad.  Furthermore, with mobile taking over the way people go about on the Internet, it is crucial that colleges and universities take advantage of native advertising in the mobile format.  Studies have shown that 85% of mobile users are “visually engaged” with native ads presented in the stream of content and are six times more likely to produce higher conversions for brands versus traditional banner ads.  

Examples of Applying Native Ads Principles into Paid Search Advertising

1. Paid Search in SERPs (search engine results page)

Search engine ads are one of the most common types of paid advertising in use today. This is where search engines will place three or four paid ads at the top of the page which match the form and feel of the organic results directly below them. Essentially, the listing is exactly the same with the only exception being the text labeled “ad.”
online mba serp page
This is important for higher education institutions’ marketing practice because it is where their end user will begin their search journey. In a report by Wordstream, the keyword “degree” rounds up to #8 in the top 20 most expensive keywords. That statistic shows the competitiveness of this industry and why paid search must use the principles of native advertising to assure that all ads are relevant to the user’s experience, surrounded by content that blends in, looks natural and can be easily measured. With the increase in the amount of students attending post-secondary schools and the rise of searches around online higher education, it is essential that higher education marketers apply native advertising tactics to their ads and messaging.

2. Paid Search in Social Media

Social media advertising has many names including sponsored content, boosted post, and right-side ads. In recent years, social media has become part of higher education universities top priorities for ad placement. They’re taking advantage of these social media platforms to market to students because studies have shown the students use universities’ social media sites to gather brand insights and student experiences. Once higher education marketers understand this, we can promote universities’ post to target relevant audiences in social media news feeds to increase their overall social media following and in return produce higher levels of engagement with prospective students.
njit mba online ad

Paid social ads that include rich media boost
conversion rates by up to 60%, while 70% of internet users prefer to learn about products through content versus traditional advertisements. That is why social media ads are starting to match the form and content of the platform they are placed in with a small text that displays either sponsored or promoted. Since these advertisements no longer looks like ads, the natural organic factors help increase click-through and conversion rates. This is a key point in transformation that marketers must take. Now a piece of advertising content has to “take the natural form” of what a student is use to seeing and display it as a traditional social media piece thus enhancing the user experience.
For example, let’s take a look at Netflix’s collaboration with The Times’ T Brand Studio to create a paid piece of content that matches the form of an traditional editorial submission. The entire piece reflects women in prison and subliminally includes Netflix’s  hit show Orange is the New Black as the “partner” of the post. The post was shared on Facebook to look like a normal piece of content about women in prison when really it was a native ad.
netflix orange is new black ad

3. Content Widgets in Blogs

Unlike the two previous examples, native ads in blogs do not always take the form and function of the blog itself. Rather, they will appear in the blog page as a content recommended widget, when clicked the user is typically sent to a page off-site. Another distinction that these native ad widgets have is their placement on the blog page. SERPs and social media native ads are placed in the direct area of organic posts, whereas, recommended content widgets are placed in various high traffic areas such as below the blog post, at the top of the page and on the sidebars. These widgets are created to suggest “articles or blogs” that user might also enjoy reading, in addition to the current blog post.  
taboola conten widget example
Having these widgets as a part of your online marketing plan is a great way to get your school added to popular sites and can increase page views. When considering recommended widget ads, it is crucial to understand the scope of your audience so that your native ad(s) coincide with the placement and content of the page.  The audience is engaged by the content and is more likely to click on the ad as it relates to the content on the page.

4. Native Ads in Blogs

In this new era of marketing listicles and game-like content, bloggers and news organizations have found a way to engage users of all ages. One company who has dominated in this realm and changed the face of advertising would have to be BuzzFeed. They have taken advertising a step further by seamlessly integrating promoted posts into their daily release of blog articles. This truly take on what it means to do native advertising. Since their business model relies on the revenues of promoted posts, they have removed the use of any banner or display ads to their website and incorporated the use of listicles as their main way to promote posts. As you can see in the example below, Discover Student Loans is promoting a game-like piece of content towards students titled The “Would You Rather” You Wish Existed When You Chose A CollegeMany students don’t notice that this is a type of native ad, and they engage by taking the test.
buzzfeed college list
buzzfeed gamification
Once the user goes through the whole test, they get to the bottom of the content and are presented with a call-to-action, which directs them off the BuzzFeed page and into their personal sales funnel without the user being conscious of the ad.
Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 12.42.47 PM
If higher education marketers and institutions are able to change their approach when developing paid search strategies by using the principles of native advertising, then not only will they provide more value to their prospective students, but they can expect the students to engage more with the universities ad, fill out an application and ultimately convert into a student.


There are various things higher education marketers can do to increase their schools brand awareness, pageviews and student lead flow. If done right, native advertising can be used as a tool to breakup the use of banner ads and provide related quality content that will result in more clickthrough rates and prospective leads from the ad itself. By transitioning away from traditional paid search tactics and into a more native strategy, the universities’ program “sponsored” content is guaranteed to target specific end users and create more conversions.
Evelyn Valle, digital marketerEvelyn Valle is a digital marketing intern at Circa Interactive. 

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