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PPC Advertising 101: Tips for Colleges and Universities

PPC Advertising 101: Tips for Colleges and Universities

More and more colleges and universities are using Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising to more effectively connect with prospective students — and it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in PPC to get started.

Every day, prospective students are on their computers, tablets and phones searching the web for opportunities to advance their education. Associate’s, bachelor’s and advanced degree programs. On-campus and online.

Today’s lesson is on using PPC advertising to increase the odds that their search leads them to your school.

Perhaps your school is already running a Pay-Per-Click campaign, perhaps your competitors are, or both. Either way, one thing is certain. In the highly competitive higher education market, more and more colleges and universities are seeing the value of using Pay-Per-Click services to connect with prospective students. 

PPC Advertising 101

Just as its name suggests, Pay-Per-Click advertising is a method of online marketing in which you only pay when your ad is clicked.

Search PPC enables any advertiser to create an ad campaign — strategically targeting keywords and audience types. A search engine (platform) then displays the ads to the viewers the advertiser is trying to reach.

Advertisers bid on keywords and audience types, taking into account the value of displaying a carefully constructed ad to a targeted viewer at the exact moment their search is occurring. (Google provides extensive keyword search data and suggested bids.) Essentially, it allows any advertiser to buy visits to their website rather than relying solely on unpaid “organic” search.

Among the many benefits:

  • Advertisers can fine-tune their campaigns to reach only the most relevant viewers.
  • Even when the ads are not clicked they still get wide exposure, boosting your target audience’s awareness of your product, service or brand.

Many colleges and universities are using PPC ads to promote specific educational programs or more broadly to drive increased traffic to their website. From there, a range of strategies can be employed (inbound marketing among the most widely used) to nurture the new leads and build relationships, with the goal of converting prospective students into enrolled students.

According to higher education consulting firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz, PPC advertising is widely used at both public and private four-year institutions. And though the survey reported mixed reviews on the perceived effectiveness of PPC, it also revealed an opportunity – to construct highly effective PPC campaigns that outperform the competition by focusing on the best practices described in the next section of this guide.


Increasingly regarded as a key pillar of an effective digital marketing strategy, PPC is a prime opportunity for schools to reach students directly. Done right, PPC can be a cost-effective method for lead generation. A poorly managed campaign, however, can become very inefficient and costly.

Here are three helpful tips from our in-house PPC expert:

  • No budget is limitless. Get the most out of yours by starting a campaign that is as effectively targeted to your school’s specific degrees and programs as possible.
  • Whether you’re targeting by search keyword or social media interest, being specific allows you to truly pair programs with people – earning more interest, better clicks and more conversions as a result.
  • Consider your PPC as one big college fair. Is your first question to a prospective student “what do you want to study?” If so, that’s a perfect place to start your advertising setup too.

PPC Campaign Essentials

Opinions vary on best practices for PPC success, but most experts recommend focusing on:

  • Constructing smart, well-crafted ads and campaigns.
  • Building landing pages to welcome your new visitors.
  • Monitoring your account daily to make adjustments based on performance.

One of the key recommendations offered by Google in a step-by-step guide to creating effective campaigns is this: Think quality.

Google AdWords uses a formula called Quality Score — a metric that influences everything from how much you pay to where your ads are placed and how well they perform. The system includes many complexities, but Google boils it down as follows: “Ads that relate to what your customers are looking for and that link to relevant content get higher Quality Scores.”

Advertisers with higher Quality Scores receive more ad clicks at lower costs. That’s why it’s crucial to select the keywords most likely to connect the people you’re trying to reach with the products and services you have to offer. (Google calls keywords “the guts of your campaign.”)

Best practices also require that you create landing pages for viewers clicking on your ads. Rather than sending prospective students to your homepage, you’ll want to guide them to an attractive, helpful page that offers them more information about the program they’re interested in, while making it easy for them to access additional resources, make contact or actually launch the enrollment process.

Smartly written ads built around keywords that guide interested viewers to relevant, carefully crafted landing pages will increase your Quality Score and boost the effectiveness of your campaign.

Closely monitoring your campaign will allow you to see which ads and keywords are performing well — giving you the data you need to continually fine-tune your efforts and ensure that you are getting the most your money.

Types of PPC Campaigns

There are countless opportunities to customize your PPC ad campaigns to reach your target audience in a variety of ways. Here we’ll discuss four of the primary options offered by Google. (This video helps explain some of the basics.)

Search Network

This is the simplest and most common option, best used when you want your ads to appear next to Google search results that are displayed to users who are searching your keywords and are therefore most likely to be searching for your specific product or service.

According to Google, “Search Network only campaigns are usually focused on getting people to take action such as clicking your ad or calling your business. These campaigns show ads to people who are actively seeking out information.” (See video)


Display Network

This option enables you to advertise on popular websites whose content is relevant to your business, while promoting awareness of your brand and what you have to offer with images and video in addition to just text.

Comprised of millions of websites that agree to show Google text, image and video ads, the Display Network emphasizes target audiences and demographics more heavily than keywords and, according to Google, allows you to “reach customers while they’re browsing online.” (See video)

Google makes it very easy for even new users to combine the key features of both networks, while providing controls that enable you to schedule ads to run at certain times, in certain geographical areas or on certain websites.


You probably already have some experience with remarketing. Example: You visit a local college website and browse a page describing its MBA program. Later you notice an ad touting the same college’s MBA program on a different website or on a social media platform such as Facebook.

According to Google: “Remarketing lets you show ads to people who have visited your website or used your mobile app before. When people leave your website without buying anything, for example, remarketing helps you reconnect with them by showing relevant ads as they browse the web, as they use mobile apps, or as they search on Google.”

RLSA (Remarketing Lists for Search Ads)

Want to take remarketing to an even more sophisticated level? Google’s RLSA option gives you even greater power to reach users based on their behavior on your site (for example: creating campaigns that target viewers who have not only visited your website, but who have also browsed your page offering MBA program options).

All in all, PPC advertising is regarded as a key pillar of an effective digital marketing strategy — one that more colleges and universities are using to vie for the attention (and tuition dollars) of prospective students as the higher education landscape grows ever more competitive.

Of course, there’s much more to this conversation. So please contact us if you’d like to talk further about Pay-Per-Click advertising and how it fits into a smart, well-coordinated digital marketing campaign.

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