How to Use Programmatic Advertising and Ad Buying Effectively In Higher Education: A Crash Course

The digital ad industry has flocked to programmatic advertising in recent years. According to eMarketer, programmatic display spend is expected to reach $39.46 billion in 2018. And for good reason: Adopting programmatic ad buying into digital strategies has become a necessity for marketers looking to leverage data and technology to target their customers with relevant messages at the right place, right time – and the right cost.

And higher education institutions, facing an increasingly competitive market and needing to find innovative (and cost-effective) ways to bring quality, prospective students to their programs, are the perfect programmatic candidates.

What is Programmatic?

Programmatic is a broad term representing automated technology infrastructure that is happening across media buying through different technologies that are available to us – like a DSP. In plain speak? Programmatic is using technology to help you buy digital media.

Colleges and Universities Face Unique Challenges

Because higher education clients make up a large part of the business at Centro, we understand the unique set of challenges these marketers face. Our teams have worked with a wide variety of higher education clients and institutions, including both undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as online degree programs, and regional and national university campaigns.

Common sets of challenges have surfaced across all programs: the need to increase enrollment, drive qualified applicants to websites, promote awareness of programs, degrees, and certifications, and a lack of visibility into marketing budgets across universities. One of the biggest challenges our clients face is selecting KPIs and knowing how to best consolidate budgets between building awareness and driving enrollments – which are often conflicting goals.

The complexity extends beyond the schools to the students themselves. Prospective students are leveraging a lot of touchpoints, research tools, and devices in their decision-making process. They’re on their smartphones, their desktops, their laptops, and their tablets. Research takes place on school websites, search engines, digital brochures, and social networks. And don’t forget about old school tactics like word of mouth, open house visits and school tours, and getting recommendations from their friends and family.

As you can imagine, decisions don’t come easily – or quickly. When does that final decision take place? That depends on the student. Some prospective students pick their program months before enrolling, and others make the final call the day before, which makes campaign timeframes more complex and significantly longer than other industries.

Which means it’s more critical than ever to deliver the right message to the right consumer at exactly the right time.

Savvy Institutions are Utilizing Programmatic Ads to Boost Program Awareness and Enrollment

That’s where programmatic media buying comes in. However, programmatic knowledge and know-how across the industry varies wildly. Often marketers and higher education clients have plenty questions about programmatic, specifically around brand safety, cost, efficiency, and its general value and role in the digital ecosystem.

So, how can education marketers and higher education institutions approach programmatic ad buying?

Whether you’re just learning about digital or already have an established digital media plan, there are some common digital best practices, tips, and programmatic strategies that solve for all types of marketing challenges in higher education. We gathered a few below:

Engage Prospective Students
Your programs and curriculum are directed at specific consumers, and it’s important to make sure your message is reaching a qualified, prospective student.

  • Drive scale early on to maximize retargeting pool growth and to drive campaign efficiencies. More scale also leads to more data that can be used for optimizations
    • Centro’s Tips & Tricks for Success: Leverage prospecting algorithms, as well as lookalike modeling to drive scale early on
  • Incorporate video assets, as well as display, especially for campaigns focused on driving awareness
    • Centro’s Tips & Tricks for Success: Outside of typical pre-roll inventory, consider testing programmatic TV, connected TV, and in-stream video to drive efficiencies across video buys. If vertical video is available, even better! Test this up-and-coming video format across programmatic video and social media channels
  • Focus reach around key locations to reach target audiences when in the right mindset.
    • Centro’s Tips & Tricks for Success: Geo-fence and IP target feeder schools or facilities. Build custom audiences of people frequently visiting certain locations
  • Maintain an endemic presence and align with the most relevant content
    • Centro’s Tips & Tricks for Success: Build custom whitelists, negotiate PMPs with endemic sites, and utilize contextual or search retargeting to align digital ads next to niche keywords specific to your university
  • Leverage any available proprietary, first-party data
    • Centro’s Tips & Tricks for Success: CRM targeting and look-a-like modeling of CRM lists
  • Hone in and re-capture an exposed audience

Drive and Measure Meaningful Conversions
Don’t waste impressions. No matter what business problem you’re trying to solve for, it ultimately doesn’t matter unless you’re able to connect your marketing investment and dollars to measureable business results. Testing, tweaking, and optimizing will bring the most bang for your buck.

  • Set KPI benchmarks upfront, so all digital partners are aligned on campaign goals and desired efficiencies
    • Centro’s Tips & Tricks for Success: If tracking online conversions, know which stage of the online enrollment process to track. Is it more realistic to track leads on initial action buttons, or does it benefit you most to track only form fill completions?
  • Conduct analysis and establish patterns around your audience. Reach and engage candidates as they move down the path to conversion, from research and consideration through inquiry to application and enrollment. Understand where each digital partner falls in the funnel
    • Centro’s Tips & Tricks for Success:
      • Analyze video and audio against awareness benchmarks, understanding they often play a key part in moving users down the funnel later on
      • Stronger conversion performance typically happens when ads click straight through to relevant URLs with easy to access online enrollment forms – instead of clicking through to a homepage with multiple programs included
  • Consolidate budgets into top partners for desired KPI
    • Centro’s Tips & Tricks for Success: We have seen CPAs cut in half when consolidating to top conversion driving partners, instead of spreading budgets across too many partners
  • Utilize reporting data to make smarter decisions.
    • Centro’s Tips & Tricks for Success: Consider optimizing bi-weekly and between key enrollment periods to always be optimizing toward the top converting partners and placements.

Don’t Forget About Creative
Programmatic ad buying should not replace personalized messaging. If you’re using the tools correctly, marketers should be able to leverage both data-driven tech and dynamic creative to develop campaigns that stand out.

  • Frequently refresh creative. And tailor creative messaging to each unique degree that is being promoted
    • Centro’s Tips & Tricks for Success:
      • Create program-specific creative to drive directly to that program’s enrollment page. We have seen stronger performance and results with specific creative tailored to each program, as opposed to consolidating budgets and creative that speaks to a variety of programs, or to driving to a university’s general homepage.
      • Go one step beyond tailoring creative to specific degrees and programs and consider custom creative. This could include rich media expandable units, or dynamic creative for location-based initiatives such as directing potential students to an event on campus
      • Remarket over and over to a similar audience in education campaigns. Including recent accolades and university rankings tends to lead to stronger engagement (particularly in paid search).
  • Reach target audiences across all devices and channels, in order to test and optimize
    • Centro’s Tips & Tricks for Success: Consider leveraging cross-device matching in order to customize creative to our target consumer’s various personal devices, and to customize creative to each device

Don’t Limit Yourself
The higher education audience is typically mobile-focused and pretty tech-savvy, making this audience a bit harder to pin down. These individuals gravitate to diverse digital platforms, and they should be able to find you there, too.

  • Prospective students are searching across several sites. Go beyond Google and Facebook to promote your brand
    • Centro’s Tips & Tricks for Success: Continuously test new search targeting products and capabilities, such as site link extensions, visual site links (if applicable to degree), search CRM targeting, day-parting, and more
  • Bridge all the different channels available to you
    • Centro’s Tips & Tricks for Success: Utilize search retargeting to align paid search and display efforts. Repurpose social assets to test native, etc
  • Always be open to testing new platforms, as each university drives different results in different channels
    • Centro’s Tips & Tricks for Success: Think beyond the typical laptop, desktop, and mobile devices to think what digital out-of-home channels make sense for your school. These could include mall screens, airport Wi-Fi connections, sports stadiums, local gas stations, and much more
  • Consider exploring PMP deals
    • Centro’s Tips & Tricks for Success: Never ignore ways to continuously drive efficiencies through consolidation. For example, consider building PMP deals with your go-to education endemic partners, in order to access the same inventory programmatically at a more efficient rate, all while consolidating budgets between less partners

With the right digital partner, you can take a programmatic approach and make the grade in every category that matters to your organization. Interested in other Centro resources that will help you understand programmatic and earn the highest marks with your digital strategy? Reach out to your Centro account lead or email us at info@centro.net