Programmatic Advertising and Ad Buying for Higher Education Marketers

Illustrative graphic of a person looking up higher education schools

Historically, May 1st has been the date by which admitted applicants reply to admissions officers and colleges aim to have their classes filled, according to Inside Higher Ed. In 2018, only 38% of colleges met new student enrollment targets by that date, and many now say that June 1st or July 1st are more significant dates. With an estimated higher education market of $600 billion in the U.S. alone, there is increasing pressure on admissions directors and subsequently higher education marketers to meet their targets.

Higher education marketers need to find innovative and cost-effective ways to bring quality, prospective students to their programs amidst an increasingly competitive market. The audience they need to reach is progressively savvy, always on the move and constantly refocusing their attention on new platforms to meet their social needs and desires. Higher education institutions need to keep up!

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.

Paired with a lack of visibility into marketing budgets across the institution, building awareness and driving enrollments can be conflicting goals, but they don’t need to be. So, when trying to reach multiple markets and personas at once, programmatic advertising meets this need like few other platforms and tactics can.

Programmatic is using technology to help you buy digital media and it comes with a plethora of data that you can leverage. By combining detailed user information with programmatic advertising, you can more effectively identify which prospective students will be receptive to marketing from your institution, reach hyper-targeted audiences and achieve cost-efficient recruitment results.

How Programmatic Can Help You with Enrollments

Personalize the message directly for your audience

Digital campaigns are unmatched when it comes to the ability to target specific demographics, interests, income, behaviour or location. If you’re looking to increase enrollment of working professionals or retirees in the university’s continuing education program, you’ll want to target an older age range and higher income level than you would for a campaign spotlighting the undergraduate program.

Reach potential students at every stage of their online journey

Drive scale early on to maximize the growth of your retargeting pool and increase campaign efficiencies. Consider leveraging custom audience segments, proprietary to StackAdapt, that can capture students on college campuses, searching for loans and scholarships, or undergraduate submissions.

Graphic illustration of user segments targeting nurses and those interested in a business degree

Try geo-fencing as a tactic to set a perimeter around a physical location in which your ads can be delivered. Target potential students by location, proximity or region—even internationally. If your campus is in California, you can target by state or take it right down to the neighbourhood, at the zip code level, adjacent to a competing university.

Refresh Your Ad Creatives

Create program-specific creatives to drive directly to the respective enrollment page. You will likely achieve stronger performance and results with specific creative tailored to each program, as opposed driving to a university’s homepage, or consolidating budgets and using general creative that speaks to a variety of programs.

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.

Remarketing to a similar audience in education campaigns, including recent accolades and university rankings, tend to lead to stronger engagement as rankings can influence an applicant’s decision. Or you can target specific student concerns in your creative messaging.

Leverage Programmatic for Your Other Advertising Efforts

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.

Introducing programmatic into your media mix does not mean you should abandon other channels. You should try to bridge all of the channels available to you. Programmatic campaigns provide rich audience data that you can use to inform paid search campaigns, including keyword buys and ad copy. Try repurposing your social assets to test native.

A Marketing Timeline for Your Higher Education Campaign

To achieve your new student enrollment targets for May 1 2020, be prepared to start your marketing efforts a calendar year in advance. The goal is not only to achieve your enrollment targets but to influence applicant decision intent to include your institution for consideration, by making people aware of who you are and what you have to offer.

Timeline for when to start planning your education marketing

Other campaign tactics for consideration

  • Determine how many high-school students are in each State or Province to define the size of your audience and set a goal to hit 80% of them.
  • Take parents into consideration with your campaigns—they can sometimes be the decision makers in the selection process.
  • Do not limit geotargeting to your institution, its events or those of your competitors—also geotarget around high schools in a given area.
  • Run conquesting tactics for the entire time by leveraging StackAdapt’s Custom Audience segments.
  • Depending on your budget, consider using a location intelligence partner like Cuebiq to measure footfall traffic to see where your visitors are coming from.

The beauty of programmatic is that every ad space you purchase is targeted towards a receptive audience, so you are more likely to see a greater return on investment. And when you know who might be interested in your institution, it’s easier to get across an authentic message that resonates with Gen Z high schoolers, online course classes and continuing education students—all looking forward to their higher education future.

With the right digital partner, you can incorporate programmatic into your media mix with confidence and make the grade for your institution.

Want to run exceptional higher education campaigns? Request a demo to learn more about StackAdapt.

Kaitlin Forbes
Kaitlin Forbes

Senior Director of Product Marketing


Kaitlin partners with various stakeholders to determine product messaging, positioning, sales enablement, and go-to-market strategy. With 10+ years in product marketing, Kaitlin has worked on various forms of SaaS products including programmatic and CRM.