5 Questions to Ask Before Selecting Your Next Digital Agency

The way prospective students are finding education solutions is changing every day, especially when it comes to the digital space. Choosing a digital marketing partner with the proper knowledge of the education vertical is key. The wrong choice can lead to inefficient marketing spend, missed inquiry goals, and a shortage in starts. But finding a digital firm with advertising chops who also knows the nuances of education and how it relates to common ad platforms can be like finding a needle in a haystack. You’ll often find jacks-of-all-trades that are selling that they can build your website and drive relevant traffic all with the same skill set and experience a digital firm can, though the two fields are very different. Digital firms need to be specialized in digital advertising or your school risks mediocre results and missing out on establishing your true student journey.

So the question becomes – how do I find the right agency for my school and make sure they have the skill set to drive the high quality inquiries needed to fill starts? Search no further, here are the top five questions you should ask when selecting a digital higher education agency:

Are they education-focused? – The first question to ask any agency is whether they are focused on the education vertical, or accept clients across multiple industries. You’ll find that many digital firms cover a lot of ground. But there’s a difference when eCommerce agencies help clients sell a variety of products, and when the same agency tries to approach inquiry generation for a school. The student journey is far more complex and lengthy, and the nuances of education require the touch of an agency dedicated to the space. Ask your agency whether they have knowledge of education compliance, post-inquiry nurturing, and CRM integration to track inquiry quality through the pre-enrollment touchpoints from your admissions team.

Are they transparent? – It’s important to get an agency’s thoughts on ad transparency, both from a cost and placement perspective. Within the current industry space, digital transparency is at an all-time low, and that needs to change. Make sure you have your agency explain word for word as to how they purchase ads and the guarantees they can make about ad placement and transparency. Brands need to be aware that ad fraud and viewability rates can decrease ad spend efficiency substantially. It’s estimated that more than $50 million per day is lost to digital ad fraud. This means if you partner with the wrong firm, you could be wasting digital spend because of poor placement and transparency. In order to ensure that you are dealing with a solid firm, ask to see the exact costs they spent in order to buy auction-based ads. A common practice of non-digital firms is to pad the costs of CPM’s and CPC’s in order to increase overall retainer fees collected. For example, your firm could be buying your CPM’s at a total cost of $4.00 but charging you/showing you a total of $7.50 spend on CPM’s. This gives a firm an additional $3.50 per thousand impressions they purchase, which comes out to $3,500 lost from the spend per million impressions. This is a simple question that can save your school a large amount of money.

What digital marketing techniques do they use? – How an agency approaches spending your digital ad dollars is one of the most important questions you should ask during the process of selecting digital higher ed partners. At the moment, there are a few different methods used to place digital ads, with the current flavor of the month being programmatic ad buying. This form of digital ad buying is the closest form comparable to traditional media buying. This makes it easier for CMOs and brand leaders to understand the switch from traditional advertising to digital. While it is the easiest form to switch to and understand, it is riddled with ad fraud, viewability issues and can guarantee very little actual brand security, as found here. Most in the programmatic space will purchase remnant inventory to help reach your visibility goals, but cannot guarantee your ads appear above the fold and certainly cannot guarantee inquiry results from the spend. In addition, they cannot 100% guarantee brand security for your ads, meaning your ads could appear places like adult websites. These potential risks are leading to several debates about government regulation needed to protect advertisers.

Another form of media buying is straight media buys, which eliminates almost all forms of targeting other than purchasing large amounts of impressions across a multitude of websites. The issue with this is that if your ad buys are not going well you cannot pivot, as you’ve already made your purchase and are stuck with whatever inventory you’ve bought. If you have a major recognized school brand and are just going for market share dominance this type of media buying might be a good fit. But for the rest of the world, this media buying format can lead to poor results.

The last form of digital ad placement is to use a 100% custom firm. These firms specialize in building out custom targeting structures for your particular school and programs and do not rely on the same algorithm to solve every clients’ problems. These firms are 100% hands-on and do not rely on tools or machines to determine the best placement of ads. In today’s digital world where bot fraud is at an all-time high, custom ad placement and optimization eliminates sites that are 100% bot. This is in contrast to a programmatic buy, which would place large amounts of your spend on these sites because the bot traffic seems relevant. A firm that doesn’t claim they are media buying agency and does not use programmatic methods as your entire strategy is going to provide the best results possible.

How do they report results? – In the current digital landscape that exists, data is king. If your firm cannot provide you with 100% custom reporting, you are with the wrong agency. Knowing the amount of data any digital firm should possess at a given moment about your school and prospects, reports should include information on responder demographics, landing page optimization, inquiry-assisting touch points, and overall audience personas to name only a few. If the weekly reports you get from your firm do not have those data points in them, you need to ask why, immediately. And yes, you should be getting weekly reports and having weekly calls with your digital partners – if you are not then you need to ask why you are spending so much on retainer fees and not getting a weekly call time to discuss your ad results, which can be expressed further here. Reporting can be the most important deliverable a digital firm can provide you outside of actual inquiries, as it can help your entire team make forward-looking decisions based on what ad investments are performing best.

What is the personality of the agency? – Agency personality can often be the most overlooked conversion had in the decision-making process. Making sure you have an agency that will provide you with the good, the bad and the ugly is one of the most important questions you can ask during this process. Make sure and ask if they can provide you with a time they failed during an ad campaign and how they reported on those metrics. Everyone can provide you with an answer to how they can fix an issue, but what you want to know is if they will truly tell you the ship is sinking or if they will mask those issues with different data points. An honest agency is going to provide you with the best results possible, not an agency that says yes to everything and shares data points that make it look like everything they are doing is solid gold. At the end of the day, you want to make sure your agency is providing you with the most relevant data, whether that is positive or negative. You also want to make sure they will check their ego at the door and operate more as an extension of your marketing department versus a vendor you farm out work to each month.

If you base your digital higher education agency selections on the above-mentioned criteria, you are more than likely to find the best agency for your school instead of an agency that can sell you on why they are perfect for you. At Statwax, we truly try to provide as much information and education about the digital space as possible. If you’re interested, get in touch, or connect with us on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

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