When running higher ed PPC campaigns for student acquisition, it can be tempting to focus only on the most high-intent, bottom-of-funnel keywords. Especially when a digital budget is limited, pushing as much as possible toward high converters like college and university branded terms or long-tail higher ed program queries will certainly produce the best cost efficiency and make the metrics look good. But looking good, and actually driving valuable inquiries are not one and the same.
Broad, top-of-funnel search terms were once seen as the least cost-effective, used to reach potential students but not always viewed as direct inquiry or enrollment converters. Much of this was based on last-click attribution and improper tracking that didn’t give the full picture. There is now increasing data to indicate that a long-term higher ed PPC strategy needs a strong presence on broader, non-branded keywords in order to succeed over time.
Students are making a decision with life-long impact when they choose a school, and their selection process reflects the weight of that decision. Because it reflects that student journey, campaigns that include broad searches – even in instances where the budget is tight – are more cost-effective than avoiding broad terms altogether.
Industry Search Trends
In an industry where overall search queries are growing year-over-year, broader non-branded queries are experiencing the quickest growth. This is according to Google’s 2018 education insights. According to data shared by our Google higher ed partners, there has been no quarter since 2016 where non-branded education queries have decreased in volume.
This type of search behavior is an important higher education trend to adjust for in times of diminishing enrollment. With the traditionally higher-converting keywords like branded terms seeing a decline, the way to avoid a plateau in higher ed PPC performance, and thus avoid a loss in inquiry and enrollment, is to expand into these top-of-funnel keyword areas.
The Changing Student Journey
The student journey is getting lengthier and more involved. Digital touchpoints required to turn a prospect into a student now number well into the thousands. And the ways of tracking and measuring higher ed success, like attribution, are changing accordingly.
As the student journey starts incorporating more digital research and earlier touchpoints, the opportunity for paid search to reach these prospects even earlier grows as well. Paid search keywords that were once viewed as low-intent are now being shown to actually drive tremendous inquiry value by acting as early awareness builders.
The trick is in changing how you view intent. It’s no longer about someone just searching “XX training program” or something similar. Statwax culled PPC data from our largest higher ed clients and found common top-of-funnel words and phrases that were frequently attached to education-related queries. Their conversion performance was impressive, but the way these broader searches impacted assisted conversions further down the line was even more surprising:
On the surface, these are terms that higher ed marketers may not immediately think to include in longer-tail keyword targeting. Searches involving “salary” or “pay” used to indicate an intent to find a job, not education. But in this age of instant information and digital research, many student prospects are first looking at career opportunities before committing to a program of study. It may seem only tangential, but in reality, this is someone very much in the higher education marketing funnel.
The assisted conversion data proves this out more than anything else. Direct conversion rate and cost of these terms is not something that would have long-term viability for most schools. But when looking at the assists, it becomes clear why a non-last-click attribution approach is so important. It paints a picture of top-of-funnel search queries that are leading a prospect to make several follow-up website visits before inquiring. Knowing that these additional touchpoints likely involve other searches and digital ads, it becomes clear how a broader approach to PPC keywords can help not only boost inquiry volume but also boost the engagement on other digital tactics.
If you’re interested in strengthening your inquiry potential by deploying smart, targeted, broad search terms, but aren’t sure where to start – let’s start a conversation.