Report: COVID-19 prompts colleges to invest in digital marketing

Admissions marketing spending has increased as higher ed institutions make a push, particularly via Facebook advertising, for online program enrollment.

Institutional admissions teams are under a lot of pressure to help ensure students apply and enroll—and according to a new analysis from communications and marketing firm Kivvit, digital marketing is getting significant attention right now.

“Higher Education Digital Advertising Trends in the Age of COVID-19,” a June report from Kivvit’s higher ed research team, is based on an analysis of the Facebook advertising of 416 U.S. higher ed institutions between March 12 and May 19. Data was obtained from Pathmatics, a company that tracks digital advertising, and the review looked at spending data and content from the latest campaigns. Kivvit’s own internal ad performance was used to identify major themes shaping the campaigns.

“The magnitude of spending by for-profit and online-only universities really stood out to us,” says Zach Silber, Kivvit’s chief innovation officer. “These entities appear to have deliberately ramped up marketing to capitalize on the uncertainty and limitations of traditional on-campus learning during shutdowns.”

Silber, who heads up Kivvit’s higher ed research team along with Claudia Dodge and Shea Savaria, all co-authors of the report, refers to private online institution Western Governors University as the “starkest example.” WGU nearly quadrupled its Facebook ad spending over the same period last year. That, he adds, “to us signals a clear strategy at play.”

Higher ed Facebook advertising increased 7% during the pandemic compared to the same 10-week period one year ago, with institutions collectively spending a total of just under $55 million. Private online universities had the largest increases in spending. The average Facebook ads spend was $131,402 per institution, or about $54,000 per month.

Brick-and-mortar schools leading in ramped up advertising include Purdue and the University of Florida, which promoted their online programs, and MIT and UC Berkeley, which pushed their online technology course offerings.

Public institutions—while representing just 25% of the top 100 institution advertisers and comprising just 17% of ad spending among that group—weren’t the biggest spenders. But they did still increase ad spending at the same rate (about 21%) as private institutions.

Positive marketing results

The analysis of Kivvit’s own data revealed that campaigns are performing far better than they were pre-COVID, and also performing above the standard Facebook benchmark for education advertising. This finding was based on click-through rates on millions of impressions delivered to over 870,000 prospective applicants between February 17 and May 17.

But success depends on the right content and messaging.

Several institutions mentioned COVID-19 specifically or alluded to the magnitude of change taking place and framing the pandemic as a call to action. That call to action applies in particular to nursing and public health program ads, which tended to use “learn more” as opposed to “apply now,” an indication that awareness is the goal more than conversion.

More than 6 in 10 ads studied promoted online degree programs. Campus environments were featured in just 9% of ad creative, but over half of the ads showed people, and most of those included an element of social distancing. Still, 45% of the ads showing people featured groups of people in close proximity.

Career advancement is the most common messaging in the ads that were analyzed. Convenience and affordability are the other major themes identified.

 “We don’t think it’s a coincidence that with uncertainty surrounding the future of in-person learning, ads depicting campuses are being deemphasized,” says Silber. “It also makes sense that career advancement is the top message being conveyed at a time when job security is top-of-mind for so many people. The plurality of ads are grounded in the current moment.”

In his firm’s experience, “ads perform better when applicants can see aspirational versions of themselves in the content,” Silber adds. “That is why we think many institutions are leading with ads that feature healthcare workers.”

Digital marketing spend decision-making

Institutions should evaluate their own campaign data to determine a specific strategy, the report advises. But being visible is key.

“The reality for institutions taking their foot off the gas on advertising is that they are missing an opportunity to stay visible and differentiate themselves at a time when their competitors are accelerating their own marketing and when the data is showing that audiences are engaging with these ads,” says Silber.

As for admissions marketing teams working through the realities of budget cuts and being forced to do more with less, Silber recommends prioritizing digital strategies.

“Digital advertising is highly efficient because you can target audiences very precisely with content that resonates with individual segments of your prospects, and you get full transparency into what strategies are producing a return on your investment,” he says. “This is the best way for institutions to continue raising brand awareness and engaging with prospective applicants while remaining nimble and maximizing the impact of advertising budgets.”

Learn more and request a copy of the report here.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

Click here to read more coverage of coronavirus and its impact on higher ed.

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