The New Digital Advertising Order: Using Online Advertising to Reach Target Audiences

Article excerpt

After the love-hate relationship higher education had with online advertising for many years, it's finally time to move on. Have your institution's leaders noticed yet?

Since the early days, for-profit institutions have invested a noticeable part of their impressive marketing budget in online advertising. Whether they chose to rely on display and pay-per-click ad buys or built impressive lead-generation ecosystems of affiliate marketing websites, these institutions drove up the demand--and the cost--of auction-based digital ads like Google Ads for the rest of the industry. By investing so heavily online, the for-profits also managed, for a while, to literally own the digital advertising space.

In the minds of many prospective students and some non-profit marketers in higher education, online advertising has been perceived for a very long time as a piece of the "for-profit" exclusive branding territory--for better or for worse.

Fortunately, perceptions about online advertising have finally shifted in many not-for-profit circles in recent years. A 2010 survey on higher ed marketing spending of 212 CASE member institutions, conducted by Lipman Hearne, found that 73 percent of the 2008-2009 budgets included a line for online display advertising, and 46 percent for pay-per-click ads.

Not surprisingly, digital advertising budgets have benefited from the accountability quest of marketing expenses spruced by the new imposed financial discipline. Thanks to the measurement-centric nature of digital advertising, the return on investment--even in the case of display ads--doesn't look as much as a leap of faith as it can with more traditional advertising. Last but not least, as more and more now rely on the digital space to stay informed and entertained, reaching target audiences online cannot be disregarded as wishful thinking anymore.

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All these reasons have recently helped reposition online advertising as a viable, interesting option to reach targeted audiences for many institutions.

DIGITAL DYNAMIC

"Most online advertising that we've done is far more cost efficient [than traditional advertising] for the number of eyeballs we get in front of," confirms Rachel Reuben, associate vice president for marketing communications at Ithaca College (N.Y.). This explains why Ithaca has focused most of its efforts on digital advertising for the past year. While the college also included some radio and print buys in its rebranding efforts, the digital part was seen as a cornerstone of the advertising campaign.

At Ball State University (Ind.), Nancy Prater, director of marketing and communications for extended education, has been using digital advertising to help build awareness and grow enrollments for the 60-plus online degree and certificate programs offered at her institution. While she found out that not all the online advertising options are as inexpensive as people might think, Prater did manage to uncover some lower-cost and very effective opportunities to market specific programs.

At the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, digital advertising has helped Liz Gross, director of university marketing and communications, to tackle a different challenge altogether. With nearly three-quarters of their students living in the county in which the university is located, there was a need to reach this small local audience in an effective way, explains Gross. The highly accurate geographic targeting required to meet this goal is only offered by online platforms and local newspapers--when or if they are still in operation.

A sign of this shift in higher education, digital advertising has even gained strong proponents at institutions across the world. "I am a huge advocate for social media advertising over traditional advertising: it is much cheaper, and you can actually see the rewards through analytics," says Laura Rigby, e-marketing officer for the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. …