Paid search 201: Build relationships with students near you


Paid search 201: Build relationships with students near you

How to build and maintain virtual relationships during COVID-19 and beyond

In a time when social distancing is keeping people home, it may feel more challenging than ever for your college or university to build relationships with students and their families. Spring and summer are usually prime seasons for campus visits, but COVID-19 policies have caused many institutions to cancel admitted student days and tours altogether.

Traditional campus visits have been opportunities to build new relationships, increase a student’s interest in attending, gain a better sense of intent, and showcase your grounds and amenities. We’ll walk you through some ways paid search and virtual tour content can help you build and maintain relationships with prospective students until visits resume.

Concerns about the impact of COVID-19

A few weeks ago, my colleague Madeleine shared results from a survey of enrollment leaders, many of whom were already noticing the impacts of COVID-19. 36% of respondents said they were already experiencing a decline in visit requests, and 87% were concerned that future requests would also decline. With multiple states suggesting shelter-in-place rules since that survey, we expect that concern has only grown.


of survey respondents said they were already experiencing a decline in visit requests
of survey respondents said they were already experiencing a decline in visit requests

Visits are an essential tool during the consideration stage of the funnel. The early stages of the funnel are at risk too; the College Board announced on March 16 that it would no longer administer SAT tests in May due to the pandemic. As a result, many enrollment leaders are concerned with name availability.

These factors and more have caused enrollment leaders across the country to have broad concerns about yielding the fall 2020 class. And such concerns may be legitimate. A recent survey of college-bound high school seniors by Plexuss found that while 95% of those who were planning to enter college prior to the outbreak still want to do so now, 44% anticipate enrolling at a different school than the one they saw themselves at prior to COVID-19.

With all stages of the funnel impacted by this global pandemic, it’s essential to use digital tools to mitigate the impact of these changes.

Virtual relationship building

While traditional methods of connecting with students are on hold, paid search ads can provide valuable connection points, build brand awareness, and drive action when the time is right.

Google has proven that search ads reach people who are already in a highly receptive mindset. They’re actively searching for topics related to your university. If your brand appears front and center in that moment, there’s a strong likelihood they’ll remember you—even if they don’t click the ad.

The positive impact paid search ads have on overall awareness can keep you on a student’s radar so that you’re top of mind when it’s time to act. Even if your college or university is currently closed to visitors, you can begin and maintain relationships to engage when you’re ready to welcome students and their families to campus.

Support brand awareness and loyalty

Now is the perfect time to strengthen your digital marketing strategies and focus on relationship building. A successful marketing program takes prospective students on a journey. To support this goal, an effective paid search and social program must create brand awareness, generate demand, force a decision, and finally inspire brand loyalty and advocacy.

If you’re not using your paid media in more creative ways than simply targeting prospective students at the decision stage, you’ve got a world of opportunity awaiting you. Many college marketers focus on driving applications, thinking that putting money into a paid media channel will get them a return in the form of applications or inquiries. While this may happen, the impact can be much greater when you expand your focus to earlier stages in the customer’s journey.

While we don’t often see paid media used for loyalty and advocacy, there are many tools available to savvy marketers. Consider the following tactics to leverage paid search in a way that builds sustainable relationships, which ultimately drives inquiries, visits, and applications.

You can upload a list of email addresses to use as the target for your ads. That way, when your prospects go on a digital search for university information, you can show them unique offers touting their loyalty and rewarding them with, for example, a customized virtual tour or “Self-Care Tips For Exam Season.”

One problem with digital marketing and advertising is that it can appear to be less personal than, say, when you walk into a campus admissions office and are greeted by friendly faces.

The good news is you can make your digital greetings far more personal to your loyal prospects. If you have a prospective student who’s interacted with you over time, it makes sense to show this visitor a unique and personalized landing page. This can be done with match lists or with remarketing lists for search.

A countdown ad is an ad where you see time ticking down, signaling the moment when a unique offer or event will expire. This type of ad works well for a recent searcher. You can ask them to sign up for a campus visit or enroll before a certain deadline. The countdown will instill a sense of urgency and can help you enjoy better returns on your campaign investment.

Connect with your primary/local market

Local searches are on the rise. “Universities or colleges near me” queries have increased in the last few years. “Near me” searches are critical for universities, since they allow you to reach your intended customers during micro-moments.

"Colleges near me" search volumes are increasing. Keep this in mind when considering paid search ads.

Local Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs) use a device’s location to showcase relevant nearby businesses or institutions. Local SERPs usually feature three local results and show the most relevant results on the map. Search allows users to find answers to their immediate needs—and we’re seeing that users are increasingly needing answers that are both timely and local.

Harness “near me” searches virtually

While there’s no true replacement for having students and their families visit your campus, you may still have a powerful tool in your digital toolbox: the virtual tour. Being able to provide an interactive experience that incorporates dynamic media is the next best thing to a physical visit.

If you had been bidding on “near me” keywords but your campus is currently closed, consider updating your landing page to feature virtual tour content rather than an invitation to visit. You may also want to provide this virtual tour content when users search for general, non-local “visit campus” keywords and consider adding a virtual tour ad group. This strategy can engage students at a critical moment of consideration and intent—and can also provide you with valuable data.

A quick form incorporated into your virtual tour can make it easy for a student to inquire, share their area of interest, and stay connected. This enables you to follow up with personalized content that helps maintain your relationships with prospective students.

If you build and maintain relationships with students now, you’ll have a much larger pool to invite to campus when physical visits are allowed or encouraged once again. There may be months of activity to make up for, however, so you’ll also want to increase foot traffic to your institution. You can plan to leverage geography and intent, audiences, and your web experience to drive more on campus visits.


of surveyed new college freshmen said they didn’t visit because the school was too far away
of surveyed new college freshmen said they didn’t visit because the school was too far away

There’s no doubt that a person’s proximity to the university weighs heavily in the decision to make a visit. In a recent EAB New College Freshman study, 26.5% of students indicated one of the top reasons for visiting a school is because it was close by or convenient, while 21.8% said they didn’t visit because the school was too far away.

It’s likely that this trend will only increase. A recent survey of college-bound high school seniors by Plexuss found that “over half of prospective students are more likely than before to stay closer to home, even after COVID-19 is no longer a threat.”

Tiered geo-modifiers

To harness local intent (and keep your costs down), you can set up tiered geo-modifiers around campus locations in order to bid highest for people nearest the university, slightly lower for a broader radius, and even lower for an even broader radius.

Depending on your campus location, the distance people are willing to travel will vary. Let’s say you have a campus in Daytona Beach, FL, and a campus in Prescott, AZ—like Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. You will probably find that people will be willing to travel farther in Arizona because it’s faster, or because there are fewer competitors in the local market.

There will also be prospective students traveling to Prescott from the surrounding rural areas to visit. Keep that in mind as you set up bid modifiers based upon radii.

Gauge intent through queries

Search queries can provide insight into the likelihood of a prospect coming to campus for a visit. For example, searchers using keywords including “near me” or searching for specific geographic locations are probably planning a visit. Moreover, searchers using brand terms (i.e. with your school’s name) are likely willing to travel a little farther than searchers using non-brand terms.

The real magic happens when intent and geography are married together. You can begin to bid on the probability that prospects will come to campus based upon their proximity and their intent.

Looking ahead

COVID-19 has disrupted nearly every industry, and higher education is no exception. Colleges and universities that use this time to cultivate relationships with prospective students, support current students and staff, and incorporate innovative digital content are likely to be in a much stronger position when the dust settles.

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