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5 rules to increase your paid search campaigns' impact

Grow your grad and adult application volume

February 14, 2024, By Emily Upton, Vice President, Program Marketing for ALR and General Manager, Agency Services

As a marketer by trade and head of program marketing at EAB, I spend part of each day testing and analyzing recruitment strategies in the graduate and adult space on behalf of our Adult Learner Recruitment partners. Most recently, I’ve focused on the power of paid search in reaching prospective graduate and adult students, and found some interesting results.

  • 180+

    Field tests conducted annually by my team.

My team saw an almost 3x increase in application volume when paid search campaigns were deployed—and that number is over 18 times for adult degree completion programs.

Table showing the results of deploying paid search for graduate and adult programs.

While paid search can be an expensive lead source, it can also be a highly productive channel when approached the right way, as this data illustrates. Here are five strategies to increase the effectiveness of paid search campaigns, and ultimately reach more prospective students.

1. Budget appropriately

One of the most common mistakes I see graduate teams making when it comes to paid search is not appropriately investing in it. If your team plans to use paid search in your lead generation strategy, the budget allocated towards it should be intentional and data-based, rather than a place where you throw leftover budget.

While the combination of lead sources your team decides to use should be determined by your programs’ needs and goals, our lead generation specialists recommend allocating 30-70% of budget to paid sources and the remainder to unpaid sources, like application starter lists or alumni. Further, tried-and-true foundational sources that provide high-intent leads, like paid search and list purchases, should account for at least 50% of your total paid source budget.


2. Integrate paid search campaigns into your multi-channel strategy

Paid search doesn’t operate in isolation. For example, after seeing a Facebook ad or receiving mail about your school, a prospective student may decide to do some research on Google. When they do, you’ll want to be sure that your own paid search results appear first and that your paid search messaging complements that of your other campaigns.

Even though paid search is often viewed as an expensive lead source, integrating paid search into a larger lead generation strategy creates a seamless experience and drives more conversions. For example, our paid search campaigns are integrated into a larger sophisticated strategy that is choreographed across several channels, which speaks to the unique and non-linear journey that many adult learners take to enrollment.

Our data team recently found that EAB’s cost per click and cost per conversion averages for FY 2023 were well below the industry average—an exciting finding that points to the success of an integrated strategy.


  • $3.38

    Cost per click – 2023 EAB Ads average

  • $4.10

    Cost per click  – 2023 Ads industry average

  • $41.29

    Cost per conversion – 2023 EAB Ads average

  • $62.80

    Cost per conversion – 2023 Ads industry average

3. Personalize your messaging

While personalized messaging is critical to reaching all consumers, this is especially true of Gen Z. Gen Z, the most online generation, accounts for 31% of adult learners this year, and will grow to 60% of adult learners in the next five years. This new generation of adult learners needs messaging that speaks directly to their concerns and interests. Personalized messaging is also key to cutting through the online noise, at a time when students are bombarded by a plethora of different brands, ads, and messages.

  • 4,000

    Number of brands (logos, advertisements, etc.) the average person sees daily.

  • 53.5%

    Of adult learners use web searches to find information about programs.

To personalize messaging, consider leveraging consumer data and machine learning to create detailed student profiles for each program, including information on students’ interests, personality types, and more. Or survey prospects to help shed light on what individual students seek from their education and adjusting messaging accordingly.

For example, in a recent survey of adult learners, we learned that in addition to career advancement, a growing proportion of students identified “to pursue my passions” and “to make a difference in the world” as top reasons they plan to further their education. With this new information about prospective students’ motivations, the language and imagery used in paid search campaigns can be modified to speak to these motivating factors more directly.


4. Monitor campaign performance daily

In a single paid search campaign, there are many parameters to consider, such as keyword term and match type, budget settings, ad and landing page creative, and geographic and demographic targeting specifications. Each one of those factors can significantly impact click rate and cost-per-click. And performance can change over time due to shifts in user search trends.

An effective paid search strategy requires not only a strong, data-driven approach, but near-constant monitoring and adjustment. Consistently identifying areas of opportunity and vulnerability isn’t easy. Due to the level of time and expertise required, many schools enlist the help of external specialists to manage paid search campaigns.

Below, you’ll see an example of the cyclical process that our lead generation analysts use when managing paid search campaigns for our partners, focused on four core areas: planning, building, executing, and optimizing.






5. Identify new opportunities and trends

Paid search platforms provide a treasure trove of data for marketers about ad performance, like regional search trends, that can be segmented according to a variety of audience characteristics. To make the most out of your paid search efforts, be sure to leverage this data to identify latent opportunity.

Also, be sure to keep a pulse on new and developing technologies that can impact your paid search work, like the adoption of artificial intelligence. We are on the cusp of major changes to the way we use the internet, which will certainly impact the way we use paid search. Your team will be best equipped to respond to and handle these changes if they are keeping an eye on these, and other, developments.

While there’s no magic bullet in paid search, performance improvements are within reach for many colleges and universities. And when schools pair more efficient paid search campaigns with a strong organic search strategy, they can engage students at key points throughout the recruitment process—without breaking the bank.

Emily Upton

Vice President, Program Marketing for ALR and General Manager, Agency Services

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