6 Back-to-School Advertising Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
Kristen Doverspike

We’re entering (or beginning) a school year unlike any other. And, whether your school is planning an in-person, remote, or hybrid model for instruction, the need to increase enrollment and retention remain the same — particularly for private and international schools.

For this reason, admissions strategy has been a hot topic circulating around here at Finalsite, so we recently held our first Expert Course on virtual admissions to help schools work through the challenges that the admissions season in this new environment holds. There were many questions about advertising, such as, “Does it make sense to advertise right now?” and, “Will it help drive our enrollment?” Short answers: Yes, and yes.

While advertising is a must-have piece of the inbound marketing funnel, it is only as good as the strategy that’s behind it. There are many common mistakes that can make your school’s ad efforts not only ineffective, but unnecessarily expensive. 

The top advertising mistakes that schools make are:

  1. Not making adjustments to your ads over time

  2. Going too broad with your keyword terms

  3. Neglecting to use negative keywords

  4. Bidding on your school name (Spoiler: there are exceptions to this rule!)

  5. Ignoring the extras: snippets, sitelinks, and more!

  6. Neglecting to use targeted landing pages

So, if you’re planning to run ads this fall, let’s talk about what you can do to avoid these mistakes for a better outcome!

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1. Not making adjustments to your ads over time

Imagine: You started a Google Ads campaign back in January, and at the time, you did everything right — from the keyword research to the ad copy. You haven’t updated that content since, because you don’t want to throw out that hard work. The ads are still getting clicks, so why change what’s “working,” right?

Wrong! This is probably one of the easiest mistakes to make. Just because the ad is being clicked doesn’t mean it’s actually working.

black panther gif


One example of how things can go wrong: Your ad no longer delivers on its promise. 

Many schools re-use the same URL for a variety of content. But what happens when that content is updated? A family searching for schools with distance learning options for the fall may see your ad from last spring touting your virtual classrooms. Since launching this ad, however, you’ve updated the landing page with the same URL to include messaging about your in-person reopening plan. 

The family clicks the ad, gets to the landing page, and immediately leaves.

Why? Because the ad is no longer delivering on its promise to offer content about virtual learning.

This is an increasingly common issue, especially now that plans are changing at a rapid pace. 

Another example: Your ads get updated, but the keywords you’re bidding on do not. 

Similar to the previous example, if you're planning to advertise about your reopening plan but continue to bid on keyword terms like "distance learning" or "virtual schools," you will not get relevant people clicking your ad. This can result in wasted money and will lose potential families. 

Here’s how you can avoid letting your ads fall behind: After your initial ad launch, check-in after 30 days to see how they are performing. Then, continue to check-in and make adjustments at least every 60-90 days to ensure they are always fresh and accurate. Look for any outliers in your metrics — such as very high bounce rates (over 70%) or pages with very low traffic. Pages with very high bounce rates can indicate that your page content isn’t resonating, while pages with very low traffic may indicate you’re bidding on the wrong key terms.

2. Going too broad with your keywords

With so much uncertainty and pressure to fill seats — whether virtually or in-person — it can be easy to think, “Let’s try to reach everyone.” This may lead you to bid on short-tailed keywords that reach a broader audience, like [private schools].

Here’s why you would be (technically) correct in this scenario: The broader the keyword term, the more likely it is to have a high search volume. This means a larger potential audience.

Here’s why it’s not a good idea: Short keyword terms that have a high number of monthly searches do not give you a quality indication of intent, and they often have high competition in the ad auction space. 

This means that the person searching [private schools] could be doing anything — from trying to find photos of private school architecture to doing general research about what private schools are. And, if their intent is that they’re trying to find a private school for their child, you can’t possibly know if they’re located near you, and schools with higher authority in the private school space will be more likely to show up first. When competition is high, your cost per click will also be high, and you may get a click from someone who is not relevant for your school.

Let’s put this to the test. A simple search for “private schools” currently receives more than 60,000 searches per month at an average cost per click of $5.16. Do you really want to be spending more than $5 for a click from someone who’s located across the country and has no intention of contacting your school? Probably not.

Private Schools Google Search


The best thing you can do for your advertising is to do a little keyword research. Whether you use the Google Ads Keyword Planner or another free tool (the Ubersuggest Chrome extension is a great option), taking a little time to research the search volume and average costs of the terms you’re interested in can help you identify the most useful space for your school to be in.

Consider doing some research around the search trends for your geographic area. “Private schools in Houston,” for example, simply adds a geographic location and significantly decreases the search volume of the more general [private schools] keyword term. This will lead to a more qualified audience that will be more likely to click on your ad and convert.

Private Schools in Houston Google Search


3. Neglecting to use negative keywords

When looking at your PPC ads strategy, it’s important to consider the keyword terms you have available:

  1. Exact match - Exact match keywords are the terms you’re bidding on that require the exact phrasing to be in a user’s search query, with nothing else added. Our [private schools] example from earlier reflects this. If you bid on [private schools] as an exact match keyword, your ad will only be able to show when a user types that exact phrase into the search engine.

  2. Phrase match - This means that any words can come before or after the keyword you’re bidding on. So, for example, if you’re bidding on the phrase match term “private schools,” you could reach anyone searching for “cheap private schools” or “private schools near me.”

  3. Broad match - This keyword type allows Google to show your ad on searches that are similar to your keyword, anywhere from synonyms to possible misspellings. For example, if you’re bidding on affordable private schools as a broad match term, users may see your ad on a search like “cheap school programs,” etc.

It goes without saying that Google is not perfect. Despite their intelligent ads algorithm, terms that may not be relevant can — and no-doubt, will — slip through the cracks.

This is where negative keywords come in! Negative keywords are any terms you deem irrelevant and exclude within your Google Ads account. Any time a user searches for a term that you have noted as a negative keyword, your ad will not show.

Here’s why this is an important practice to put into place: Your independent school may be bidding on the phrase match term “private schools in dallas.” Due to the rules of phrase match, you might see some searches coming in like “private schools and universities in dallas.” In this case, adding “college” and “university” to your negative keyword list can help you avoid costly and irrelevant clicks. 

Always be sure to keep a regular eye on these search terms that are coming into your Google Ads campaign. I would recommend doing this once a week.

Google Ad "Search Terms" menu bar


If you’re interested in more information on negative keywords, we go into detail in our blog, 12 School Advertising Ideas: Top Dos And Don'ts.

4. Bidding on your school name

A common PPC campaign type is a “branded” campaign in which you bid on your own name to serve ads to those who are searching for you.

The Kipp School Google Search


Here’s why this isn’t always the best idea: If a family is Googling your school name, they already know who you are and would be likely to click the first organic result to go directly to your website. More likely than not, a search for your school name will already be in the #1 spot in search results, so bidding on your name just encourages more paid clicks from people who would be just as likely to choose the organic result. In short: This is a waste of money!

There are exceptions to this rule. For example, if you find that Googling your name results in nearby competing schools — or schools with similar names, as shown here — to show up in the first ad spots, you may want to run a branded campaign to help divert that traffic to your website. Keep an eye on what’s happening around your school’s brand name, and adjust where necessary.

International School of Paris Google Search


Another reason you may want to bid on your own name is if page one of Google search results is filled with negative press from a recent event. 

A third reason may be to control the user experience. For example, maybe you don’t want prospective families searching for your school’s name to go to your homepage — maybe you want to send them somewhere else — such as an admissions microsite. An ad allows you to control the journey of the clicker, so this can help increase conversions.

5. Ignoring the extras: snippets, sitelinks, and more!

There is so much available to you than just a headline and description.

Think of your PPC ads as a virtual billboard. The more available space you use, the more space you’ll take up on the search results page — and in turn, the more likely you are to capture someone’s attention.

For your ad copy, you can have up to three headlines, each with up to 30 characters, and two descriptions at up to 90 characters each. That’s a lot of space to work with, so be sure to use it wisely. One common mistake we see is schools using this precious space to add their website URL. Google takes care of this for you, so use that space for compelling content instead! 

And don’t forget about the extras — Google Ads offers ways to add differentiation and opportunities for clicks with their various extensions. Here are a few that could be beneficial to you:

  1. Sitelink extensions - These extensions allow you to choose additional links to your website to include in your ad. This can be useful when you’re looking to get families in the door.

  2. Structure snippets - These small pieces of text allow you to list out some differentiators at the end of your ad copy.

  3. Call extensions - This simply adds your school’s phone number to your ad, giving an added opportunity for contacting you directly.

St. Paul School of Princeton Google Search

6. Neglecting to use targeted landing pages

Often, the biggest mistake in PPC advertising is creating an ad that’s structurally doing all of the right things, but it leads the visitor to a general landing page. Or even worse — it leads to the homepage.

Here’s why this does not work: Your website visitors, on average, will decide within the first seven seconds of visiting a landing page whether or not they’re going to click away. And that’s being generous. If someone has already made the effort to read your ad and click on it, don’t make them work any harder to convert! 

You can never assume that your families know where to go (or are willing to click further) once they reach a page on your website. 

For example, if you are running an ad to promote an upcoming virtual open house, but you send those clicks to your general events calendar page, you’re counting on that person clicking once or twice more to find your event and register for it. You will lose these potential families in a snap. 

At the end of the day, continuity of messaging is vital to a high-converting ad. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Create a landing page (hidden from your navigation) that has space for a headline, supporting copy, some imagery, and a form that all relate to your ad campaign. Think about creating an ads-focused inquiry landing page, for example.

  2. Duplicate that landing page for each of your ad campaigns and update the content to match the language and images you are using in the ads. 

Setting up your initial landing page design may be the only time-consuming piece of this, but after that, you will have a fantastic blueprint for each of your ad campaigns so that you can optimize your strategies for conversions each time. This will be a game-changer for your admissions strategy!

Key Takeaway

Your advertising efforts are an important piece of your admissions funnel. From introducing families to your school to convincing them to inquire, digital advertising can make the difference between a family enrolling at your school over another. And, if you’re not optimizing your advertising — from the keywords you bid on to the landing pages you drive users to — you are not only missing potential families, but you are also likely wasting money. Dedicating some time to your PPC ads can improve your enrollment numbers, and if you’re not sure where to start, schedule some time with the Finalsite consulting team!

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kristen doverspike headshot

In her position as Inbound Marketing Manager, Kristen provides the strategy and creation of content across email, website and social media communications at Finalsite. With over five years of experience in content strategy and digital marketing, Kristen has worked with clients around the country to develop their branding, SEM, SEO, social media, and inbound efforts. She holds and maintains a number of certifications from Google, Hubspot, and Hootsuite

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