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Digital Marketing for Schools: Paid Social vs Paid Search Ads
Connor Gleason

What’s best for your school: pay-per-click (PPC) ads or social media ads? Both approaches have the potential to power up your school’s digital marketing, but understanding the mindset of your audience is key to leveraging these platforms to your advantage.

When every click and ad dollar counts, you need a clear understanding of how each approach can be used to engage audiences with different mindsets and who crave different types of content at various stages of their journey, PPC search ads or social media ads — which is better? Both strategies have their merits, but it's crucial to grasp how they can help your school achieve its goals of expanding its reach and connecting with fresh faces.

Let's explore the differences, benefits, and how you can optimize your digital marketing efforts to support your school's marketing and social media strategies.

Social Media Advertising vs. PPC Ads for Schools

Paid social ads and PPC ads may seem similar, but they have distinct characteristics. Social media ads thrive on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter where you can precisely target your audience based on demographics, interests, and behaviors.

You can target fans, retarget your website visitors, and even create similar “look-a-like” audiences to expand your ad campaign’s reach. It’s great for exposure, awareness, and elevating your school’s brand.

On the other hand, PPC advertising dominates search engines like Google, allowing you to capture potential families actively searching for schools. There are more than 8.5 billion searches on Google every day, and because you are bidding for your ads to be shown for relevant keyword search terms, these types of paid ads are perfect for intent-based targeting.

There’s essentially a bidding war to be in the top search results because the top three positions in Google get nearly 53% of all clicks, and the number one position hogs nearly a third of all clicks.

SEO & Digital Advertising Fundamentals for Schools

Search vs Social: Understanding Your Audiences

Take the paid component out of the equation for a moment and look at your organic audiences. You’ll get some insight into how your content, ads, and messaging should resonate.

  Social Search
Targeting You've got a pretty good handle on who your followers are, but figuring out what's going on in their heads is another story. Chances are, they're just looking for something fun and entertaining, like cat videos. You may not have information about their identities, but you can understand their thoughts. Your users are likely wanting more information.
Topics Emotional posts that tug at the heartstrings or make people laugh usually perform well. Content that’s based on research performs well, such as comprehensive guides, instructional how-to articles, and FAQs
Formats Visuals perform best on social media. Posts with images and video get more shares, likes, and comments. Lengthy written content is effective. The average top-ranking page consists of 1,500 or more words, but it must remain relevant!
Conversion Folks on social might not be quick to convert, but they're great when it comes to sharing your content and getting the word out. Plus, your fans might just convince their followers to join the party. Search visitors are more inclined to convert, although they typically have specific needs or questions.
Speed You can send out a social post in a flash, and sometimes you'll see results just as fast. But, remember, growing a crowd of true fans doesn't happen overnight. SEO is a gradual process with some uncertainty. It takes several days for relevant pages to be indexed and start ranking for keywords. Building authority and competing for keywords can take months — or even years. PPC ads can get you to the top quickly, but at a price.
Shelf Life The buzz from your social posts might only stick around for a little while, so you've got to keep the posts coming to stay in the game. Once established, search traffic can become a continuous and passive source of visitors. 
Measurement It's easy to see who's sharing, liking, and commenting on your content, but figuring out your return on investment (ROI) can feel a bit tricky at times. It's relatively simple to report visibility and traffic from search, but measuring engagement can be somewhat challenging. Look at your conversions and time spent on the page.

Social Media Ads for Schools

Social media platforms boast massive user bases, making them perfect for expanding your school's visibility. 

Ask yourself: Am I aiming to increase enrollment or build brand awareness? Craft a killer social media strategy by first setting clear goals. Identifying your target audience is crucial, too — are you after parents of young children or high school-aged students?

Once you know that, choose the right platforms where your audience tends to hang out. Facebook? Instagram? Twitter, maybe?

Tailor your content and storytelling to captivate and connect with these prospective families. Show them what makes your school special!

Keep Reading: What Makes a Good Social Media Ad?

A Facebook ad from Pingree

Social ads can also be great for engaging users who already know about your school and might be interested in learning more by attending an admissions event, like Pingree School’s open house. Thanks to a tracking pixel, this ad could be shown to a user who already visited Pingree’s site. Now they’re able to create ads like this and grab the attention of a targeted audience.

Free Download: the Complete Social Media Calendar for Schools

PPC Search Ads for Schools

PPC search ads allow you to tap into user intent and catch families right when they're searching for educational options. Think about it: a parent types in "best schools in [your area]," and voila! Your ad appears at the top of the search results, shouting, "Hey, we're the school you're looking for!" 

To optimize your PPC campaigns, start with thorough keyword research. What are parents searching for? Create compelling ad copy that speaks directly to their needs, and don't forget to optimize your landing pages for a seamless experience.

Google Search result from Holy Names

In this example, a search for “private schools in south Tampa” returns sponsored ads from Google for The Academy of the Holy Names and Corbett Preparatory School. They’ll battle it out for the clicks, but it’s great that they’re appearing for terms related to what users are looking for.

Combining Strategies for Maximum Impact

Why choose between social media advertising and PPC ads when you can have the best of both worlds? Integrate them into a powerful digital marketing strategy that hits all the right notes. 

Remember, your audiences might overlap across social media and search platforms. So, tailor your messaging and targeting accordingly. PPC ads should be used toward the top of the funnel to capture users’ interests as they search, whereas social ads are great for subtly reminding your audience about everything you offer.

And seeing as you can retarget website visitors in your social media ads, using PPC and social media advertising in tandem can increase your chances of getting a conversion faster.

Think about it: If a prospective family searches for schools in your area and clicks on your PPC ad but does not convert at that moment, you ultimately paid for a click that cannot guarantee a second visit or conversion.

If you take that web visit, though, and retarget them on social media with relevant content to stay top of mind, you increase your chances of re-engaging and capturing that inquiry sooner.

Google Search Result Forest Ridge

Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart has both bases covered. With PPC ads on Google, they’re making sure their messaging reaches families actively searching for an independent, all-girls catholic education. Meanwhile, on Facebook, they’re targeting families with middle school-aged students and offering more information or a tour. Perfect!

Key takeaway

Remember, both PPC search ads and social media ads have their unique strengths. By understanding your audience's mindset and developing a comprehensive marketing plan, you'll reach more families and create promising leads.

Digital marketing and consulting services for schools. Click here to request a consultation!

Connor Gleason Headshot


Connor has spent the last decade within the field of marketing and communications, working with independent schools and colleges throughout New England. As Finalsite’s Senior Content Marketing Manager, Connor plans and executes marketing strategies and digital content across the web. A former photojournalist, he has a passion for digital media, storytelling, coffee, and creating content that connects.

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