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How to Get More Conversions on Your University's Digital Ads [Webinar Recap]
Stephanie Griffin

Colleges and universities spend millions of dollars each year on digital ads with the hope of attracting new, qualified students-an amount that's growing every year. However, sometimes these ads fall short of producing the expected ROI. It could be the ad's image or content, location on the page, the landing page's load time, content, form length — the list goes on and on. A matter of fact, there's a lot that can go wrong (and go right!) when creating online ads for your college or university.

So, Finalsite's Marketing and Communications Manager Hadley Rosen recently teamed up for a webinar with Clifford Lull, President and Creative Director of Baltimore's North Charles Street Design Organization, to discuss how colleges and universities can improve the experience prospects have after clicking on an online ad.

LRU Search on Google on Laptop

The State of the Art and Science of Digital Marketing

Much has changed in higher ed marketing over the past four decades. Today, marcomm professionals have more tools at their disposal than ever before, helping them to build awareness, communicate with target audiences, create personalized messages, and fill their funnel, including email marketing, social media marketing, search engine marketing and paid advertising. That last one — paid advertising — really is, an art and a science.

Clifford, who recently attended the 2017 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Ed in Atlanta, share two fascinating statistics about paid ads:

  1. 67% of high school students recalled seeing college/university displays online
  2. 36% of those recalling clicking on ads to view more information about the school

The majority of students didn't realize they were being retargeted — an especially interesting fact!

Through digital marketing and ads, you're able to get your school's name, brand, and information in front of the student as they are beginning their search, as a goal to spark an interest in these prospects. Yet, there is also a level of strategy needed behind your website and its content to make that connection and lead to a conversation with that prospect.

Developing a Digital Ad Strategy

When you're developing a strategy, there are three main considerations:

  1. WHERE your ad will live
  2. WHO your target audience is
  3. WHAT they will find when they land


Depending on where your ad will live — search, social media, or a remarketing ad that follows your visitors around on their favorite sites — you may want to execute a different strategy. For example, someone who has already visited your website (remarketing) should see different content than someone who has never been to your website, but is interested in schools like yours (search).


A key piece of inbound marketing for any school is understanding you're going to be speaking with different kinds of people - personae. Each of these personae have different needs, desires, pain points, etc. Whether you're marketing to current students and parents, prospective families, staff, alumni, some best practices of building personae for your school include:

  • Define your business priorities and market factors
  • Identify enrollment segments and targets, such as geo markets, demographics, interests, etc.
  • Construct snapshots of audience drivers, like education-choice, culture, value, and affordability.
  • Conduct analysis of your prospect interactions like emails, conversations with counselors, phone calls, and open house questions to better understand their pain points, concerns, and main focus

Learn about these people's pain points; questions at open houses; to help create narrative content for digital journey. Once you have that understanding in place, you're able to create narrative content that will best resonate with these audiences. You'll also be able to connect with each personae appropriately.

Guide + Template: Create Applicant Personas for Your School

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When someone clicks an ad, it is important that there is a direct connection between the ad they clicked, and they content they receive. For example, if someone clicks an ad for an open house, send them to the open house registration page, not your homepage.

Typically, ads will go to one of four locations:

  1. A designated landing page with a form to download a piece of content: This type of ad is great for someone who has never heard of your school, but is one of your target personas. The piece of content would answer a particular pain point or question, such as "How can I afford private university tuition?"
  2. A designated landing page with a form to attend an event: This is great for a remarketing effort for someone who has already visited your website.
  3. A designated landing page with a form to inquire or apply: This is most effective when used in a remarketing campaign for someone who has already visited your website or campus, or expressed interest.
  4. The homepage: This would be best in a general search for schools like yours.

In general, there needs to be a goal behind the content you're displaying on your website, ads, social media, and other places online. For instance, are you trying to tell your school's story and value? Are you trying to connect with audiences on why they should give this year? It's important to integrate marketing campaigns you're doing with your brand strategy and determine the content "bread-crumb" placement for inbound marketing. Meaning, you need to figure out what will make most of an impact on your prospect.

Once on your landing page, there are a few key best practices to consider:

Shorten Your Forms For Higher Conversion Rates

Most online ads are used to bring a prospect back to your website to perform an action. To retrieve the information you'll need to start a conversation with a prospect, there is typically a form involved. The key is to ask the bare minimum on the form to increase your conversions. According to Clifford "If you only get an email address, move the dialogue with the prospect along over email to help you get one step closer to a face-to-face dialogue."

Some additional statistics we found at Finalsite to support less fields equals more conversions include:

  • 120% increase in conversions when you reduce the number of form fields from 11 to 4
  • 20% conversion rate on forms with only 3-5 fields
  • 5.4% conversion rate on forms with 11+ fields
  • 4 - the suggested number of form fields for an optimal conversion rate

An example of a college doing just this is St. Francis College. Their Contact Information page offers a short form with only four required fields:

St. Francis College Admissions Form

Create Engaging Content for The Landing Page

No matter how short your form is, if your content doesn't meet the prospect's expectations, they won't fill it out! Once you understand your target personae and begin the conversation with them, you want to keep them engaged with relevant content.

Some best practices include:

  • Provide a value proposition
  • Offer targeted content
  • Removing navigation to keep them in one place
  • Consider using video to increase conversions by up to 80%
  • Incorporate social proof and testimonials to increase conversions

Lenoir-Rhyne University's fundraising page accomplished all of this, with an engaging value proposition at the top of the page, a "Why Give?" video, quote from a student, and short form:

LRU Giving Form

For ads specifically, it's important to envision the user's path when they see an ad, open it, get taken to possibly your website and complete a next step. Clifford suggests considering these steps:

Digital Ad Experience Steps

Finally, your content should also have a specific tone/voice to it to engage with your targeted visitors. Clifford suggests practicing disinterested goodwill to establish trust with the visitor by showing a generous spirit. So, give away some kind of content with value to best connect with your visitors. Again, you also need to remember not every person will be impacted by the same content - meaning there isn't a "one size fits all" solution for content on your site.

Key Takeaway

To create a sensible, enjoyable, and high-converting online ad strategy, the messaging has to match the audience you're trying to speak to. Whether it is content on your website or in an ad, the messaging simply has to make sense. To improve conversions, keep your ads and forms short and to the point. Have them be the door to open an opportunity to speak more in depth with the individual about your school and what his/her interest is.

For more information on how to incorporate these practices into your marketing strategy, ads, and website, learn more about SEO/PPC management and request a free website audit. To learn more about North Charles Street Design Organization and view examples of their work for higher ed clients, including Stanford University and Colby College, visit

From Click to Conversion On-Demand Webinar


Stephanie Griffin

Stephanie brings a fresh new marketing perspective with her background in social media, communications, and radio broadcasting. She is a co-producer for the FinalsiteFM podcast network and is passionate about helping schools stay ahead of their marketing goals by tracking new trends and developments. She is also a practicing singer/songwriter and loves to expand her creativity in DIY projects.



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