• General Best Practices
The Biggest Digital Advertising Mistake Schools Make (And How to Fix It)
Mia Major

As someone who spends a lot of time researching school marketing strategy and sharing best practices, I’m bound to stumble across some tactics that lead to raised eyebrows and an audible “huh?!” 

This blog is about one of those moments. So, let’s cut right to the chase.

The biggest digital advertising mistake schools make — that I see time and time again — is sending ad clickers to a landing page that doesn’t match their search intent. 

Search Intent and School Marketing

Search intent, also known as keyword intent, is what the user is looking to find from their search. In school searches, most searches are informational-based since families are interested in learning more about your school. 

It’s important that what they find when they click through aligns with the reason they are making a search. A disconnect between search intent and the content served up by the school on a landing page leads to high bounce rates and low conversions. (Which can usually translate into wasted ad spend — yikes!)

Keywords and The Inbound Funnel

You’ve heard it a million times — 90% of all online experiences begin in search. And, depending on where your prospects are in the funnel, they’re going to use different keywords to find what they’re looking for.

Awareness: At this stage, parents are just doing some initial research. Lots of research. They may not be willing to fill out a form on your website and convert. And if they do, the form needs to be short. Some searches individuals in the awareness stage of the funnel might do are:

  • Best private schools in [city]

  • Best high school arts programs near me

  • Boarding schools in [state/area]

  • Difference between all-girls and co-ed education

  • STEM programs high school in [city]

  • Etc.

These unbranded search terms lead to heavy competition in organic and paid search. Schools should focus on optimizing for these terms in SEO and bidding on these terms with PPC ads.

Consideration: At this stage, a prospective family is considering a variety of schools. They are more likely to fill out a form, such as an open house RSVP or inquiry. Their searches look something like:

  • [School name] open house

  • [School name] academics

  • [School name] tuition

These branded search terms will almost always help you land a top spot organically, but if you want to control the user experience by sending them to a specific page, you can bid on the keywords for PPC, too.

Decision: At this stage in the funnel a prospective family has made up their decision about where they’re sending applications, which means a lot of their research using Google is coming to a close, but they still might be searching for some branded and unbranded terms like:

  • Affording private school

  • [School name] scholarship opportunities

  • [School name] application deadline

Why does this matter? This variation in keywords is their “search intent.” Your job, as a school marketer, is to ensure that the content you serve up on a landing page — especially for a paid ad — helps them fulfill their search intent. (And too often, it doesn’t.)

A Confusing Search Experience

Have you ever done a Google search for something like “best pizza recipes” and clicked one of the first three results and been disappointed because where you were sent had nothing to do with your initial search?

It’s frustrating to say the least. In my Google search for “best pizza recipes” the first result is a paid ad from the New York Times and it takes me here:

New York Times cooking paid aid

This is not a pizza recipe! This is not helpful! 

Do you see how the NYT prevented me from fulfilling my search intent and diving into delicious pizza recipes? I hit back. I didn’t subscribe. They really misinterpreted my stage in the funnel and goal.

Okay, but enough about pizza; let’s talk about schools.

Let’s consider the following example.

I did a search for “private high schools atlanta ga stem programs.” This very specific search means my intent is to find information on STEM programs at high schools in the Atlanta area. I’m doing research. I’m curious which schools in the area offer it, and what makes their program special. I’m still in the awareness stage of the inbound funnel. I’m still researching.

Private high schools Atlanta, GA stem programs Google search results

So when I click an ad, and I’m brought to a page like this, you’re not helping me fulfill my initial intent.

School Open House page

Not only is presumptuous to think that someone who is still early on in the funnel is ready for the level of commitment of an open house, but this searcher clearly identified what they were looking for: information on STEM programs — not your school’s open house.

Listen, admissions folks — I hear you! Getting open house RSVPs and inquiries is your top priority. But you can’t ask someone to commit when they aren’t ready. They have to be thoughtfully nurtured.

So, what should this school have done differently? 

They should have created a landing page specific to the school’s STEM programs that answered the big question of “why?” The landing page could have then linked to some conversion forms — like an open house RSVP, viewbook download, contact an admissions rep, etc. However, the first priority should always be to help your prospective family reach their goal. This might mean creating quite a few unique landing pages — but this is an effort that is well worth your time.

Let’s consider one more example of a bit broader search term: “best private high schools near Boston.”

Best private schools near Boston Google search results

This is clearly another awareness stage search, but is much broader than a search about STEM programs. Schools bidding on this term should send ad clickers to a landing page that answers the question: “why attend your school?” Additionally, it might provide a form to download a viewbook or information packet.

Fenn School, the first school that comes up for ads in this query, sends searches to a microsite built to answer the question, “Why?” and direct families to additional information based on the fact they are so early on in their search experience. Brilliant.

Fenn School microsite

While a microsite is certainly a nice touch, you don’t need to do this to be successful. Salisbury School sends searchers to a web page that answers that very important question of “Why?” 

Salisbury School Why Salisbury? page

Get Organized

If you’re currently running paid ads, it’s important to evaluate your click rate, bounce rate, and conversion rate. If your ad is getting a lot of clicks, but a high bounce rate or low conversion rate, there is likely a disconnect between you content and what your web visitor was hoping to find.

To build better PPC ads, create a keyword planning spreadsheet (or download ours here) to plan out your paid keywords, which stage of the funnel they relate to, and what landing page you want to send them to. 

keyword planning in a spreadsheet

Download this FREE PPC keyword planning worksheet to help plan out your PPC adds!


In many cases, you may have six landing pages that have slight variations of content based on their keyword search. (And if you use Finalsite Composer, creating these pages can be as easy as cloning, copying, pasting and using content that already exists on your website!)

Proceed with Caution on Social Media, Too

Similar disconnects happen on social media. Let’s say, for example, you want to drive traffic to your inquiry page. While this is an important goal, social media isn’t the ideal platform to reach brand new audiences who have never heard of your school. A millennial mom scrolling through her Facebook feed to catch up on the latest from friends and family isn’t ready for that type of commitment.

Again, it’s all about their stage in the journey. Why would someone who has never heard of your school be ready to submit an inquiry form?

If you want your social media ads to be successful, focus on matching the content of your ad with the funnel stage of your audience — in other words, promote your inquiry form  to individuals who have visited the admissions section of your site using the retargeting pixel, and promote general information about your school to those new audiences. 

Key Takeaway

If you’re investing in paid ads in search or on social, you want to be sure that your ads are giving you the biggest ROI — which means connecting your searcher’s intent with the content you share on your landing page.

At Finalsite, we can help you make the most out of your paid ads. Start a conversation with us today to learn how we can help you create a digital ad experience that drives traffic, engagement and conversions.

Finalsite's Marketing and Consulting services


Mia Major

As Finalsite's Content Marketing Manager, Mia plans and executes a variety of inbound marketing and digital content strategies. As a former TV and news reporter, freelance cinematographer and certified inbound marketer, Mia specializes in helping schools find new ways to share their stories online through web design, social media, copywriting, photography and videography. She is the author of numerous blogs, and Finalsite's popular eBook, The Website Redesign Playbook.

  • Best Practices
  • Inbound Marketing
  • Marketing/Communications
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