Industry Spotlight

Valuable insights from UPCEA's trusted corporate partners.

SEO & Digital Advertising: Jet Fuel for Your Higher Education Marketing Strategy

If you were asked what digital channels facilitate your most qualified prospects’ journey to inquiry or application, would you know the answer?

It’s no secret that in the last three years, demand for online education has skyrocketed, while the demographics of Professional, Continuing and Online (PCO) education units’ students have evolved. Facilitated by the Great Resignation, PCO units can no longer afford to focus solely on “mature” adult learners and now must adapt recruitment and marketing tactics to reach younger and more digitally savvy students.

If most institutions have accepted online education as the way of the present, it logically follows that they must also accept online recruitment as necessary, stat.

As an account director on the agency side of higher ed marketing, I’ve seen that without a digital-first strategy — in particular, focused on SEO and digital advertising — higher education marketers may under-deliver leads and waste budget.

In my time at Search Influence, an ROI-focused digital marketing agency and a new Platinum Partner of UPCEA, I launch and manage campaigns for rapidly evolving PCOs. I supervise the testing of emerging marketing tactics and observe their successes and failures.

In my tenure as a marketer, there is a theme that rings true: search engine optimization (SEO) and digital advertising — both paid search and digital display — work in tandem to deliver consistent, qualified inquiries to fuel your pipeline.

 And, because these strategies are trackable and return is measurable, I assure you they work. In this blog post, I’ll share why SEO and digital advertising are the jet fuel for your higher education strategy: they allow you to identify the sources of your most valuable prospects; optimize your plan to increase inquiries; and drive action through your enrollment funnel.


Search Engines Are Your Runway, Time To Start Taxiing

If SEO and paid digital advertising are the jet fuel for your marketing efforts, then search engines are the runway. According to Forbes, 93% of online experiences begin with a search engine such as Google, Yahoo, or Bing.

So, no matter where prospective students are in their journey to pursue higher education, they’re likely turning to search engines to get the information they need, whether it’s to find a program, apply, or enroll.

The evidence is there. Check out this batch of search queries and their search frequency:


Search Query Estimated Monthly Searches
what is an mpa degree 700
mpa programs 700
masters in public administration online 200
best public administration masters programs 100


If your institution offers an online MPA, ideally you’d be “the answer” to a user’s search for any of the above. You won’t get there without intentional and expert effort put toward SEO for your site. It’s time to start taxiing toward the runway.


All Systems Go. Your Jet Needs the Right Fuel: SEO

The PCO student of today expects a “self-service” model when it comes to researching and gathering information to inform their decision. They expect institutional websites to provide information like program details, tuition rates, financial aid opportunities, and application deadlines.

And, they expect search engines to help them discover that content. 

Your website is the vehicle by which this content will be accessible to them. Consider your website the high-speed, low-altitude jet responsible for getting your prospects from point A to point B. SEO is the jet fuel.

To meet your prospects in search engines organically, your site must host content personalized to their most searched queries. The content must be highly informative, promote your key selling propositions, and be keyword-optimized.

Of course, SEO isn’t only about content. A comprehensive SEO strategy includes technical SEO, which ensures the back end of your site is search engine friendly so Google and other search engines can actually access your great content and show it to searchers. Technical SEO is especially important in higher education where multi-site environments are controlled by central university marketing because these websites tend to be more complex, which can mean more hurdles for Google to jump through to understand your content and therefore lower rankings.


When Weather Conditions Are Not Optimal: Paid Search

There will be times when the search algorithm works against you. You may identify a query you want to rank for because it’s searched by prospects and it demonstrates their intent. Problem is, for this query, the search engines rank other content like lists and news articles ahead of actual institutions. Chances are, even the best SEOs will have trouble outranking that content.

When weather conditions are not optimal for achieving an organic ranking, enter paid search advertising. Paid search campaigns allow marketers to bid for placements in search results for specific keywords. Success will always be a function of expertise in strategy (what keywords are you bidding for), budget (how much are you willing to pay for a click), and quality (how effective is your ad and landing page at delivering the information?).

Paid search enables you to compete for the best quality traffic. While these leads may cost more than a prospect who clicks on a display ad, if you’re doing it right, they should be already highly qualified and therefore worth that extra cost.


For Optimal Fuel (Budget) Efficiency: SEO & Digital Advertising Integration

With SEO and digital advertising (paid search and display), you can maximize your higher ed marketing budget and focus on campaigns that deliver returns.

An integrated SEO and digital advertising strategy provides balance and stability when weather conditions are not optimal for flight.

  • Where you may struggle to rank organically, a fine-tuned paid search campaign can bid for the top spot, and capture the highly qualified searcher you otherwise may have lost to a competitor.
  • Your paid search advertising can give insights about what keywords users are actually searching and what headlines and copy are resonating.
  • Digital display advertising allows you to get in front of prospects before they are actively searching to actually create demand for your programs.


SEO & Digital Advertising Provide Real-Time Data Analytics

SEO and digital advertising for higher education digital marketing allow you to see results in real-time — helping you determine what is and isn’t working and even make adjustments as your campaign goes on. 

With website analytics, heatmaps, conversion tracking, and search ad campaign platform details, these strategies provide incredible amounts of data. The ability to track site visits, impressions, clicks, keyword search volume, high-converting calls-to-action, and more can help inform and drive your individual marketing strategies. With these insights you can better focus your resources and develop creative that works, saving you time and money, and ultimately driving down your cost per enrollment.


Immediacy Allows You to Make Real-time Adjustments

With the right team who understand how to analyze, react and respond to that data, you can use the data available to make real-time adjustments. This is clearly helpful compared to longer-term media buys like traditional TV, radio, or billboards, where you’re often locked in with specific creative for a given amount of time.

With an SEO and digital advertising strategy, you can easily pivot:

  • Reallocate your investment to programs or campaigns performing well to optimize your return
  • Adjust creative messaging, tweak landing pages, fine-tune your message as needed — whether based on results or changes to your program
  • Change geographic targeting or other targeting tactics to reach the right audience
  • Add, change or remove keywords from your campaign or your website if you are finding they’re driving unqualified prospects, or if they are costing you clicks but no conversions.

Whether you’re adapting the message of your content, its mode of delivery, or your target audience persona — optimizing your campaign in real-time based on tracked data helps you attract, engage, and convert your prospects in a more personalized way.


Reach Higher Altitudes with Digital Display Advertising

Digital display advertising on platforms like Facebook and Instagram and broader display and programmatic networks allow you to target your ads to new audiences and to remarket further down the funnel to audiences who have already engaged with you online but didn’t quite start their application.

This practice, called retargeting, works by using cookies to track the behavior of your audiences, for example, people who visited your website or interacted with your ads. Through digital display advertising, you can then use those cookies to build remarketing lists (a.k.a custom audiences) to target with very tailored messaging, with a goal of advancing them further in your funnel.

Let’s say your graphic design prospective student recently visited your school’s graphic design program page for curriculum information, they may respond well to ads reminding them of upcoming admissions events or deadlines, with a strong “Apply Now” CTA.

With display ads in your digital marketing strategy, you can harness the power of your SEO efforts by retargeting an ad to prospects who found your website in the organic search results, but weren’t yet ready to convert.


Trackable and Measurable: Digital Marketing Analytics Provide Your Marketing Flight Plan

Identify the Sources of Your Most Valuable Prospects With SEO and Digital Advertising

To turn leads into students, you should know how your target audience got to your website.

Lead tracking supports higher ed institutions in finding and gathering data on qualified potential students. Because digital marketing is inherently trackable, you can tie each new inquiry and application to your higher ed institution back to the most recent source they used to enter your site.

Once you know where your leads are coming from, you’ll be able to create more accurate student personas, fine-tune and customize your marketing campaigns, and see which higher education marketing efforts are churning the most leads. In doing so, you’ll better track the correlations between your leads and the overall effectiveness of your higher education marketing strategy.


Demonstrate Campaign ROI With SEO and Digital Advertising

SEO, paid search, and digital display advertising offer clear accountability. Because the amount of marketing data at your fingertips can be overwhelming, it’s important to identify the key metrics you want to track to determine your target ROI for your higher ed marketing efforts.

With the right conversion tracking in place, you can view the source of your inquiries and other conversions via a number of different attribution models. Often marketers will use “last click attribution” which helps you measure specifically the last digital channel that facilitated your conversion.

Smart ROI-focused marketers will use this information to measure your return and cost metrics like cost per inquiry (CPI) and cost per enrollment (CPE). Take it further by using your results metrics to compare to industry benchmarks and peer organizations.


Ready for Take Off

With a digital-first strategy that prioritizes SEO and digital advertising, you’ll have a first-class marketing plan that attracts consistent, qualified inquiries to fuel your pipeline. With your plan to track and measure results and focus on campaigns that deliver returns your budget is in for a smooth flight and your co-pilots know the path.


Written by Search Influence Director of Account Management, Alison Zeringue. Search Influence is a women-owned, ROI-focused, digital marketing agency that helps institutions drive prospects into and through the recruitment funnel with analytics-backed strategies that include search engine optimization and paid digital advertising. Visit to learn more about higher education digital marketing

Founded in 2006, Search Influence’s core purpose is to optimize potential. We collaborate with well-regarded institutions both nationally and locally in New Orleans. Clients include Tulane University School of Professional Advancement, Tulane University School of Medicine, University of Maryland School of Public Policy, and Palo Alto University.

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