Digital advertising in #highered: Strategy, tactics and results at Ball State’s online branch

November 7th, 2012 Karine Joly No Comments

While I was doing research for my latest UB column about digital advertising in higher education, I interviewed some great higher ed pros who have used digital advertising to promote their institution or programs.

Nancy Prater - Extended EdAfter publishing Rachel Reuben’s interview, I’m sharing today the interview done with Nancy Prater, Director of Marketing and Communications at Ball State University Extended Education (the online branch of BSU).

1) What are the strategic goals of your online advertising program?
My job is to promote the 60+ online degree and certificate programs offered by Ball State University, a state-supported institution located in Indiana. Of course, with any given program the advertising goals might vary slightly, but generally our goals relate to growing enrollments and building awareness.
2) What kind of online advertising do you use and why?
We have done at least a little bit of everything—Google AdWords, Facebook ads, LinkedIn ads, display advertising on large or niche web sites, etc… With each campaign, we carefully consider our target audience demographics, and if we think online advertising is appropriate, we think about and try to learn where these audiences are “living” online. And, of course, cost is a significant factor. For instance, we have a growing online master’s degree in public relations. People who are interested in advancing their careers in PR might be members of, or at least regularly visit the website of the Public Relations Society of America, so that has proven to be a good place to start.
Don’t get suckered into believing that online advertising is inexpensive, but there are some lower cost and effective opportunities out there.

3) Do you outsource or manage the program in-house?
A bit of both. We use a firm that specializes in media buying for larger campaigns, and we manage smaller ones in-house.
4) How successful was online advertising compared to more traditional forms of advertising?
As a public institution, our relatively limited budget for online and distance education programs don’t allow us to do much expensive TV, radio, billboard, or newspaper advertising. We tend to stick to very niche, targeted channels based on the particular degree programs we are promoting. With that in mind, if I were going to rank what typically works best in terms of paid promotion is:

  1. direct mail (but, only if you have a good, targeted list)
  2. advertising in niche, print publications (for example a nursing association publication whose readers may need a master’s degree in nursing to advance in their careers)
  3. online advertising on niche web sites or e-publications, and paid keyword search in some instances

But, I should also say, there is no sure-bet tactic. It really depends on the audience, the competitive landscape of the programs, and probably a dozen other factors. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to whether traditional or online advertising will work best. And, I would add that if you are thinking about online advertising, make sure you start with making sure your site is search engine optimized. It’s an important first step – and is really a job that is never done.
5) With social media and all the other ways to reach target audiences, why does it still make sense to do advertising?
Because you still need to push messages to ALL your targeted audiences. And, while many people are regularly taking advantage of the engagement and relevancy of social media channels, there are very large chunks of the population within ANY demographic that aren’t. Advertising still has a place in awareness and brand building. And, there is the misconception that social media is “free.” Social media takes a lot of hard work and staff hours. It requires carefully thought-out strategy and long-term, consistent execution. Those aren’t free or even low cost!

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