Cut Through the Noise with Smart Search Engine Marketing

Last updated on: May 17, 2021

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Drew Hill, Senior Director of Media at Wiley Education Services, saw the opportunity to integrate Wiley’s valuable, extensive insights with Google’s technology to optimize paid search advertising through a one-of-a-kind partnership. In this article, he explains how this innovative, cost-effective approach connects universities with qualified leads who will move through the student journey from start to finish. 

The world of search is vast and can be overwhelming for universities looking to reach prospective students. How do you stand out among millions of internet searches and connect the right learners to the right programs? 

Search engine marketing, known as SEM, is a great way for higher ed institutions to find learners who are interested in their programs. In fact, 58% of students turned to search first when they decided to begin their research.[i]

For SEM to be successful, though, universities need an informed strategy focused on student recruitment. With so much data available to marketers, successful campaigns need to leverage the many search tools offered to embrace the opportunity fully. Higher ed marketing is unique and requires a unique approach to be done well.

Paid Search and the Student Recruitment Lifecycle 

The student journey is complex, and it’s easy for digital marketing campaigns to fail to account for those intricacies. When designing campaigns for paid search, it’s crucial to design a structure around the student, rather than just the university, keeping the focus on the learner and their intent.

The decision about where to enroll is unique to the individual candidate, as each has their own set of personal motivators. Unlike typical customer journeys, the student journey is both lengthy and often nonlinear, with candidates frequently taking extensive time to research across multiple platforms and resources prior to committing to a university or program. Recognizing these complexities is key to understanding the distinction between education recruitment and other industries. 

Unique Motivations

Learners shopping for the right college or program are not shopping for a product; they are searching for a way to invest in themselves. Potential students are not only considering spending their money, but also committing their future selves to putting forth the time and effort necessary to earn a degree. The gravity of the commitment differentiates their behavior from typical purchase decisions. 

Extensive Research

When learners explore potential programs and universities, they do far more research than consumers do in most other industries. The information gathering and decision phase frequently lasts more than a year and involves a variety of programs and institutions. More often than not, learners narrow their consideration set to about three universities. 

This extensive journey means that SEM campaigns can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. Campaigns need to adapt to where a learner is in their decision-making process. Everything from marketing copy to engagement strategy should account for where the student is in their journey.

A Nonlinear Journey

Even when prospective students begin their research in search, it doesn’t end there. Individuals often interact with multiple higher ed institutions through various means, including text, phone, live chat, and email. They also conduct in-depth research on university sites, research sites and resources, and social media platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook.

Studies have shown that prospective students can interact with more than 3,000 digital touchpoints before submitting an inquiry to a school, and twice as many after that. SEM campaigns provide a way to influence whether your university is part of that initial consideration set, and a coordinated multi-channel strategy can support and nurture prospects as they continue with their research.

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One of the primary methods for finding new students is lead generation. Google’s standard suite of tools offers conversion optimization techniques and intelligent bidding solutions. These solutions, however, are designed specifically for leads and online events. In the complex world of higher education, that is not enough. Students simply do not buy a degree with one click. Focusing on leads alone is how marketers can lose sight of what matters: Ensuring SEM campaigns drive genuine engagement and connection with prospective students, and ultimately enrollments.

Moving Away from a Leads-Focused Strategy

Unqualified leads not only fail to increase enrollment but also waste money and resources. Quality campaigns drive interest and help learners find information and explore options for their situation.

At Wiley, our unique positioning in the market provides access to every aspect of a student’s journey and, subsequently, a deeper understanding of real-life outcomes. By analyzing activity across over 800 active degree programs at more than 70 universities, our exclusive insights can make the difference between targeting a lead and targeting a potential applicant.

This comprehensive data is a powerful tool to use when finding the right learners for our partners’ programs. It’s this data, and our extensive experience in higher education and digital marketing that led to a new kind of strategy, one utilizing our rich history and partnering with Google to create a system that works specifically for higher education.

Integrating Online and Offline Data and Tools

Using our proprietary first-party data, we can bridge the gap from the beginning of a learner’s search to the end. For SEM, our data has informed a segmentation strategy designed around the signals that matter. Key elements such as the search inquiry, specific keyword modifiers, the prospect’s location, or even experience with the university can influence the likelihood to apply, start, enroll, and graduate.

We pair this rich data with data from Google about the search – including the time of day, device type, and user demographics – to inform our SEM campaign bids. Bidding is managed through Search Ads 360, Google’s paid search bidding management platform. Search Ads 360 allows us to combine these unique sets of inputs, using machine learning and AI to build prediction models in the moment. “Auction Time Bidding,” as it’s called, allows our history to help us know when and where our messages can be best received.

While the technology is not exclusive to Wiley, what is exclusive to Wiley is how we leverage the technology using our proprietary data and knowhow.

Our Approach Leads to Qualified Leads That Convert

Any system that utilizes machine learning is only as smart as the data it learns from. Wiley participates in every point along the student journey, from the moment learners begin their research to graduation day. This data has allowed us to build a model of propensity to convert, which fuels our strategy. The combination of this model and machine learning from Google allows us to boost results for our partners.

Our experience, both in higher education and search engine marketing, helps us push smart data into this system. Our technology and partnership with Google allow us to capture data from the system, returning insights and allowing our model to change and remain nimble as market behaviors evolve. 

One hundred percent of the universities in Wiley's pilot group for this new paid search strategy experienced increases in their applications and decreases in their cost per application. In aggregate, these changes realized a 20% lift in the net applications. 

While applications increased, most partner schools have experienced a decrease in new student inquiries. This decrease is because inquiries are no longer our metric of success. Instead, we focus our efforts on engaging with prospective students that will ultimately apply and persist in their programs. Our approach saves valuable marketing dollars with efficiency and saves admissions teams time and effort engaging with leads that are less likely to convert.

Through our data and best-in-class technology, we have built an industry-leading, automated-bidding strategy. Wiley was the first marketer in higher education to leverage customer lifetime value, giving us a distinct advantage in targeting leads that are most likely to convert. Our ability to leverage Google’s online signals, paired with our offline indicators, has been key to realizing tangible success for our partners.

To learn more about Wiley’s strategic and innovative approach to higher education marketing and how we can provide marketing support through a full-service partnership or a project-based approach, click here.

About Drew Hill

Drew Hill earned his bachelor’s degree at Boston University and is a current MBA candidate there. He began his career in advertising, focusing on digital media and analytics at various boutique advertising agencies and ed tech start-ups.

Since joining Wiley Education Services in 2015, he has built a team of media buyers and analysts who use the latest in analytics, automation, and digital marketing strategy to reach millions of learners every year with compelling, engaging advertising.


[i] Source: “Unpacking the Student Decision Journey in Higher Education,” Google Ipsos Research, February 2017

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