The Great Ad Pause: Why it Matters for Higher Ed

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Ann LevyBy Ann Levy|January 15, 2021

The Google political ad ban began once again yesterday, January 14th. Just like in November 2020, when media giants Facebook and Google both implemented political ad bans to prevent misinformation about the election from spreading, Google has now implemented an additional political ad ban in the week leading up to Inauguration Day. Meanwhile, aside from a brief lift in Georgia for their Senate runoffs earlier this month, Facebook has kept its political ad ban in place since election week.

As a budget-conscious admissions professional, you may be wondering, what does all of this mean for our higher education digital marketing efforts? In general, as we look back to early November, it doesn’t seem like the political pause significantly impacted digital media ad performance for our college and university partners, but we can still glean some valuable insights when we look closely. After all, according to Google’s own disclosure of ad spend from 2018–2020 in the political vertical, between May 31, 2018 and today, there have been a total of 563,267 political ads served across the Google network—which includes giants like Google Display Network, DV360, and YouTube—with a total spend of over $745 million. Talk about influence!

Here, we’ll share a couple observations about how some of our partners’ ads performed during the last ban, and then, we’ll offer some advice to help you navigate your own digital media plans during the next few weeks.

Ad Performance Highlights

Looking back to November 2020, when paid media networks paused political ads, our clients kept running ads because it was both a pivotal point in senior search season and a prime time for graduate search to take off.

13%

increase in impressions during Election Week

12%

increase in clicks during Election Week

In one noteworthy example, a partner school who is our biggest daily spender in paid media, and mainly does targeted ads, saw a 13% increase in impressions and 12% increase in clicks during election week, compared to the week prior. However, the school’s cost per lead also increased significantly week over week, and there were fewer conversions.

Meanwhile, one of our biggest college brands—a nationally recognized university in Virginia—ran an apply campaign that week targeting a large list of prospects (read: a limited and defined audience, but still a very large group). They saw lower clicks, lower conversions, and a higher cost per click, compared to the previous week.

Looking Ahead

While the individual examples above have varying budgets and audiences, when we look at the performance of all our paid media accounts during election season, one thing becomes clear: Reach and impressions saw a slight lift due to less ad spend from the pause. However, overall, the pausing of political ads didn’t have a significant impact on higher education search efforts on digital back in November—and it likely won’t this time, either. Considering this, we advise our partners not to shy away from paid media campaigns in the next few weeks; prospective students are still using digital avenues to stay connected to their networks, and they’re continuing to engage with paid content.

Under normal circumstances, January, as well as the majority of Q1, tends to be a great time to run higher education ads for many reasons, but of course, this year it is even more important to get in front of your digitally focused prospects. In fact, we’re seeing the shift to more digital marketing for higher education firsthand. At Spark451, Q1 2021 is already up by 28% in planned or currently running paid digital media campaigns, compared to Q1 2020. Plus, after the year we all had in 2020, it’s no surprise to us that emotional marketing for a fresh start may be more impactful than ever before.


Meet Feedback, Spark451’s Newest Strategic Partner

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Spark451 Media RelationsBy Spark451 Media Relations|January 7, 2021

Jeff Bezos once said, “your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” At Spark451, we’ve spent nearly a decade helping college and university admissions pros like yourself use surveys, focus groups, and other data to craft marketing campaigns that promote your institution’s true strengths and overcome any misperceptions. Now, we’re about to take it a step further through a new partnership with Feedback, a Richmond, Virginia-based agency whose hand-trained data scientists and behaviorists offer voice-of-the-customer ethnographic research and analysis about how people perceive your brand. These fresh insights will allow us to provide you with a new level of data-driven marketing strategies and messaging that truly resonate with your target audiences.

Key institutional benefits will include:

  • Exploring how audiences make decisions
  • Identifying and analyzing brand perceptions
  • Competitor profiles and brand sentiment
  • Channel and influencer identification
  • Understanding whole-community behavior and best practices

“This exciting addition of Feedback’s unique brand of social listening and real human analysis is a perfect match for Spark451’s hyper-personalized approach to persona modeling, lead generation, and brand awareness campaigns,” says Pete Colbert, Senior Business Development Strategist at Spark451. “While we’ve always taken a data-driven approach to marketing for higher education, the additional insights we’ll receive from Feedback will expand our perspective and further enrich our strategic planning, allowing us to develop even more effective campaigns for our college and university partners.”

“While surveys and focus groups showcase how your many audiences (from the prospective student to the friend of the college) speak when prompted, our digital ethnographic approach using actual behaviorists to analyze how discreet audiences discuss, ask, respond, interact, and simply behave in all corners of the internet helps build a more complete picture,” adds Feedback Principal Dean Browell, PhD. “We’re excited to bring more of our solutions to higher education by formally expanding our great relationship with Spark451.”

Watch Our Webinar

Check out Spark451 and Feedback’s webinar, “Understanding Your Institution’s Whole Brand: How Better Listening Enables More Impactful Marketing Campaigns,” to get more details about how a unified branding model for enrollment marketing, utilizing both persona modeling and ethnographic research, can yield incredible results for higher education institutions like yours.

Access the Recording!

Silver Linings Playbook: 2020 In Review

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Steve KergeBy Steve Kerge|December 17, 2020

When I sat down to write this, I typed and deleted so many clichés about the kind of year we’ve had. Since you’ve also lived through 2020, you already know how “unprecedented” it is, so I’ll assume you won’t mind if we skip that part.

Now, for the real reason I’m here: I just don’t think it’s especially healthy to head into a new year without pausing to appreciate some of the good things that have happened in 2020—and there HAVE been some good things. (Even a few that should benefit the higher ed field for years to come.) So, in an effort to get us all in a positive frame of mind and motivated to tackle the new year with enthusiasm, I thought I would highlight a few silver linings that have resulted from the major events of 2020.

Silver Lining 1

Colleges and Universities Learned How To Be Nimble

Dare I say that higher education is infamously glacial? Well, it’s true. Our institutions each have a wide breadth of processes, procedures, programs, and regulations that tend to make us about as agile as a large oil tanker at sea.

However, when push came to shove this year, your institution’s faculty and staff made herculean efforts and demonstrated the ability to be nimble in an environment that required such speed and institutional agility. You have so much to be proud of.

First, you and your colleagues salvaged the Spring 2020 semester by rapidly and safely closing campuses across the country and disseminating critical information to students, families, and the community. During that period, I spoke with presidents at a few schools who were proud of the fact that they could make swift decisions that directly benefited their students’ health.

Second, your team still enrolled a new student class for the fall. You shifted very important on-campus events, like admitted student days, to virtual environments. You also worked to ensure applicants and their families had their questions answered and could find a place they would call home for the next four years.

Third, your colleagues figured out ways to work together and safely kick off the fall semester by introducing concepts such as hybrid environments, quarantine spaces, mask policies, and more.

These are lessons that you will carry with you for your professional life. Plus, now we’ve learned that higher ed can be just as nimble of an environment as as a tech startup…OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but you definitely moved from an oil tanker to a schooner. Congratulations!

Silver Lining 2

Higher Education Advanced in Online Delivery of Academic Coursework

For this silver lining, I reflect on a discussion I had earlier this year with a vice president at a major public institution/system in the northeast. She relayed to me the story that just a few years ago, as they were upgrading the connectivity throughout campus, the administration wanted to install webcams in classrooms for future use. At that time, the faculty union filed a grievance stating that doing so would undermine their ability to protect the privacy of their intellectual property, the academic coursework. They won that grievance.

Yet, just a few years later, your institutions were literally placed in a do-or-die academic situation and everyone involved rose nicely to the challenge. Before this year, some faculty had never actually used a Zoom, Teams, or Meets environment, but they dug in and found a way. And in an incredibly short time, they gave new credibility to the online delivery of academic coursework.

I like to keep things real and recognize that, in some cases, it was less than ideal—maybe even impossible. Some classes require labs or other in-person experiences, like clinicals and student-teaching, that are invaluable to achieving a successful program. Yet, still, for the vast majority of undergraduate programs, 2020 is a true milestone year for the online delivery of academic content.

(As a side note, for those of you who are in geographic areas where snowfall can happen, I think we just witnessed the end of snow days as we know them for all students from middle school through college. Academic evolution is happening right in front of our eyes.)

Silver Lining 3

Colleges and Universities Learned That Their Campuses are Important

If there is one message that came out of 2020 and the COVID pandemic, it is that the public truly values the student experience your campus provides and that many students want to be on your campuses–even if that means attending classes virtually. And the majority of your campuses delivered on that experience with safety and support in force.

In the late spring, we surveyed the parents of freshman students and asked them how they felt about their students returning to school in the fall. Here’s what they had to say:

You may think this applies exclusively to undergraduate students and programs, but an even more recent survey of domestic graduate intenders also demonstrated a continued preference for in-person learning:

Silver Lining 4

We No Longer Take Our In-Person, Professional Conferences For Granted

As professionals in college admissions, we have had the great opportunity to develop our own skills, connect with friends, and network with new colleagues through a wealth of professional conferences. They range from regional groups to national conferences and cover every aspect of our professional lives. Honestly, as a person who attended my first conference in 1991, it became easy to take these conferences for granted, and I sometimes considered attending them a borderline chore as opposed to a phenomenal opportunity.

Yet 2020 (and possibly 2021) took those precious opportunities away from us. Sure, we have all made an effort to make the best of the situation by participating or presenting in virtual conferences. However, much like students who prefer being on campus, we realize that the in-person experience of being with an incredibly talented group of people for a few days to learn from each other is truly irreplaceable.

My hope for 2021 is that we get to a place where we feel it’s safe to meet, interact, and enjoy each other’s company in person.

Looking Ahead

On behalf of all of us at Spark451, I’d like to wish you all the safest and happiest of holidays as we wrap up 2020. Stay tuned as we continue providing fresh perspectives, original research, and direct guidance through our blog series in 2021.


Meeting Graduate School Intenders Where They Are

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Spark451 Strategy TeamBy Spark451 Strategy Team|November 30, 2020

2020 has brought tidal-wave-sized shifts to higher education. While virtual events, test-optional policies, and COVID closures have dominated the admissions workday, a new player has quietly entered the graduate school arena—the first wave of Generation Z students.

That’s right: The eldest Gen Z students are now about 23 years old, and they’re making their way into the workforce and graduate programs. The question is: Are your graduate marketing efforts primed to reach this new breed of prospective students?

Gen Z: What We Know

You’ve heard about them. You’ve likely done your own research on them (and if not, there are countless resources available if you need to get up to speed). In fact, our 2020 Graduate School Intenders Survey found that:

  • Email and text messages are their preferred direct channels of communication
  • Most of these students spend more than three hours a day on social media
  • Google is the most used resource in their search for graduate programs

Cultivating Leads

As our survey confirmed, Gen Z is a “just-Google-it” generation who will never know the pain of scouring a library full of encyclopedias to find an answer, waiting on a dial-up connection, or the primitive experience of an “AOL keyword search.”

To reach this audience where they are, it’s crucial to run digital media campaigns that use Google Search Ads (formerly AdWords) paired with an engaging landing page. Google Ads allow you to deliver content that directly relates to what these students are searching for. For example, an ad for your Master of Business Administration program can be there when a prospective student searches Google for the “best MBA program.” Similarly, you can deliver an ad for your Master’s of Education program to those searching for answers to questions like “How do I become a teacher?”

Appearing at the top of their search with a succinct, engaging value proposition can earn you clicks and new leads from those eager to learn more about your program. Plus, our team of digital marketing experts can help you get the most out of each Google Ads campaign by continuously optimizing your ads and their paired landing pages.

Lead-Nurture Tactics

Once you pull these students into your funnel, you’ll need to deliver a steady stream of relevant messaging in order to keep them engaged, and ultimately, drive them to apply and enroll. Spark451 has been perfecting outreach methods to Gen Z for years with great success. We’ve built key strategies that meet this generation where they are — online and mobile. Our secret recipe for success isn’t all that secretive:

  • Hyper-personalized, segmented, and captivating e-communications
  • Robust, personalized text messaging
  • An extensive digital media strategy implemented across targeted social platforms

Each of these “ingredients” is, of course, created with mobile-friendly design and accessibility in mind.

Get Ready for GenZ

Now is the time to make sure your recruitment efforts are optimized to reach the latest generation of grad students, and the experts at Spark451 can help you do just that. We’d love to discuss your institution’s specific challenges and help you determine which strategies and tactics will best prepare you for your next cycle. Reach out so we can get started.


Supplement Your Search and Fill Your Next Class

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Spark451 Media RelationsBy Spark451 Media Relations|November 3, 2020

2020 has been a challenging year for admissions—there is no getting around that. With a shortage of names typically available during this time, lack of in-person visits, and limited financial resources, there is no longer any such thing as a “traditional” senior search—at least for the short term.

At Spark451, we pride ourselves on being able to adapt to change and pivot to strategies that will help drive in a strong incoming class. That’s why we’re such strong believers in deadline-driven marketing, especially in this unique cycle. Here, we’ll explain some of the reasoning behind that philosophy, and highlight a specialized tactic that could help ensure you finish your Fall 2021 recruitment strong.

Why Timely Marketing is Critical

In this digital age, consumers are under constant pressure to buy something new or inquire about a new product or service. But, have you ever wondered why companies with deadline-driven campaigns, such as Amazon’s Prime Days, are so successful?

Marketing campaigns that emphasize deadlines compel consumers to take immediate action because they tap into our innate fear of missing out. This sense of urgency can be easily replicated in the higher education landscape.

Take, for example, a recent Spark451 partner case study: A small, private, liberal arts college in suburban Pennsylvania came to us looking for a strong winter push for Fall 2020 applications. We quickly launched our Supplemental Senior Search Program, which features a personalized letter and tip-in card, delivered in a branded envelope, as well as an accompanying e-communications nurture stream. Because all of the messaging prominently promoted an application deadline that was set for just a few weeks after we launched (and we tied in some special incentives), students immediately took action. In just a few short weeks, the effort provided a 27% lift in applications.

Why Supplemental Senior Search? (Hint: Strong ROI!)

At this point, your team has likely just finished launching your initial Senior Search campaign, and you’re starting to see your efforts roll in, so you’re probably wondering why you should even consider a Supplemental Senior Search. The short answer: Because now is the time to make sure all your bases are covered to ensure a successful year.

Supplemental Senior Search is a proven tactic for eliciting additional applications from those in your search pool who are actively engaging with your institution, or who have a high likelihood to apply.

At Spark451, we have conducted many successful Supplemental Senior Search campaigns— both for longstanding partnering institutions as well as new-to-us schools that have needed a late-stage push to increase their incoming classes. In fact, we’ve observed that students who receive these Supplemental Senior Search packages are twice as likely to submit an application than those who don’t receive the mailings.

As always, Spark451 ensures that every service we offer has trackable metrics. We create trackable URLs and performance dashboards that give you clear and immediate insights into the return on your investment.

Achieve Your Goals

With so many uncertainties in how this year’s class will shape up, we recommend planning for a Supplemental Senior Search early on in the cycle (now), so you’ll be poised to deploy this additional effort in the late fall or early winter months. Given the current recruitment landscape, you can feel fairly certain that you will benefit from having these additional touchpoints to help ensure you can hit your recruitment goals for the year.

Let us help you get there. Reach out when you’re ready to discuss specific strategies for your own Supplemental Senior Search.


Boosting Applications and Fostering A Healthy Grad Student Pipeline

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Spark451 Media RelationsBy Spark451 Media Relations|October 28, 2020

A couple of years ago, in an environment where MBA applications were generally down, one of our Ivy League institutional partners developed a unique advance-application program to shore up its MBA student pipeline. The initiative allows talented undergraduate students to apply for and gain advance admission to the institution’s prestigious MBA program.

By the time this school partnered with Spark451 in the summer of 2019, the institution had only just begun promoting the unique opportunity through a somewhat bare-bones email marketing effort. While the initial campaign was reasonably successful, the school’s administrators were ready to amp up their efforts and help the program reach its full potential.

Effective Solutions

To help our partner raise awareness of the program among qualified undergraduate students, and drive them to apply, Spark451 developed a combination of digital communications, including:

  • A robust series of search emails
  • Facebook and Instagram ad creative for a digital lead-generation campaign
  • A dedicated inquiry-capture landing page
  • A downloadable fact sheet (which the school ultimately used as a printed handout as well!)
  • An informational marketing video
  • A compelling series of prospect nurture emails

While adhering to the school’s larger brand, these materials built upon and expanded an existing marketing framework and helped refine key messages about the program’s unique benefits. In select instances, the materials were delivered by third parties as needed. For example, the emails were built and deployed from the school’s existing CRM, and the digital media ads were launched by the institution’s existing digital advertising partner agency. Regardless of how the materials were delivered, Spark451 ensured that the messaging and look was unified and suited for the niche audience.

Impressive Results

Ultimately, the program’s administrators reported the following results for the 2020 cohort:

  • A 64% year-over-year increase in started applications
  • A 76% year-over-year increase in submitted applications

Let's Connect

We’d love to help you achieve similar results. Reach out when you’re ready to discuss strategies and tactics to support your own enrollment goals.


The Votes Are In: Innovation451 Competition Winner is a Data Lake Platform for Data Governance, Analytics and Predictive Modeling

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Spark451 Media RelationsBy Spark451 Media Relations|October 19, 2020

Innovation has always been an intrinsic part of the culture here at Spark451, but this year, we took it even further with the launch of our new company-wide initiative, Innovation451.

Starting this spring, Spark451 Principal Steve Kerge challenged all employees to come together to identify big needs, propose revolutionary solutions, and ultimately, select which ideas to develop and implement.

Meeting(s) of the Minds

While we were all still working remotely during the COVID-19 shutdowns, Sparklers from every discipline and department got together for virtual brainstorming sessions, during which all participants were encouraged to share their ideas. The only rule—that there were no rules!

After we generated a lengthy list of ideas for potential products, technological tools, and infrastructural improvements, participants voted to select four ideas to pursue further. Once the finalists were selected, the individuals who had proposed the ideas were each allowed to recruit two other employees to help them flesh out their ideas and prepare presentations to “sell” their ideas to the entire company. (Think “Shark Tank,” or as some of us came to call it, “Spark Tank!”)

Following the presentations this summer, the entire company was asked to rate each idea according to the following metrics:

  • Spark451 integration (how it aligned with our culture and mission)
  • Higher-education integration (how well does it solve a problem in our industry?)
  • Attainability
  • Stability
  • Usability
  • Marketability

The Winning Idea

Ultimately, the winning idea was to overhaul how we store and manage data—to move from a warehouse architecture to a data lake. As John Bellina, Director of Digital Services; Ed Flaherty, Client Development Strategist; and Saish Patkar, Senior Data Specialist, explained during their presentation, this massive infrastructural change (and sizeable fiscal investment) will enable Spark451 to easily provide even more robust campaign performance reporting, as well as deeper strategic analysis of campaign performance—both at the individual institutional level and industry-wide. These additional points of reference will allow us to be even more nimble at optimizing performance in real time, and enable us to benchmark performance across the industry, which should contribute to even greater success on enrollment campaigns.

While Spark451’s data team moves to make this bold new vision a reality, the company at large is gearing up for another round of Innovation451. We can’t wait to see which ideas rise to the top next!


TikTok Advertising For Higher Education

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Spark451 Digital Media TeamBy Spark451 Digital Media Team|October 15, 2020

It’s safe to say that TikTok has taken the world by storm. Given the video-sharing platform’s overwhelming popularity with teens and young adults, it has the potential to help colleges and universities make a lasting impression on prospective students.

Now, TikTok has made the advertising portion of the platform available to a select group of agencies, and Spark451 is proud to announce we’ve been invited to participate in this exclusive program. We are excited to help our college and university partners leverage the app to foster deeper connections with students.

Why Timely Marketing is Critical

Curious as to how hot TikTok actually is right now? With more than 63.3 million installs in August 2020 alone, TikTok was the most downloaded social media app (excluding games) that month, according to data from Sensor Tower.

According to Sensor Tower, TikTok was the most downloaded social media app (excluding games) in August 2020.

You might be wondering if your prospective student audience is giving TikTok enough attention to justify spending ad dollars on a new channel, and the answer is a resounding yes! Not only does Hootsuite show that 69% of the app’s monthly active users are between the ages of 13–24, but our own recent mini-research experiment showed that teens spend several hours per week on the platform.

We recently took a sampling of students’ screen times over the course of a week, and our findings confirmed that older teens and young adults are spending plenty of time on TikTok.

TikTok Tips

Interested in TikTok advertising? Here are a few things you need to know:

  1. TikTok is ideal for Gen Z: As mentioned above, the majority of TikTok users are under the age of 24, which makes the platform ideal for reaching prospective undergraduates, transfer students, or recent graduates who may be considering graduate school.
  2. TikTok is well-suited for branding efforts: TikTok is an upper-funnel method of advertising that can help you build brand awareness with your target audience.
  3. TikTok users are engaged: According to TikTok, the average user spends over 71 minutes a day on the app and opens it more than 14 times a day.
  4. Targeting is key: TikTok offers robust targeting opportunities, allowing us to reach users by demographic, interests, geographic location, and more. Additionally, we can leverage first– and third-party data, in addition to retargeting and lookalike audiences, to ensure you can deliver your content to users with whom it’s most likely to resonate.
  5. TikTok requires its own unique creative: Your ad creative on TikTok needs to be mobile-friendly video and appear to be native to the platform. Animation, music, and authenticity are key. Plus, TikTok ads need to be refreshed regularly to avoid ad fatigue within the quick-moving platform.

TikTok and Beyond

In addition to TikTok, Spark451 holds exclusive marketing partnerships with a variety of platforms, including Google, Facebook, Snapchat, and LinkedIn. When you partner with Spark451, our premier-level affiliations with these platforms mean you’ll have the most up-to-the minute access to the best strategies for making an impact on these ever-evolving platforms.

When you’re ready to discuss specific tactics for your institution, please reach out. Our digital media specialists and enrollment strategists will be happy to help you craft a budget-friendly digital communications plan.


The Results Are In: 2020 Graduate School Intenders Survey

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Spark451 Media RelationsBy Spark451 Media Relations|October 8, 2020

You already know graduate school is a perennially attractive option for students seeking additional credentials, career advancement, or a career change, but disruptive events such as the COVID-19 pandemic have the potential to radically alter students’ grad school plans.

The Spark451 Education Research Division’s 2020 Graduate School Intenders Survey examines how the pandemic has influenced prospective students’ outlook on graduate school. It also includes relevant insights on:

  • Which factors students value most when assessing grad programs
  • Students’ communication preferences and social media habits
  • Respondents’ employment outlook
  • Delivery format preferences
  • And so much more!

Download the full report now to access all of the results!

Get the Report

2020 College-Bound Student Survey: Download The Report

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Spark451 Media RelationsBy Spark451 Media Relations|September 30, 2020

You already know 2020 has been an unusual year for college admissions (to say the least). However, you may still be surprised by some of the findings from Spark451’s latest College-Bound Student Survey. For example, in spite of all the hype in the media, less than one percent of students who responded to our survey ended up taking a gap year!

Get the Report

This summer, thousands of 2020 high school graduates responded to the Spark451 Education Research Division’s ninth annual survey on the college selection process. Download the full report to gain access to all the valuable information for college admissions professionals, including:

  • The Class of 2024’s social media habits
  • Students’ reactions to test-optional admissions policies
  • Which influencers have the most power over college decision-making
  • The effect of virtual events on college decisions
  • So much more

Download the report now. Then, reach out. We’ll be happy to help you determine if your upcoming admissions marketing and student search plans are fully in line with the latest data from students.