Search Engine Advertising (SEA) is a commonly used student recruitment tactic, which can be especially effective for quickly getting more visibility. For schools, it can be very helpful to be seen by prospective students who are searching for a specific course. Depending on the campaign type, SEA student recruitment can be an extremely effective way to become visible to people who otherwise did not know about you, or an extreme waste of money. Specifically, branded campaigns are often 100% wasted money. (Not always, more about that later).
Before I argue my point, it’ll be helpful to summarize the most common types of SEA campaigns. SEA campaigns can be classified by the type of keywords they target:
- Course based campaigns – Ads that show when people search for a specific subject. E.g. bachelor of chemistry
- Competition based campaigns – The advertiser tries to piggyback on a well-known competitor brand, e.g. when ads promoting ‘Columbia Executive Education” show up upon a search for ‘Harvard Business School’
- Branded campaigns are campaigns where the keyword that triggers the ad is a brand name. If searching for “AB University” brings up an ad for “AB University”, then AB University is running a branded search campaign
So, why are branded SEA campaigns 100% wasted money?
In short: because they do not attract new prospective students. Branded ads are only shown to prospective (and current!) students and staff who already know your school and are actively searching for it. If you weren’t paying for the branded ad, these people would likely simply click the first search result: your school website. At no cost to you. Unless a competitor is showing ads on searches for your brand name. I’ll get to that in a moment. Branded search campaigns cannibalize the branded traffic from (free) organic search. A few studies have attempted to measure this effect:
- In an experiment, Blake, Nosko and Tadelis (2015)* paused branded campaigns for Ebay in selected geographical areas. They concluded that pausing the campaigns had no measurable impact on revenue from these areas as compared to control areas where the branded campaigns were left on.
- Simonov, Nosko and Rao (2018)** studied a large database of branded campaigns. They found a lift of only 1-4% for brand ads when no competitors are present, with larger brands having a smaller causal effect. In this case, the effective “cost per incremental click” is significantly higher than what you would typically pay for other keywords.
So in short, people do click on branded ads, but even without these ads, they would still have ended up on your web page in 96-99% of the cases. You’re better off spending your ad budget on other keywords that help you become visible to prospective students who might not know you exist yet.
But… my branded campaign generates lots of conversions
Yes. The tricky thing is that branded campaigns often appear very successful if you track campaign conversions, such as whether people fill out forms on the website after clicking the ad. They typically generate conversions at a Cost per Action (CPA) that’s only a fraction of other campaign types. But 96-99% of these conversions will still happen when you stop paying for the ads. Prospective students will simply find you through organic search or other channels. This high conversion rate can also tempt external agencies to inflate conversion stats with a branded campaign. When judging an external agency’s results, it’s thus important to break out performance statistics by campaign type. Or you can simply forbid your agency to run a branded campaign.
When should you be running a branded search campaign?
As foreshadowed, there are a few cases where it does make sense to run branded campaigns:
- As a defense mechanism: When competing schools show ads on your brand keywords, they can “steal” 18-42% of your clicks, according to Simonov, Nosko and Rao (2018). Of course, that completely changes the return on investment equation. If a competitor advertises for your brand name, you must respond with a branded campaign.
- To accompany traditional (non-digital) campaigns: for example, when you run radio commercials for your open day. A branded search campaign can make sure these people get led straight to the right page on your website.
- Smoothing the road to sign up: Unlike organic search results, search ads allow you to determine exactly what people get to see when they search. Branded ads can signpost something that is somewhat tucked away in the organic results. For example, at the moment, Harvard University is promoting its online offerings through a branded campaign.
- When you don’t know where else to spend your budget: If all other keyword opportunities are already fully covered by campaigns, you could also consider starting a branded search campaign.
Is your school making use of ‘branded search’?
If you’ve read this far, you may be wondering whether your school is running any branded search campaigns. It’s easy to check. Search for your school’s name. If ads show, you’re definitely running a branded campaign
More often than not, your advertising budget can be spent in a better way than on branded campaigns. An important exception is when competitors are advertising for your school name.
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Parts of post were drawn from my book manuscript, slated for publication
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- * Blake, Thomas; Nosko, Chris; Tadelis, Steven. Econometrica. Jan2015, Vol. 83 Issue 1, p155-174
- ** Simonov, Andrey; Nosko, Chris; Rao, Justin M. Marketing Science. Mar/Apr2018, Vol. 37 Issue 2, p200-215