Three arrows all hitting the bullseye of a target

Targeting and Recruiting Students with Digital Advertising

We walk you through all the necessary steps to conceptualize, plan, and execute a digital advertising campaign to recruit students.

Back in 2004 when Facebook was just launching, a show about crab fishermen working the unforgiving seas of the north Pacific ocean, called Deadliest Catch also launched. I loved it. Each week, I followed the fates of different boats and their crews as they competed to catch the most Alaskan king crabs through torrential conditions. 

While the mechanics of fishing for king crabs is simple — drag a big crab pot behind your boat — the successful captains used intuition, science, and complex equipment to predict where the packs of crab were moving and how to best intercept them. They knew how to make sure their pots came up full, not empty.

Planning and executing a digital campaign to find, catch, and recruit college students across the wide sea of the internet requires the same sort of smarts, science, and data analysis. It’s “easy” to boot up a campaign, but it’s not easy to fill up your lead forms.

In this post, I’m going to teach you how to become better at “fishing” on digital platforms for one particular audience — we’re going to explore how to use digital advertising campaigns to recruit college students.

Step 1: Define Your Audience for Student Recruitment

The first step is to define your audience. Understanding who you want to reach and where you can find them is crucial when planning a digital marketing campaign.

Sounds simple, but even within the broad audience of “prospective college students” there are sub-audiences — undergraduate students, adult learners, business students, nursing students, etc. — each of these behave differently, have different customer journeys, and have different needs. 

So, the first step is not just identifying the audience — it is identifying the unique behaviors and needs of your exact prospects. This starts with user research that captures your prospects’ behaviors.

Action Step: Send a short online survey to current college students that are similar to the ones you want to recruit. Ask them to think back to when they were researching schools. Which websites influenced them? Which sites were most helpful? Who influenced their decision? What information did they want at the start of their search? What information was important after they were accepted? 

Armed with your survey results, you are in a better position to build an advertising campaign to recruit college students. Here are the next two steps:

  • Use the right networks – Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, DoubleClick, paid search – for your audience. Pick the right networks, and you improve your chances of successfully engaging your prospects.

  • Build a balanced and nuanced audience within the networks to ensure your impressions are reaching those who have not already engaged and have a higher propensity to do so.

Step 2: Use the Right Ad Networks to Recruit Students

All of the digital advertising networks are not created equal. Each network has a unique audience. Before considering a network for your campaign, you need to understand:

  • the network’s audience demographics

  • the expectations users have within that network

For example, when people visit Linkedin, they are typically thinking about their professional identity and expanding their professional network. The audience demographics on LinkedIn are very good for business, executive, finance, tech, and marketing student recruitment (and less good for education and healthcare). 

Given the professional nature of the site, users expect and respond to ad creative that supports career advancement. This is a terrific platform for recruiting prospective graduate students.

In contrast, Instagram and Facebook users are focused on their social identity which includes passions, personal interest, family, and beliefs. Platform behaviors are more social and engagement is less active than LinkedIn. These behaviors dictate a different style of ad creative.

Understanding Audience Motivations Is Key to Creating Ads that Convert

People turn to different social media platforms with different motivations. To create effective ad creative that produces engagement, you need to understand and affirm the motivations users have for logging into the social media platform.

  • High intent with active posture — Google Search users have a high-level of intent. Users have a specific question in mind and are seeking solutions. LinkedIn users have a more active posture and are more receptive to new information.

  • Content consumption and creation — TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram users consume content and seek to produce their own content to share. Ads should be experiential and story driven.

  • Conversational — Twitter users read, follow, and join conversations. This a two-way platform so find ways to engage in a conversation.

Understanding Ad Network Demographics

It’s also important to understand network demographics that you can gather from reports like this one from Khoros — these help you understand generally if your audience is using the network.

  • 54% of Facebook users are female

  • 93% of users access Facebook from a mobile device

  • 23% of people age 50-64 use Instagram

  • 81% of people age 18-25 use YouTube

  • Over 70% of YouTube views are on a mobile device

This data can be used to ensure that the demographics of your audience — age, income, gender — match the demographics of the platform and can provide additional insights into the type of ad creative.

Step 3: Build Your Audience

Once you determine what network attracts users that best match your target audience behaviors, next you want to invest in building audiences based on how the networks define an audience

Using the unique data attributes collected by each platform, you can focus your targeting. It’s important to note that the data available to use for targeting varies between platforms. This means you can’t build an identical audience in each. You won’t be able to just copy and paste the audience from one network to another.

Start with a General Audience and Then Hone In

When building audiences, it is best to recall logic lessons, as “and” and “or” play a key role in both building up and narrowing down your target audience. It is vital to build an audience that is large enough for your campaign to resonate and narrowed down to best qualify them for your business.

For example, you can target those that are interested in the Financial Times and were undergraduates in the past 3 years and have completed their bachelor’s degree. You would not want to target those who are interested in the Financial Times or were undergraduates in the past 3 years or have completed their Bachelor’s degree. Whereas the former looks at the intersection of all three and the latter compounds them.

Improve Targeting with Negative Audiences

In addition to building particular audience configurations, most networks have the ability to target a defined audience and to exclude segments of those audiences. By using both positive and negative audience targeting, you can further qualify those based on completing an action. 

Use Your CRM Data for Student Recruitment Targeting

In addition to targeting audiences through the network, you can upload your own audience lists to be matched to known profiles within the network. This feature allows you to bring your proprietary information into the networks to better improve your targeting capabilities. 

Most audiences have to contain 300 to 1,000 people depending on the network. Consider that not all entries on your list will match data in the network, we typically recommend lists of at least 1,500 people. 

Note that the networks do not reveal who our list is matched and there are also thresholds in place to allow the audience to run — in other words, you cannot create audiences of one person and target ads specifically to that individual. 

Let the Network Algorithms Work for You

In addition to matching those in your lists to profiles on the network, lookalike (or similar to) audiences can be created based on your uploaded lists. 

Pro tip: it is important to consider how segmented your list is to those actually engaging with your business, if you build a model off all site visitors, that will not be as specific as those who completed an action on your site.

For example, prospective students, parents, competitors, media, and many others visit your site’s homepage, and targeting such a diverse audience will not be as effective as targeting those that visited a landing page that can only be reached by a campaign, or have filled out a form on your site. If you build a model out of all the homepage visitors it will not reflect the actual audience you wish to target.

Bringing It All Together — Filling Your Crab Pots

To tie it all together, imagine we decide to leverage Instagram story placements to drive undergraduate transfer campaigns given their younger demographic. 

  1. We target those under the age of 22 and in college and have a hometown near your campus. 

  2. We drive them to a landing page where a large percentage of people clicking through fill out RFI forms and schedule campus visits. 

  3. We then take those two audiences that reached out and upload them to your campaigns on the networks. Then, you can duplicate your original campaign and point it to the lookalike audience, using Instagram’s algorithms to find more people like your original audience that converted — trimming away those with a propensity to not engage your site or seek your course offerings. 

  4. This allows us to scale our acquisition based upon refining the initial target audience.

College Student Recruitment — Easier than Crabbing

While it’s “easy” to drag your crab pots across the open ocean and hope to catch some crabs, it’s better to do some research and dig into the data to vastly improve your rate of success. Without taking the time to refine your audience, you waste time, budget, and effort — you’ll come up empty or generate leads that don’t convert. It can be a challenge, but I’d rather be sitting at my desk optimizing for clicks than being on the deck of a fishing boat in the northern Pacific!