Investing in Higher Education Marketing: Paid vs. Inbound

With a rapid change in technology, digital marketing channels have evolved quickly over the past few years. As a result, there has been an increase in investment in digital channels by higher education marketers. We’ve worked with many higher education clients who struggle to find the right balance between investing in the appropriate digital marketing channel. For the purposes of this post, let’s look at paid and inbound marketing channels to understand why a higher education institution should invest in one or the other or both.

Why Paid?

Paid advertising, which now includes paid social and remarketing ads, is very tightly tied in to the investment that you make. As long as you’re bidding high enough, your ads will appear in the top spots which are most visible to searchers.  Paid advertising works well in situations where there is a sense of urgency. If a college or university is faced with a tight deadline for enrollments, for example, paid advertising often works very well. Be it driving enrollments for a program or getting people to sign up for an event or info session — paid is the right channel to use.

Searchers clicking on the paid ads can be driven to landing pages where prominent call-to-actions make it easy for them to find contact information and take the next steps. Landing pages are usually created independent of the website making conversion tracking easier. The independent conversion tracking infrastructure allows conversions to be tracked from the first touch point to the last. As a result, many tools are out there which offer detailed conversion tracking for paid channels, making it easier to determine the ROI for the investment made.

Why Inbound?

Inbound, on the other hand, is not as straightforward. But it is just as important for a higher education institution – sometimes even more so. When you think of inbound marketing, think in terms of reputation and brand building. Inbound marketing includes building your brand reputation through content creation, PR, social media and relevant search engine rankings.

Building brand reputation takes time. It works by developing and building trust with prospects on all digital touch points as mentioned above. If your content consistently shows up on relevant and high quality websites, your brand will be familiar to prospects, and they will have more trust in the legitimacy of your brand.

Assuming that the website is a good conversion machine, investing in content creation, PR and search engine activities will result in leads and conversions.  But don’t expect this number to increase right away. Inbound campaigns take time to build momentum. It will likely take six months to a year from the beginning of an inbound campaign for you to start seeing results. Even then, due to lack of attribution tools, attributing conversions to inbound is not as simple as it seems.  But it will work in conjunction with everything else to result in an increase in conversions that you are looking for.

Find your balance

There’s no single answer as to the right choice of paid or inbound or the right combination of the two. Each college or university must look closely at the short term needs and long term goals of the institution and develop and approach, often with a mix of both channels that will support its mission. Depending on what the focus of the marketing initiative is marketers should be able to make a more informed decision as to when they should use paid or inbound.

Learn more about Elliance higher education marketing services.