Pay-Per-Click for Independent Schools

Updated: Jan 7

A Case Study of a Successful PPC Campaign

by Trevor Waddington, Principal, Truth Tree Consulting

A strong digital presence is now the backbone of a solid independent school marketing strategy. It’s about getting consistent attention throughout the decision cycle by providing the right message at the right time to the right people. BTW - the “decision cycle” can also be called funnel and begins from the moment a first family contemplates independent education to the time they sign the enrollment contract.

So how do you get consistent attention in a highly competitive market where other schools and companies are trying just as hard to sell their goods or services?

Some in our space would say social media gets you the most attention. I agree. However, I don’t know anyone who says, ‘Honey, I think we should consider private school for little Jamie. I’ll go on Facebook and hope to find an ad.’

Others might tell you search engine optimization (SEO) is the key to victory, but take a quick look at the results below. I live in zip code 20832, and I searched for “private schools near me.” The first organic result about a single school doesn’t show up until the 12th result – it’s not even on page 2 - and most schools barely show up organically on page 3!

In this blog post, I’m going to take you through the planning, thinking, analyzing, and process-adjustment strategies for a successful private school pay-per-click digital marketing campaign that made our client very happy.

The Beginning

To get started, we first met with the client to determine their goals. They were interested in:

  • expanding their private school branding, especially in certain micro-locations,

  • improving enrollment in certain grades, and

  • differentiating themselves from competitors.

The Research

Once we understood their goals, it was time to learn about the geo-behavioral psychographics of past, current, and projected customers. This step included intense internal and external market research. As a basic example, if your school is a buttoned-up, uniform wearing, traditional school, it is unlikely we will be pushing your ads to liberal-leaning progressives who have donated to Bernie Sanders.

Understanding the admission cycle of an independent school is also an essential pre-launch step.

At Truth Tree, we match the customer decision cycle and the independent school admission cycle with a three-part, storytelling strategy.

  1. Make an impression – Far too often schools assume they are known in their region and are shocked when faced with the reality that they are not. Most major cities in which our clients are located are highly transient, so impression-based marketing is critical. The messaging for this is basically, ‘Here we are. Here’s what we do. Contact us if interested’.

  2. Demonstrate value – At this point, they’ve heard of you. However, guess what, now they have heard of ten other schools too. You need to be pushing the benefits of your highly unique 5%, not the features of what 95% of other schools can claim.

  3. Get them to act – They know you. They understand you. They may even trust you. It's time for action! Whether it’s attending an open house or signing up for a personalized tour, you must convert passive inquiries to passionate applicants.

Tip: For those not familiar with the independent school admission cycle, you still need to provide awareness and build trust to get someone to take action. Email drip campaigns are the perfect solution. Once you’ve captured their information with a content marketing piece on ‘5 Best Child-Friendly Restaurants in [the name of your town/city]’ You can start to push them periodic, trust-building emails. If you want to take it a step further, try to capture the names and ages of their children (not in the first capture), so you can automate emails to match your intake strategy.

The Formulation

After our research and analysis, we decided on a multi-layered plan that included three specific search campaigns. Each campaign would initially follow our impression --> value --> action formula since we were starting early enough in the decision cycle.

Campaign 1 – Broad Leads. This campaign was set up to accomplish their goal of an expanded brand footprint. We did not want to miss any potential leads, so our targeted was broad.

  • The 11 ad groups provided impression-based, but bold headlines and descriptions.

  • The 11 ad groups targeted different age/grade levels and very general personas.

  • We used 144 phrase match keywords with some experimental longtail keywords.

  • Our goal was to generate impressions, so a low click through rate (CTR) was expected.

Campaign 2 – Hyperlocal Leads. This campaign was dedicated to attracting families not far from the school who either live and/or work within 15 minutes of the school.

  • 5 ad groups targeting the benefits of the “neighborhood” school along with benefit-based descriptions to differentiate from the hyperlocal competition.

  • The 5 ad groups targeted specific personas.

  • We used 45 phrase match keywords.

  • Our goal was to dominate the hyperlocal audience searching for what this school offers age/grade-wise.

Campaign 3 – Testing. This campaign combined aspects of campaigns one and two. The primary function of this campaign was to push the envelope with messaging to a tiny audience and monitor it closely.

  • This campaign would serve as our A/B testing campaign to see what was getting the most conversions based on our goals.

  • We used 32 keywords rangin