Social Media Marketing for Higher Education

Advertising Basics that Build Brands

Some things have changed in the era of Covid-19. The best ways to increase your brand’s digital visibility have not. Originally published at voltedu

Many of us are in a constant state of reacting and planning — all with an eye on what lies ahead. And while many of us are looking to the future, I want to visit the past. More specifically, advertising’s creative revolution. A period made famous by legendary ad man Bill Bernbach, of Doyle Dane Bernbach, who once remarked:

“It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”

I don’t want to use this quote to debate the effects of Covid-19 or the shifts we’ve seen in media consumption and college search behavior. Yes, we may need to make some modifications to our higher ed marketing strategies and tactics during a pandemic. But, ultimately, the nature of advertising doesn’t change,  even though our industry often opines that it is constantly in flux. 

Planning Social Media Marketing For Higher Education

This leads to a few questions, the answers to which are critical to determining how we can be successful in this strained environment:

  1. Assuming media patterns continue to maintain their current trajectories and higher ed marketers are asked to do more with less — in digital, no less — what are the “unchanging truths” of advertising’s effectiveness that we can use to inform our advertising planning?
  2. Furthermore, in a moment when our audiences are spending more and more time on social media, when junior and sophomores’ college search processes have dramatically changed — indicating that social media may be one of our brand’s first touchpoints — and surveys regularly indicate major shifts in buying behavior, how can we build our brand in this new socially distanced world … well, socially?

To focus our efforts, let’s return to some basic principles founded in marketing science, and can apply to social media marketing for higher education institutions. This article will help marketers navigate the sea of uncertainty we find ourselves in, and to simplify our efforts by shining a light on what we can do creatively, with our media planning and measurement efforts, to create an overarching framework to use social-media advertising more effectively. 

“A goal for most brands should be to reach about 80 percent of your audience one or two times a week.”

The three sections below are devoted to principles that have been shown to improve advertising’s effectiveness. And while advertising doesn’t necessarily ensure success, following these principles will help ensure your brand is geared for growth. 

How to Plan Ad Creative

Invest in Fame Building

We shouldn’t exclude higher-ed brands when we talk about how brands grow. No matter if you are moving into new markets or regaining share in your own backyard, brands grow by increasing their market penetration. To do so, marketers should invest in high-reachfame-producing advertising that creates mental availability and collective understanding

Reaching as many category buyers, along with those who influence the college decision, not only helps to build brands, but creates shared meaning, strengthening the perceived value of an institution. As author Kevin Simler wrote

“[Collective meaning] is the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, changes the landscape of cultural meanings, which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use the product.”

Similarly, creating advertising that elicits an emotional response ensures we are remembered and nudged into consideration. Emotional advertising has been proven to be more effective and more efficient. When we talk about fame producing, there is nothing more effective than video. It’s the cheapest way to get in front of your audience (at least as far as media costs, if not production), it’s more effective, and can prime audiences beyond the awareness stage.

University of Arizona’s “Wonder Makes Us Who We Are” campaign is an incredible example of fame-producing advertising. From the song to the iconic desert pans, it maximizes what makes social video the most powerful brand-building tool for marketers. From there, they have the ability to extend their messaging to other forms of content through video and beyond.

Focus on Channels with Attention Potential

Advertising’s effectiveness rests in its ability to determine the attention potential of each media and invest accordingly. Attention potential is first and foremost about visibility. Attention improves advertising outcomes, but without securing impactful visibility our efforts are weakened. Research indicates that the more pixels on the screen, the more sales. In-feed ads and pre-roll ads have a higher percentage of inventory reaching 50 percent of pixels in-view for two seconds. 

A second way to think about attention is screen coverage. Screen coverage is the amount of space an ad takes up relative to platform view or the proportion of screen an ad covers. Online, screen coverage is the primary driver of attention and sales. The more screen your ad can own, the more likely attention and cognitive processes will improve.

Start your planning by identifying the ad units and channel opportunities that get you the most screen coverage, have high visibility, and, if you have the budget, are consumed with sound on. Snap Ads (web view, long form), IG Stories, and YouTube (pre-roll, bumpers) are good places to start. When deciding on the creative, ensure that you establish branding early, make sure your branding is prominent, and align the format with the appropriate ad type.

Create Distinctive Assets

Daniel Kahneman introduced how we form thought in his book, ”Thinking, Fast and Slow.” The instinctual System One describes the part of the mind that is responsible for fast, automatic, and emotional agency. Roughly 80 percent of our decisions are made using System One, including most purchasing decisions. According to Kahneman, “We are pattern recognition machines and System One is constantly scanning the environment for regularities.” Psychologists call the ability to process information quickly while retaining key codes fluency or the Processing Fluency Heuristic. Whether you call them fluent devices, brand codes, or distinct assets, if the purpose of advertising is to increase the mental availability of your brand, then we must incorporate brand-related cues that not only make our brand distinct but improve saliency and linkage within the communication in the split-second consumers give to a social-media ad. These include:

  • Your brand’s logo (which should be at the start)
  • Brand colors
  • Tagline
  • Key design elements
  • Endorsers 

Through repeat exposures, distinct brand cues help build familiarity and memory structures that improve processing. The less we need to establish new links to our brand, the more we can extend our messaging and provide more reasons why our brand can fulfill a specific need.

Think of your distinctive assets as an investment into content that you run through your feed one or two times a week, or layered-in with your primary advertising campaign. Let’s use Headspace as an example. They have a primary long-form video ad used across channels. They incorporate retargeted and shorter-form ads that are specific to ad type (i.e., Instagram Story is different from long-from). Finally, they use organic content to fill their social media feeds and continue to build fluency.

At my previous institution, we made sure that the enrollment campaigns we produced internally, along with our marketing partners, used the same four or five distinct assets across each campaign. 

How to Plan Your Media Spend

Reach and Keep Reaching

In many ways, digital and social media perform much as traditional media. Both provide a platform to reach large audiences through paid media. And we know from the work of Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science that it is a much better strategy to use social media advertising to reach as much of our category buyers as possible. A goal for most brands should be to reach about 80 percent of your audience one or two times a week.

“When we talk about fame producing, there is nothing more effective than video.”

There are a couple of ways to achieve higher levels of reach, depending on your campaign objectives. If you are using Facebook/Instagram, setting a frequency cap of two will help ensure you’ve reached more of your target audience, with a higher chance of having at least one of those impressions in view. You can also use the Audience Overlap Tool in Facebook to see if you are duplicating a majority of your audiences within campaigns. Another option is to create Lookalike Audiences based on any lists you have uploaded or of your existing Page followers, managing the Audience Size Tool to extend your reach as budget allows. 

Maximize Touchpoints Across Media

Advertising across multiple channels will also help to build cumulative reach, as well as drive compounding effects that lead to advertising effectiveness. According to a recent Ebiquity Report, one of the more powerful media combinations is YouTube and Facebook. Combined, they not only secured the largest achieved reach, but also have a higher likelihood of delivering the strongest impression. Beyond elevated reach, using multiple channels creates cross-channel synergies, improving ad recall and messaging comprehension.

One way to leverage the effectiveness of cross-channel campaigns is to match messaging to moments throughout the customer journey, as well as the channel that will deliver the most impact.

The framework below is to develop enrollment marketing campaigns. The goal of the framework is to define the overall role for communications and how that role aligns to your campaign/brand platform.

Comms Barrier
Comms Task/Reason to Believe
A framework for planning social media marketing for higher education institutions

Based on your audience, uncover communication barriers your messages must overcome at each stage of the funnel.  Develop or define how you will overcome these barriers, either by defining a communications task at each stage or develop a compelling reason why your institution can overcome that barrier. Finally, determine what channel is best to deliver that message in the most impactful way.

Maintain a Balanced Ad Budget

Spend enough time with advertising Twitter and you’ll inevitably come across Les Binet and Peter Field’s “60/40 Rule.” This rule is meant to act as a guide to help determine the optimal balance of short-term activation (the 40 percent) and long-term brand-building communications budgets (the 60 percent).

While you could spend an eternity debating which constitutes sales activation and brand building in higher ed as well as the merits of the budget allocation, keep your eye on the bigger picture: We shouldn’t abandon large-reach, top-of-the-funnel ad campaigns for lead generation campaigns. To me, overly relying on search campaigns to recruit negates the need to provide a strong and compelling brand message. Otherwise, it’s all activation and no brand building. I also believe that this model can provide a guidepost to think about how we plan brand campaigns versus department-specific campaigns. Are we overselling our departments and not taking care of our foundation — the brand? 

Measure the Data

How Well is Your Creative Performing?

The problem with most social media metrics is that they aren’t indicative of brand health, nor are they a proxy for advertising effectiveness. Followers, clicks, and engagements simply provide measures that something happened, but they provide no evidence of improving campaign performance. The questions we need to ask ourselves are: Is our advertising well branded (or distinct), is it memorable, and are we strengthening the associations that make our advertising fame producing?

“At the end of the day, advertising success relies on getting attention and being remembered.”

To answer these types of questions, there are multiple tools that we can use, both free and paid, to measure effectiveness. In terms of paid measures, Google and SurveyMonkey offer brand lift survey options. Both tools provide easy-to-use ways to measure awareness, recall and attributes — all measures that are shown to increase the health of a brand.

In-platform metrics like Facebook’s Ad Recall Tool and ThruPlay allow you to understand what creative is getting noticed and remembered, and what creative is getting more attention. Similarly, tracking view-through metrics on any platform will allow for an understanding of how well your messaging and branding relates to actual view length, which gives you the opportunity to optimize your ad’s potential to perform better. 

Other measures that are worth looking at are branded search terms and traffic uplifts. Search behavior has been linked to brand salience and preference. 

How Well is Your Media Planning Performing?

To continue to monitor our media planning, we should ask ourselves: Are we reaching enough people, with an effective frequency and are we reaching them at an optimal cost? The reality is that we’d all love to reach all potential buyers — and do so with an effective frequency. Frequency capping can help, but it’s hard to ensure across most social media. But there are a couple of principles we can use to benchmark our media planning.

As stated previously, a good goal would be to reach about 80 percent of your target audience about twice a week. Facebook’s data suggests that ad recall and intent peak at around two exposures.

While I have yet to see an independent study — that is, a study beyond what Facebook or YouTube might publish about their own platform metrics —  one Nielsen study found that five to nine total digital exposures are optimal for brand awareness. 

In terms of budgets, continuity theory would suggest the best media plans spread budgets throughout the year and potentially upweights during key points in a college search. This framework could be used to inform how you plan a brand-building campaign throughout the year or be useful in creating a plan that accounts for both brand advertising and incorporates program-specific advertising around key moments. 

At the end of the day, advertising success relies on getting attention and being remembered. Understanding the antecedents to advertising success has never been more important. The more aligned our creative strategies, media strategies, and measurement strategies are, the more we can ensure our advertising efforts will help gear our brands for growth.


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