Higher Education in 2019: 3 Ways to Address Recruitment Risk through your PPC Campaigns

There is a student recruitment crisis facing the Higher Education sector in the UK. 

In fact, 3 of the top 5 risk factors identified by PwC for 2019 involve recruitment (undergraduate, postgraduate, and international).

Record amounts of marketing budgets are being spent by universities, creating a much more competitive market, alongside declining international reputations from an uncertain political landscape.

Of course there is more to the issue than any kind of digital marketing can solve. But, given that Search ads can allow you to be the first university site that a potential student ever sees whilst they are researching, clearly it’s important to get your strategy right. 

Moreover, PPC ads can provide crucial data on which to base, or at least with which to inform, your wider marketing strategy.

Below are 3 actionable steps you can take in your PPC activity to try to mitigate the growing recruitment crisis that UK universities are facing.

University Recruitment 2019: The Facts

According to UCAS’ report on applications to UK universities in 2019, there was a very slight increase of 0.4% this year. However, that was entirely down to increases in international students (particularly non-EU), as home student applications numbers dropped by 0.7%. 

There has especially been an increase in interest from China.Evidently the prospective student landscape is evolving, and universities’ digital marketing teams need to be able to adapt quickly to avoid reputationally and financially damaging drops in applications.

Action 1

There is a need to focus on the quality of international student recruitment campaigns.

My colleague Wes wrote an in-depth article about international student recruitment recently which you can read here. For reference, the key PPC details to bear in mind to achieving this are:

  • Localisation – international campaigns should not be straight translations of another language. Nuances of meanings of keywords and ad copy need to be captured. This goes as far as making an effort to discover which messaging is the most appropriate in different markets.
  • Different search engines – whilst Search is virtually synonymous with Google in the Western world, that’s certainly not the case when looking at China, or Russia for example.
    • In these cases, Baidu and Yandex have 75% and 50% market shares respectively.
    • If you want to take international recruitment seriously, expanding to other platforms is a must – though they do come with their own challenges.

Action 2

In the same way that universities ought to be running distinct campaigns with differing strategies for home and international students, the same is true across different subjects.

For example, YouthSight’s same research showed that prospective students of different degrees have different priorities.

Law students placed reputation higher on their priority list than other students, whereas Business & Admin students rated employability top of their list, and Open Days were the crucial factor in Creative Arts & Design students’ decision making. 

In order to reflect these distinctions in your PPC campaigns, it would be sensible to create specific USPs around different themes, and test them in your ad copy for each degree type (or at least classification of degrees).

It would also be worthwhile experimenting with landing pages – for example, why not test sending prospective Creative Arts students to an Open Day page, rather than subject specific, if you know that real-life interaction is important to their decision making?

The most effective way to run and report on this would be to make sure your campaigns are split by degree type.

If you have structured your account like this, you have the dual benefit of being able to feed back cohort analysis depending on degree type to the wider marketing team (i.e. are more prospective mature students coming through one degree search than another, or are prospects of one subject bouncing at a higher rather than others).

That information can then be used to inform wider marketing strategy, and create a more cohesive and informed approach overall to student recruitment.

Action 3

Be nuanced with your remarketing strategy: weight most of your spend towards prospective students who show the highest engagement levels, and use different creatives and CTAs at different parts of the user journey.

Given that we know searching for prospective universities isn’t an easy or quick decision to make, remarketing is clearly essential.

To remarket well, universities need to make sure that they are really focusing on the most engaged prospects.

This would involve building audiences based on engagement metrics, not just the recency of their visits as is the traditional way.

Bounce rate for example or pages per session may be good indicators of a searcher’s genuine interest in a university and/or course. 

As above, this should be layered with different creatives and CTAs depending on how many times someone has visited your site. “Find out more” for example may be appropriate for a first touch, whereas “sign up for an open day” would be a lower funnel message. 

It is possible, levels of traffic depending, to go further than this and create specific messaging and/or creatives for audiences depending on which pages they’ve visited (science degrees for example, or humanities subjects).


Have you got any other top tips for universities trying to increase their recruitment numbers? Or are you responsible for marketing and want to find out more? Get in touch today.

Amy Hawkins
About Amy Hawkins

Amy joined Clicteq in March 2019 as a Paid Search Account Manager. She has a wealth of experience in managing enterprise retail and lead generation paid search accounts including BMW, Hive, Secret Escapes and iRobot.

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