Harnessing the Power of Facebook Advertising

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No one denies the growing influence of Facebook. With well over 500 million users, the website’s advertisements are also growing in reach across the internet—in fact, they comprise fully one-third of all ads that web users check out. Yet few marketers in higher education have yet to capitalize on this new trend for the benefit of their schools.

New Orleans-based Knud Berthelson, a strategic consulting and social media specialist who has run an extensive number of successful Facebook ad campaigns, recently shared with Higher Ed Live a wealth of information on how colleges and universities can best take advantage of Facebook advertising. “There’s just a whole world of opportunities out there,” he says.

When a user logs on to Facebook, running down the right side of the screen are four or five pictures with a brief descriptor for each. Clicking on one of these links the viewer to a more in-depth ad; these ads are Facebook’s main source of revenue. Unlike Google AdWords, which target people who are actively searching for a specific word or phrase, advertisers on Facebook can target specific audiences on the site based on viewers’ particular interests, their geographic location, their education level and other specifics.

For example, Berthelson’s own efforts include ads for a new Energy Masters program at Tulane University that recently targeted its alumni in the energy industry near the Gulf of Mexico. Another campaign for Tulane’s MBA program focused on alumni and prospective graduates, and connects with a Tumblr blog that current MBA students manage. Berthelson also helped St. Ambrose University target high school students in the Chicago area. Each effort, he says, has generated considerable buzz around its respective program.

Budgeting for Facebook ad campaigns varies greatly, depending upon the size of a school’s intended audience, the number of ads used, and the amount of traffic the ads generate. A school might launch a number of similar ads to different intended audiences that vary slightly in appearance or message; the institution can then examine the results and redirect its resources accordingly. Typically, targeting a school’s own alumni is rather inexpensive, since the audience is quite limited.

A Facebook ad campaign should fit into a larger marketing strategy with specific, predetermined goals, depending upon what individual schools are hoping to achieve. Some might target prospective, current, or former students; some might want to build a critical mass and share information in a community on Facebook itself; others might want to steer web traffic to a school’s own website.

Setting up an ad and defining which groups to target is technically not very difficult, but enlisting professional assistance might help make a school’s targeting more effective and keep costs down. “[One] reason you want to build a big following immediately of alums and others is the ability to target the friends of people who already ‘Like’ your page,” Berthelson explains. Targeting people who have given certain information to Facebook allows those people to share a school’s information with friends of their own.

Berthelson describes various strategies for Facebook advertising. Some schools create a “fan” page on the website and direct users to it, wherein they share information about the school. Others prefer ads that direct users to an institution’s own website. Since more users seem willing to visit a fan page than to wade through a school’s website directly, a school might want to spend some time building out its fan page, creating custom tabs that could include videos, links to other sites, or an email form through which a user might contact the institution. A school might also consider integrating a Facebook “like” widget in its own web page.

Using Sponsored Stories, a new type of Facebook advertisement, a school can place an ad on its fan page based on what users mention, talk about, or “like” on the school’s site. These particular ads have a 46% higher “click-through” rate than other Facebook ads. “Facebook is always changing—that’s one of the reasons why you should probably use professionals,” to maintain a fan page, Berthelson advises.

How does a college or university evaluate the success of an ad campaign, or even of specific ads within that campaign? “Whether [ads] go offsite or stay on Facebook, you get great data,” Berthelson points out. Facebook itself offers some very good analytical reports, having recently revised their own dashboard design. If an institution is directing viewers instead to its own website, Google Analytics can help show the effectiveness of that effort. The school can use that information, in turn, to further target specific groups that are responding to ads more readily.

“Facebook ads are an amazing tool,” Berthelson summarizes, while stressing they provide one more option in any school’s broad array of marketing strategies. “You have an amazing potential to reach a lot of people—existing students, alums, prospective students, and also [those] near the school in your local community, just building your brand as an institution.”

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