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3 Signs your higher education marketing agency is wasting your budget.

Much like universities, digital marketing agencies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are elite and expensive, others are specialized and provide one specific area of expertise. Regardless of how long you have worked with your current paid media partner, now may be a good time to see if it’s worth looking for someone new or bringing the work in-house.

Contrary to popular belief you don’t need to become an expert in digital marketing and paid advertising in order to manage your paid media confidently. The truth is most universities are playing catch-up when it comes to digital marketing.

Learning the basics of web analytics and paid media can help you grow enrollments, save your marketing budget, and avoid ad fraud and misuse.

According to Statista, ad fraud costs companies more than $65B annually. Or in other words, more than half of all advertising spend globally is spent fraudulently. The United States and Canada are the most likely places to fall victim to ad fraud.

For digital marketers, it means you have to know what to look for when shopping for an agency partner. Especially if your job or the success of your next class size is on the line. While most agency partners are easily going to avoid fraud, it doesn’t mean they’re always applying digital marketing best practices. 

Here are three things to look out for when hiring a digital marketing agency.

Is the success of your digital marketing agency measured on impressions?

Digital marketing as a discipline has come a long way in the last decade. While it used to be much harder to measure the effectiveness of a digital marketing campaign, that’s no longer the case. You used to have to use imperfect measurements, like the number of impressions, in order to infer the value of an ad, network, or campaign. Today, you can use pixels to track individual ads, and even ad variations, back to any action taken on your website.

This means that you could run dozens of ads at once, each with a dozen variations, and know which variation is driving the most enrollment inquiries and at what conversion rate. While this is possible today, it doesn’t mean that every agency is applying these best practices for your digital marketing campaigns.

Many agencies rely on outdated marketing practices like only measuring impressions. The problem with measuring impressions today is that it’s all done digitally. So an impression usually means that someone could’ve seen your ad because it appeared somewhere on their screen in a given session. If you’re measuring success based on the quantity of impressions then you’re checking quality at the door.

An example can help illustrate the problem with this type of measurement. Let’s say we have three ads on a single ad network with the following campaign results.

Ad Campaign

Cost Per Thousand Impressions (CPM)


Click through Rate


Click-to-Lead Conversion



Cost Per Application

Old Reliable








Last Year’s








New Ad








Which ad campaign would you choose to scale?

If we were solely looking at cost per thousand impressions (CPM), we’d choose “Old Reliable” since it’s giving us the cheapest impressions. But we’d be wasting a lot of advertising budget on the least effective campaign.

A great digital agency will measure all of the above data points and help guide you in creating a well-optimized enrollment marketing funnel. They’ll of course have CPM data, as well as cost per click (CPC) data, but should be pushing you to make decisions based on cost per engagement (CPE).

According to Wordstream, the average cost per thousand (CPM) for Facebook ads last year was $2 to $30 depending on the campaign objective. If you don’t know what the benchmark is in higher education, or to even ask about benchmarks, then that’s a very scary range to be spending your marketing dollars in.

Note: The average CPC was $0.45 and the average CPM was $5.04 in higher education last year according to AdCostly.

Tracking UTMs?

If you spend time reading marketing blogs, then you’re likely already familiar with UTM parameters.

What is a UTM?

UTM stands for Urchin Tracking Module and it’s not as scary as it sounds. Initially invented by Urchin Software Corporation, later acquired by Google in 2005, they’ve become the standard for tracking clicks across the internet.

Simply put, a UTM is a special URL that you create, or that’s created for you by an advertising platform. The URL has special inputs, called UTM parameters, that help website analytics and advertising networks track where users are coming from and going to on your website.


A decade ago UTM parameters were really only used by special agencies and ad networks internally. But today, using UTM parameters to track the efficiency of ad campaigns is a standard digital marketing best practice.

If your agency isn’t already using UTM parameters to track the most tangible outcomes to your enrollment funnel, as we explained in the previous section, then it’s really time to start looking for a new partner.

How do you know if your agency is using UTM parameters?

It’s easy to find out if your agency is already using UTMs across your ads. Simply click on any of your ads and inspect the resulting URL. If it’s only going to a specific page on your website without any UTM parameters added, then there’s a good chance they aren’t using the most meaningful data to track your marketing spend.

Landing Pages conversion got you down?

Landing pages are named so because they’re the website pages that users typically land on, in this case, after clicking on a paid ad. Landing pages are tricky because sometimes they live on your own website and other times an agency will set up a landing page for you either on a subdomain, like, or on a domain they own.

Your arrangement with this agency and some of the limitations of your own website will help determine how the marketing funnel is set up and tracked. So don’t head for the hills if your landing pages aren’t on your own website. Sometimes it can be easier and just as effective for an agency to use another domain.

The key is to audit the landing page headings, subheadings, body copy and most importantly, the call to action. If your paid media budget is sending traffic to landing pages with an “Apply Now” or “Contact Us” call to action, then you’re missing out on a lot of potential conversions.

The reason you don’t want to use these CTAs is that a prospect who’s just seen an ad for your university isn’t typically ready to convert. They may have never heard of your university before, despite seeing a compelling Facebook ad. The prospective student needs more information in order to be able to make a decision about the next four years of their life.

HALDA research suggests that 80% of institutions need leads to be the product of their digital spend. So this may be a huge missed opportunity in your marketing funnel. 

What call to action should you use?

Instead of going for the close on your very first interaction with a prospective student, instead try offering more personalized information about degree programs, creating a survey to help students decide on a program, or helping them better understand how to pay for college in exchange for their contact information.

In our research, we’ve found that these questions are top of mind for students in the early phase of choosing a college. Not only are these questions more applicable to the phase that your users are in, but it’s also going to improve the conversion rate on average for your landing pages.

Don’t worry about losing leads by making the call-to-action a little softer. Digital marketers will typically use a remarketing funnel to drive leads back to a website they’ve already visited if they’ve failed to convert. 

Asking for an email address in exchange for some value to the student can be a much more effective use of your marketing budget since email is the highest converting marketing channel out there. It also helps you avoid wasting money on ad campaigns that aren’t leading to actual enrollments.

If anything you’ve read about choosing an agency has made you think twice, then check out our list of great agencies for specific types of digital marketing. Always do your homework before working with an agency. If an offer sounds too good to be true it usually is.

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