Thought Leadership
Getting Educated: Performance-Based Marketing for Not-For-Profit Colleges


Justin Estrada
Media Planner (Now Associate Director, Digital Media @ Empower MediaMarketing)

Justin is a Media Planner at Hobsons in Cincinnati, OH where he has been for 2 years. He develops media strategy across all of Hobsons clients and manages campaign implementation. Before working at Hobsons, Justin was a Media Planner at McKinney, where he was a Digital Media Planner on clients like CenturyLink, Mizuno and Nationwide Insurance.


For those of us that aren’t familiar with Hobsons, tell us a little about what you guys do and some of the clients that you represent.

Hobsons is the world’s leader in connecting learning to life. We partner with more than 10,000 schools, colleges, and universities to better prepare students for success. Our division, Enrollment Management Services (EMS) focuses specifically on partnering with institutions to attract potential students to their online programs and adult degree programs. For some clients, that work extends to working with the students through to enrollment and on to graduation. We continue to focus on driving highly qualified leads at the lowest possible price for all of our clients.


So it sounds like CPL is really the most important metric that you optimize against. Being heavily performance-based, what are some of the key challenges you face today?

CPL is certainly an important metric that we use to make sure our clients are getting the best return on their investment. I would say that the biggest challenge we face is driving quality leads at scale. These days it’s easy to go out and buy names and lower your CPL, but we know that that tactic doesn’t win us many fans in the Enrollment office. So while CPL at a high level is really important, looking at Cost per Application and Cost per Enrollment really show how qualified those leads are. With the level of competition in the Education sector being what it is, we are always looking for a new way to reach potential students efficiently.

Additionally, for our clients that partner with us through the student lifecycle, we measure our success on the number of students that complete their educational goals. With online programs, those goals can vary from completing one course, to earning a certificate, to earning a degree.


Other than the major search engines, and the Google Display Network, what are some other types of partners that you typically work with?

We have worked with some performance marketers, and have had some great success in social media. We’ve tested a few DSP’s and Ad Networks, and have seen some promising results across several of our campaigns.


Do you ever work with these other partners on a CPL basis? If so, what type of view-through attribution do you give them?

Some of our Performance Marketing partners have been able to provide us with CPL pricing, but fewer and fewer of them are still willing to offer this model. For almost all of our partners we offer a U-shaped attribution model, but it’s much more difficult to do that for CPL buys since we are relying on them capture students closer to the bottom of the funnel.


Being so heavily performance and last-click oriented, what are some ways in which you ‘fill the funnel’? How do you track the effectiveness of these upper funnel partners?

For many of our clients we rely heavily on traditional media efforts to generate the initial awareness and start the potential student down the funnel. Working with our clients, we can develop a multi-channel marketing approach that works with the specific market dynamics of that university. From a digital perspective, we use social media and targeted display to work the potential student further down the funnel where we rely heavily on search to complete the process. As stated above, for our digital partners we utilize a U-shaped attribution model, giving the most credit to the first touch and the last touch.


Since you are capturing leads for the institutions you represent, are there any tactics you use for conversion rate optimization?

A lot of what we do to optimize conversion rate happens on the backend, on our microsites. Obviously creative optimization makes a huge difference in improving conversion, but we spend a lot of time improving our landing pages. We test and optimize everything from the CTA to the length of the lead form and focus in on the combinations that produce the highest conversion rate for the client.


What are some deeper level metrics that you track, beyond Cost-per-Lead? What sort of feedback loops do you use to track these deeper level KPIs?

As I mentioned earlier, we really like to look at Cost per Application as well as Cost per Enrollment to gauge the true effectiveness of a partner. We are also looking at Lead to Application and Lead to Enrollment percentages in an effort to benchmark results off of Agency averages. Unfortunately it’s difficult to share complete data with our partners, because it involves Personally Identifiable Information (PII). However, we can share the raw number of applications or enrollments they have driven. We can also provide the timestamp for the lead that converted to an enrollment and allow them to track that back. Not all clients can do that, so it’s definitely a challenge we face when working with some clients.


How have other large platforms like Facebook, or Twitter worked for you?

Fairly well. The data that Facebook makes available to its advertising partners really takes a lot of the guess work out of attempting to reach the right audience. One thing that has been interesting to watch is how the acquisition of Atlas has improved not only the reporting on Facebook, but also their ability to target similar users.

Twitter has been an interesting test for us, and has been a real eye opener in terms of providing some perspective on how those users interact with advertising on the platform. Generally we see a high level of interaction with the ads, and not surprisingly a majority of that interaction takes place in the Twitter mobile app. The main downfall with those interactions is that because they are happening on mobile, we aren’t able to track them past that interaction. Not knowing how or if users we make contact with at the top of the funnel move through to conversion, makes it tough to quantify the value of any partner that drives a high level of mobile traffic.


How has the shift to mobile on some of these major platforms changed the way you execute campaigns?

It’s been very interesting to watch as the audience has shifted from desktop to mobile. For a while there it felt like every year was “The Year of Mobile,” but I think marketers are finally starting to see that come through in the data. A majority of the traffic being driven by our Social partners is coming from their mobile apps. I wouldn’t say that it’s a big surprise, but we have changed how we talk about those partners. We’ve stopped calling it social, and started calling it mobile because that’s ultimately how we should be thinking about the traffic it drives.


It seems like there are a lot of not-for-profit, and also for-profit universities coming online. How has this affected your marketing efforts?

It has certainly become more competitive. A few years ago there were fewer not-for profit universities offering online courses. Now just about every public and private institution offers some portion of the course catalog online. On one hand this is great for the institution because they can reach out to a more national audience, but on the other hand you can’t just open the front door and expect students to walk in. Students have more choices than ever before, and that’s great! It just puts the onus on us as marketers to provide them with enough information to make an informed decision.


Lastly, what do you see as the future of university marketing? Are some of your clients starting to think about attracting students on a global level?

We have only recently had clients ask us to start marketing globally, but there are several institutions that have been marketing to international students for several years. There is certainly a lot of potential to grow internationally, and I expect that we will start to see more and more clients looking for those types of opportunities. As targeting has gotten better we have seen more universities turn to those display partners that can efficiently reach their target audience. I think the next step will be an overall improvement in creative that allows universities to speak specifically to the students based on their motivational factors. There are several instances of this already occurring in other verticals, and I think that it’s only a matter of time before Higher Education utilizes this tactic as well.



Hobsons is the world’s leader in connecting learning to life. Through our unique student success platform, we help more than 12 million students around the globe identify their strengths, explore careers, create academic plans, and find the right college match. We partner with more than 10,000 schools, colleges, and universities to better prepare students for success.

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