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These are anxious and uncertain times for our industry. And while there’s no shortage of advice on how to navigate what’s ahead, there’s real concern over how marketing will function within institutions of higher education.

For those in a position to maintain their digital marketing or extend their efforts, this period may provide an opportunity to gain real ground in the market. Marketing science shows us that lower share-of-voice costs can be an inexpensive growth opportunity. As the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising recently advised its members, “When others go quiet, your voice gets louder.”

Last fall, I conducted depth interviews with students regarding their perceptions and attitudes toward social media advertising for a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Digital and Social Media. The goal was to develop a better understanding of where social media advertising may have the most impact throughout the college search process as well as insight into better creative strategies.

Below are three themes that emerged from my research and how these insights can help you develop your next social media advertising campaign.

Quality Counts, Just Not in the Way You Might Think

I don’t think anyone would disagree that creativity and quality matter. Creativity is what gets our advertising seen and attended to. What was surprising was how far students extended their interpretation of a university’s ad. For many, the quality of ads was directly related to their classroom education and a reflection of the overall quality of a college or university. As one student put it, overly staged images (read: stock images) and low-quality ads meant the college or university “wasn’t a quality institution” or didn’t “have qualities worth advertising.”

How to Approach

When campaigns are built on lead generation or increasing an inquiry pool, it’s easy to forget that marketing messages have both direct effects and indirect effects. While we can optimize for clicks or leads, the perceptions of our brand are built beyond an immediate action -- they're built on our creativity and distinct branding. Quality spend on photos and high-impact ad units send important cost signaling messages and act as an extension of our offering, especially when budgets must stretch further. For most students, quality and creativity made them more interested in an institution they had no prior knowledge of. For the long term, creative investment is worth it.

Frequency Matters

There was a delicate line between how much exposure to advertising negatively affected the perception of a college or university and quality of education. In general, consumers respond to ads using both approach and avoidance strategies, depending on perceived value of advertising message and frame of reference. Proximity, prestige, buying stage and frequency all shape students’ perceptions and interpretations toward social media advertising. What remained constant was if a student felt bombarded by one ad in the same channel, they perceived the university to be “lower quality,” “desperate” and similar to for-profits. The same sentiment was expressed if they felt the same ad was “following them” online (i.e., identical ad, different channels).

How to Approach

From the rule of three to the optimal digital impression of seven, there really isn’t a magic number for frequency. Frequency capping can help, but it isn’t always evenly distributed. Over longer campaigns, evolve your message. Move from category benefits to specific brand benefits to increase your audience’s propensity to rationalize their continued interest. Similarly, varying creative across ad types decreases intrusiveness and ad burnout and increases message encoding -- for more effective communications.

Don’t Forget the ‘I’ in Integrated

Students reported that they were much more likely to learn more from -- or interact with -- a social media ad if they had previous knowledge of the institution. This aligns with Andrew Ehrenberg’s Awareness-Trail-Reinforcement model, in that advertising acts as a defensive mechanism, reinforcing existing propensities. This isn’t to say that social media advertising is not effective for lead generation. It suggests that campaign effectiveness is improved when familiarity is built over multiple channels or methods.

How to Approach

In a previous "Call to Action" article, Deborah Maue made the point that this the time when print can really stand out. While students did say they were open to learning more about a college or university based on their social media ads, they responded even more favorably toward print pieces that caught their attention. A solid marketing plan that weaves together both print and digital media plans can enhance the overall impact of our efforts. A creative print piece can increase the likelihood that a prospective student clicks on a social media ad that follows. If there is a large mailing going out, that can be an effective period to ramp up spend and ensure your ads reach the audience with enough frequency.

While this may be a time of much uncertainty, what’s certain is that prospective students are aware and shaping their opinions of colleges and schools through our social media advertising. Uncovering how those perceptions are shaped and how they apply to effective social media advertising will help higher ed marketers navigate the need to extend their reach and creative effort.

Chris Huebner is a digital strategist at Cyberwoven, a digital marketing agency in Columbia, S.C.

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