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Seven Things to Consider When Spending Your Surprise Year-End Budget Surplus on Google Ads

Many college and university higher ed marketers work with a December 31st year-end and are now looking at wrapping up their 2018 budgets. If you are lucky enough to have a bit of unspent money, (or maybe you’ve been given someone else’s leftover money) and you have to spend it in 2018, you are likely scrambling to figure out where to place it to most positively impact your marketing, leads generation and revenues. One good candidate for last-minute marketing mix spend is Google Ads, (formerly known as Adwords), pay-per-click advertising.

* surprise budget

It would seem pretty straightforward, at least in principle, to just bump up the budgets on your existing campaigns. But as usual, to do it well, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.

If considering spending your surplus on PPC, here are seven important things to consider:

  1. This will sound way too simple to even mention but it is important. It is really important. Make sure you understand the performance of your existing campaigns. Don’t assume, don’t rely on others to do the work on this for you. If you don’t know definitively where your best performance is coming from, (ie by keywords, which ads, by cost metrics, by geography, by type ie remarketing, etc) you must spend some quality time reviewing the numbers to get caught up. Then proceed. The ROI of your surprise budget investment depends on it!
  2. Next, determine if the high ROI campaigns have any headroom to take on increased budget. A lot of people believe they can just add money in and your campaigns with scale up accordingly. That may or may not work. Google is very good at nudging you along to spend more money in a campaign if there is sufficient traffic and click thru. You may already be “maxed” out in terms of headroom to expand efficiently. If this is the case you will need to develop alternative tactics on where and how to direct the spend.
  3. To simplify and/or optimize your campaigns, your agency or a staffer may have things set up with your campaigns so that your bidding is run by Google Ads AI and machine learning algorithms.  The growing consensus from the Adwords pros is that the Google Ads AI now performs at least as well or better than the average human PPC specialist. (Check out this video if you are interested in more on Google AI bidding.) If that is the case be aware that the Google Ads algorithm may simply not cooperate with you to spend this extras budget in the short term. The AI operates “in your best interests” and if it decides it can’t optimize your increased budget, according to its rules, it simply won’t spend it until it it figures out how to do it cost effectively.
  4. Or, assuming you are controlling your campaigns manually, you will be trying to optimize the spend to get the max ROI. That probably means you’ll have a target CPC (Cost per Click ), a target CPA, ( Cost per Action ) and a target CTS  (Conversion To Student ) rate in mind for your typical search campaigns that if you can hit, will work for you. If you can put your new budget into new retargeting campaigns that’s probably a great investment, retargeting typically produces strong results, often better than search campaigns. Alternatively, you may be limited to expanding into display, (aka content network), campaigns. Be very careful with display campaigns. They have their place, typically running at lower CPCs, lower CPAs, but CTS rate can be very low. I personally have had very little success turning display generated leads into students. I would stay away from display if at all possible.
  5. Don’t forget about the effect of seasonality in PPC advertising. December typically has lower search volumes so the traffic pool is smaller that the average month. This is another reason why there may not be a lot of headroom to add budget to your campaigns. But the good news is that December is also generally less competitive because many, if not most, higher ed institutions believe that it is a less optimal time to advertise. My experience with using Google Ads PPC in December has been the opposite. Yes, activity levels and lead production overall can drop but the good news is that the lead quality (or likelihood to convert to student) are higher. I am not sure exactly why this is but my read on it is that people who are looking in December are generally more serious about getting started at something, soon.
  6. Check to see if your campaigns include Google Search Partners, (for more info on Search Partners check out this post). They offer a way to increase your search volume, and potential lead volume but recognize that they also typically convert at a lower rate than Google search generated leads.
  7. So, lets assume your additional spend has been a great success and generated a whole bunch of new leads and hopefully even a few registrations. Now you have to followup the leads and convert them. Your lead followup system must be able to scale up accordingly to handle this increased volume of opportunity. Make sure you plan for this “good-to-have” problem, and maintain your highest standard of followup (ie response time) or your normal conversion to student rates may be in jeopardy.

Please don’t get me wrong from all the hedging above. I am actually a really big fan of Google Ads based PPC lead generation. It works well, if based on well thought out campaign strategy, tactics and execution. The risk is that the channels and tactics that often end up being used in this add-on budget kind of scenario typically produce leads of lower quality. Just be careful to proceed with caution, not to over-promise results, and you’ll likely be happy with the outcome.

From your experience, would you add any other considerations to this list? Or would you default to a completely different marketing channel or tactic?