KPIs for Higher Ed Admission Advertising

The title of this post could have been “17 must-have metrics you need to be measuring that matter”. That’s the kind of result you find when looking for KPIs. This post will hopefully clear up why picking KPIs first is imperfect (but provides a few, to provide a basic understanding).

If your job has to do with website or content management, you’ve probably (hopefully) been asked to provide some measure of your or your organization’s performance. Some platforms provide some built-in basics (’s post-views and other generic dashboards), but you’re likely (hopefully) looking beyond the basics. This not a com

I first started actually using Google Analytics when I was blogging for my alma mater in 2008, what was then called “Advanced Segmentation” and Custom Reports were introduced. Then when I shared information it really wasn’t much.

Hopefully you’ll forgive me. In seven years the web analytics industry has undergone a tremendous transformation. Google Analytics was released in 2005 and has become the most popular analytics software among top websites on the internet and over 27,000,000 sites are using it.

Still, despite the massive increase in usage, not everybody “using” analytics has a real understanding the importance of measuring what matters.

As you can see in this screenshot, there are a great many claims on what metrics you need to/should be using. Let’s take a step back though. Back in 2008, experts like Avinash Kaushik cautioned people that “Analyzing data in aggregate is a crime.” It is still being done by companies to this day.

Digital Marketing and Measurement

Whenever there is knowledge that’s not self-evident and there’s money to be made in ‘expertise’, you tend to see a lot of quick answers. True, for many, there are some key ideas and commonly used KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), and I’ll cover them below.

The problem with starting with the data or the tool is that you’re not putting meaningful thought into what objectively measures success or failure. Here I need to include some high-level process that’s crucial to having an effective model in place. The following is from Avinash’s aptly-named Occam’s Razor website:

“Step one is to force us to identify the business objectives upfront and set the broadest parameters for the work we are doing….

Step two is to identify crisp goals for each business objective….

Step three is to write down the key performance indicators….

Step four is to set the parameters for success upfront by identifying targets for each KPI….

Step five, finally, is to identify the segments of people / behavior / outcomes that we’ll analyze to understand why we succeed or failed.”

Many start with the behavior/outcomes first and seem to have some web data spin-off of shiny toy syndrome. Adopting some magical web metrics isn’t going to lead to optimal decision-making. Figuring out what’s important to you and then figuring out what most accurately measures that is a better process.

That being said, that’s not a good answer if you need to provide an web/digital update by tomorrow. Here’s a simplified guide to identifying some key metrics/measures of success you can look at in order to explain the outcomes of different marketing efforts (some of this advice assumes you’re in independent school or higher ed admission marketing but can be used more broadly). Specifically, this post looks at paid advertising numbers that are often used with other web metrics (time on page, bounce rate, conversions..more on how to connect the two later).

Digital Advertising using Google AdWords

Managing digital advertising (AdWords, in particular) is a service that some outsource to different vendors, which may or may not understand your specific situation and consequently may not have AdWords campaigns optimized to meet your goals. Conversely, if your vendor understands your business objectives, how the various ad options help you reach them, and what results are expected, it may be more cost-effective for you to let a vendor do the technical work of implementing that plan.

Let’s say you have the collateral together (all the images/copy you need) for a specific campaign, and know how much money you’re willing to spend over which time period. For simplicity’s sake, let’s also say that your ultimate goal is an x% increase in event registrations compared to the same time last year. Having those basic decisions made helps the data can help sharpen the focus of whoever is planning or analyzing the success of a campaign. Below are some columns you’ll see across different ad platforms. The availability and specific definitions of these metrics may differ, but the primary concepts carry across platforms. The following list are a few (not all) of the important metrics you’ll likely to include when reporting on AdWords effectiveness.

Impressions: The number of times your ad was served. For brand-building campaigns, this is the important measure (and one can often optimize for impressions and pay per thousand impressions). This should not be confused with the number of times your ad was viewable. Viewable ads are bid on with the vCPM option. For campaigns made for event registrations (or form completions, etc), this number in isolation is not the most useful.

Clicks/CTR: I prefer to discuss these together because clicks (simply the number of legitimate (however your platform defines that) an ad got can be put into context with the clickthrough rate (CTR). CTR is the number of clicks divided by the number of impressions and can be used to gauge how well your ads are doing/whether the audience you chose finds your ad useful/relevant. In AdWords this is important because it contributes to your keyword’s expected CTR (which is a component of Quality Score).

Average CPC: The amount paid for your ad divided by the number of clicks.

Average Position (AdWords): Where your ads rank compared to other advertisers. If your/your competitor’s quality score are the same, you’ll have to bid higher to place higher than that advertiser.

Conversions: The number of times an ad led someone to an action you find valuable (ex. event registration.

Cost per conversion: The total you spent on an ad divided by the number of conversions.

Depending on the Bidding Strategy you choose (set at the campaign level), you may not need to focus on some of the above. For example, if you choose to focus on clicks, you’ll bid on clicks, whereas if you focus on conversions you’ll pay per acquisition (CPA).

Putting it all together

Many of the above metrics are the same of similar when managing or reporting on Facebook and Twitter ads. While I haven’t seen a perfect way to combine all of one’s advertising and the result in one place, some companies are offering paid add-ons (HubSpot) or standalone services (AdTaxi) that aim to do just that. While not the holy grail of digital advertising (a clear ROI), an integrated part of online advertising that everyone should consider is to use UTM parameters on all of your ads to measure what your paid visitors do once they get to your website, in detail, compared to other channels. By linking Google Analytics and AdWords, those details carry over (and allow you to see more information in AdWords as well). If you put in the work, you can track the effectiveness of individual Facebook and Twitter ads. Unless you’re using  a 3rd party service this will involve work on the Power Editor (easier than the regular ads manager) and

Web measurement is an imperfect art/science regardless of which service you use, but hopefully the above has given you an understanding of some of the more important metrics (and an understanding you should start with a discussion about your goals before picking numbers).

AdWords Search Certification

If you know anything about paid digital advertising, you likely know Google accounts for the vast majority (78%) of US search ad revenue. If you are doing paid search, you’re likely running AdWords.

I recently passed the Search Advertising exam (again). It’s a pretty thorough exam covering the following areas:

  • Consumer behavior and the impact of search
    • Trends and opportunities
    • Campaign types
    • Account organization
    • Ad formats
    • Text and mobile ads
    • Keyword matching options
    • Negative keywords
    • Building a keyword list
    • Targeting geo locations
    • Budgeting
      • Bid strategies
      • Manual CPC
      • ECPC
      • Bid adjustments
      • Automated bidding
      • Maximize Clicks
      • Target Search Page Location
      • Target CPA
      • Target outranking share
      • Target ROAS
      • Daily vs. monthly budget (30.4 times daily, etc)
    • Managing campaigns
      • Scheduling, rotation & frequency capping
      • Different types of URLs
      • Conversion tracking
      • Remarketing for search ads
      • Multiple accounts and bulk changes (AdWords manager accounts and AdWords Editor)
    • Measurement
      • Finding insights
      • Evaluating performance
      • Clicks and impressions (and impression share)
      • Conversions and ROI
    • Reporting
      • Search terms report
      • Paid and organic search results
      • Attribution reports


AdWords Display Certification

I recently passed earned Google’s AdWords Display Certification. While Facebook leads in display advertising (and has its own ad platform LMS I’ve also used), the massive scale, measurable performance, contextual engine for ad placements, and targeting options make it incredibly valuable.

The AdWords Display Advertising Exam covers the following areas:

  • Google Display Network
    • Breadth and depth
    • Contextual targeting
    • Display Network ad auction
    • Search Network with Display Select/opt-in (JUST SAY NO)
    • AdWords Ad Gallery
    • Bidding on GDN
      • vCPM, ECPC
      • Bid adjustments
      • Automated bidding
      • Dynamic display ads
      • Lightbox ad
    • Targeting
      • Managed placements
      • Targeting by topic
      • Negative keywords
      • Language targeting
      • Ad Scheduling
      • Device targeting
      • Display Planner
      • Audience Interest
      • Similar audiences (similar to Lookalike audience in FB)
      • Demographic targeting
      • Remarketing (including dynamic)
      • Dynamic retargeting
    • Evaluating performance


AdWords Mobile Certification

Most Google searches are on mobile devices. That’s been true for nearly two years now. That means, in addition to the necessity for a mobile user-friendly website, you need to ensure your advertising is optimized for mobile.

While not everyone needs to increase mobile app downloads, businesses need to take advantage of mico-moments (I-Want-to-Know, I-Want-to-Go, I-Want-to-Do, and I-Want-to-Buy).

I recently earned Google’s AdWords Mobile Certification. The Mobile Advertising Exam covers these key topic areas:

  • Consumer behavior and the impact of mobile
  • Mobile trends
  • Changes in mobile decision making
  • Promoting an app
  • Driving calls
  • Increasing online or store sales
  • Building awareness
  • Best Practices
  • Mobile bidding and targeting
    • Mobile bid adjustment, keywords, targeting, flexible bidding (maximize clicks, target search page location, target outranking share, target CPA, enhanced CPC, target return on ad spend), and remarketing
  • Mobile ad details
    • Search network, display network, YouTube
    • Ad extensions
    • Ad formats
    • Mobile display
    • Interstitial/video
    • App promotion
    • App engagement
  • Measurement
    • Conversion actions (website sign ups/purchases, iOS and Android app downloads/actions, phone calls (from ads, calls to a forwarding number on website, and phone clicks on mobile site), and importing offline conversions

AdWords Video Certification

I recently took the time to put my skills and knowledge to the test and passed the AdWords Video Advertising exam.

The test, in combination with AdWords Fundamentals, leads to the AdWords Video Certification.

While I can’t share specifics, the test covers these broad areas (with a few specifics, to give you an idea of context). Some require basic math skills and general paid digital advertising knowledge.


  • Benefits of advertising on YouTube
  • YouTube and audience engagement
  • TrueView in-stream ads (Technical details including when to use, how you’re charged, and where they appear)
  • Targeting options:
    • Keyword contextual targeting
    • Demographic
    • Topics
    • Affinity audiences
    • Custom affinity audiences
    • In-market audiences
    • Placements
    • Video Remarketing
  • TrueView video campaigns
    • Video campaign type:
      • Supports TrueView video ad formats, CPV, and Target CPA bidding strategies
    • Benefits of TrueView video ads
      • TrueView in-stream ads
        • When to use
        • How does it work?
        • Where can the ads appear?
        • How will I be charged?
      • Trueview video discovery ads
        • When to use
        • How does it work?
        • Where can the ads appear?
        • How will I be charged?
  • Optimizing video campaigns
    • Making the most of CPV (cost-per-view)
    • Making the most of CTR
    • Narrowing targeting
    • Improving bidding
    • CTA Overlays
    • Best Practices for video ads
    • Measuring performance
      • Display ad mouseover
      • Display ad interactions
      • Video play per quartile
      • Tracking viewer conversions
    • Measuring brand awareness
      • Impressions
      • Engagement
      • Reach/Frequency
    • YouTube Analytics

Advanced AdWords Knowledge + Experience (LunaMetrics AdWords 201)

Information sharing as a general rule

As you may have noticed, I’ve started blogging again. I think it’s crucially important in a relatively collaborative field like higher ed. Nearly six years ago I reached out to Seth Odell (formerly of SNHU and UCLA, now at National University) when he was running Higher Ed Live and asked for advice and he answered on air that, in essence,

  • Starting out and getting your foot in the door in higher ed marketing is difficult
  • If you really want to excel, then (especially starting out) it needs to be more than a 9 am – 5 pm gig
    • You need to get out of work and learn as much as you can and connect with others in the community
    • Once you’re in, you’re in and people are open and supportive (via conference and other information sharing).

The implication of all that was, once you’re “in” and you have some knowledge or experience to share, that you should share it. Learning from Seth and others really inspired me to start working in the field so as soon as I could, I started to pay it forward. I presented about three years ago on some basic concepts related to Google Analytics (and at the time, I was shocked at the positive feedback from folks).

To the extent possible, I’ve given back in the form of answering questions I had along the way, like “What goes into a web/analytics report for higher ed?” and sharing the configuration of a basic admissions inquiry dashboard through the Google Analytics Solutions Gallery.

The limits of information-sharing: giving paid search advice to the competition

As I’ve progressed in my career, though, the ratio of “things I can share” to “things I know” has decreased in some areas. One of those areas is in regards to digital advertising. While there is an abundance of online resources and training available, given the direct competition for programs, on-campus, but especially for online degree programs which can compete nationwide for the same students, those in the know aren’t as open about sharing their lessons learned.

There are tools available to learn about what your competitors are doing. These include built-in tools like the Auction Insights report (which only shows how you’re stacking up to your competitors on keywords you’re already bidding on), Keyword Planner (which you can use to scrape your competitors’ websites for keyword ideas) and paid tools like SEMrush and SpyFu to essentially spy on what your competitors are doing in regards to PPC.

Kick it up a notch: take AdWords 201 by LunaMetrics

For those who need a higher level of training, there is LunaMetrics (which also teaches advanced Google Analytics courses). They offer beginner courses but also a 201 course rather than recaps some basic success metrics and settings, is a deep dive into hands-on implementation.

The course is a masterclass on, really, a snapshot of how AdWords works at the time (it’s constantly changing). The course begins with how AdWords assists in moving people through the sales funnel before digging into more complicated and useful metrics like acquisition, conversion, and attribution. The course also covers setting up AdWords filters to automate some of the no-regrets decisions you can allow AdWords to make for you (pausing high cost, no conversion keywords, for a start). It digs into the tools for bigger campaigns like adding and managing user-defined dimensions.

The course also covers setting up AdWords filters to automate some of the no-regrets decisions you can allow AdWords to make for you (pausing high cost, no conversion keywords, for a start). It digs into the tools for bigger campaigns like adding and managing user-defined dimensions.

It’s an intensive dive into Metrics & Reports, Analysis Features (including AdWords/Analytics integrations), Advanced Analysis, Campaign Management, Tracking Campaign Segmentation, Automation, and (of course) remarketing.

My course was taught by Nick Eppinger, who specializes in paid search advertising and SEO. Even if you’re familiar with AdWords, I can’t recommend it AdWords 201 by LunaMetrics highly enough.

So, while I’m ramping up to outdo my previous performance (sorry, top-level only: “Surpassed budgeted enrollment goals for the executive coaching program by 58% by effectively managing AdWords“), don’t expect any helpful advice here other than, go ask Google.

Poynter ACES Certificate in Editing

Even before I became responsible for overseeing a unit-wide content strategy I was involved in extensive copywriting and editing. I had taken one traditional and one web writing course as part of my communications master’s degree, but I felt a need to learn more about the logistics of copywriting and working with others.

There are dozens of courses available on this topic but I wanted to learn from instructors with extensive experience in journalistic copyediting. Poynter News University seemed like the perfect fit.

I first heard of Poynter (a journalism news website and training provider) after one of their folks reached out to me after they became interested in why I made NPR’s Facebook page a lifetime ago.

The Poynter ACES (American Copy Editors Society) certificate in Editing consists of a number of courses that, together, provide the standards, skills, and best practices of editing. The specific courses are listed below. I highly recommend the certificate for those starting out in copyediting (and those, like me, who might need a refresher to this day).

HubSpot Email Marketing Certification

In addition to working hands on with HubSpot’s marketing automation platform in the past and demonstrating a clear return on investment of using the platform effectively, I’ve also begun adopting best practices in email marketing to build a documentation as part of our academic unit’s content strategy for the web.

HubSpot’s free course (a pretty effective inbound marketing effort to entice students to use their product in and of itself) covers the importance of building an email strategy for your organization, lifecycle marketing, contact management and segmentation, components of a high-performing email, email design and functionality, deliverability, lead nurturing, email analytics, and optimization/testing.

As you know, there’s a lot more to email marketing than making something look nice and hitting send. As we build in the above aspects into our email planning and execution, I think we’ll see the dividends in an improved engagement and conversion metrics.

Note: It can be difficult to highlight or share my thoughts on efforts that are largely internal and gradual, but I’m hopeful that one day I’ll be able to share the 10,000-foot overview of the effects of our combined email marketing effects as I did previously using inbound marketing methods.

Web and Social Media Writing for Higher Ed

Similar to my need to take the Advanced Web Analytics for Higher Ed course, I also took the Web and Social Media Writing for Higher Ed course offered by Higher Ed Experts and taught by Sofia Tokar of the University of Rochester.

As I wrote for the course alumni testimonials section,

This course is a terrific way for web writers (and their supervisors) to improve their understanding of web writing best practices in the context of writing for higher ed websites and digital/social media marketing. This course will provide you with the foundation to produce actionable guidelines and templates for web writers to make their web writing more engaging and more consistent.

The learning objectives encompass basic and more advanced ways to adjust to writing for online audiences for higher ed.

Learning objectives for the course included

  • Write using a conversational style
  • Organize online writing effectively
  • Create effective microcontent, including tweets and headlines
  • Optimize content for mobile devices
  • Use lists and tables to make writing easier to scan
  • Use images, video, and infographics as part of your content
  • Optimize a page for search engines
  • Create an effective program page that will bring in search traffic
  • Create a user persona that aids in web writing
  • Define an appropriate tone for a higher ed website
  • Use basic story techniques in web writing
  • Create content optimized for sharing on social media
  • Explain ways to apply content strategy techniques to create better writing across a website.
  • Apply content strategy tools to social media content
  • Use web analytics to assess the quality of web writing

Advanced Web Analytics for Higher Ed

I realize I’ve been quite delayed in updating folks on what I’ve been up to. One of the many things I’ve prioritized since my promotion to officially managing the marketing office is working to ensure my staff and I stay informed of changes in the industry and tools that enable us to do our jobs. One of those has been the relatively low-cost (compared to conferences and full-time courses) Advanced Web Analytics for Higher Ed provided by Higher Ed Experts and taught by Bentley University’s Director of Digital Marketing, Joshua Dodson.

As I noted on their impressive roster of course alumni testimonials,

This course is a must for higher ed marketers. Joshua expertly explains key concepts for students to gain a more thorough understanding of Google Analytics and its more insight-producing functionalities.

I had already taken an advanced Google Analytics course through LunaMetrics and passed the GA Individual Qualification and am/have been certified in using the Google Analytics (and AdWords) for years now, but this course have hands-on advice on how to make the most of the tool for large institutions (including specific ways to mitigate and overcome sampling aside from what’s publicly available).