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Higher Education Marketing in the Age of Hypertargeting

Hypertargeting through social media allows higher education institutions to reach individuals most likely to purchase their product for a fraction of the cost of traditional marketing methods.

Working for a public university has to be one of the most rewarding careers. It can also be one of the most frustrating, especially if you work in communications or marketing. Dwindling budgets have left little for communications shops and (I’m sure many public and non-profit university folks can relate to this) advertising budgets are far from plentiful.

To add to this, a recent report from U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) revealed that public and non-profit institutions are being outspent 23-to-1 by for-profit institutions in marketing[1]. Those are some tough odds to begin with, but when you consider that for-profits are increasingly targeting the small but valuable older adult audience, the odds can seem almost insurmountable[2].A few years ago, I would have agreed, but then my mind was opened up to social media advertising.

A few months back, I was having lunch with a friend of mine who manages the digital marketing team for a major agency here in Tallahassee, Fla., and we got on the topic of Facebook advertising. I hadn’t explored this area of social media much because of the whole ‘budget’ thing. To add to that, social media is such a new outlet that risk can automatically outweigh reward in the minds of those who must dole out these precious funds.

Then my friend began to explain a recent campaign of his. For one month, his team generated and ran over 1,000 unique ads targeted at ridiculously specific audiences that would appear in news feeds and advertising columns in specific user scenarios. They would then alter, increase or decrease the appearance of specific ads based on who out there was engaging with what, and when. The results were phenomenal.

My first reaction was jealousy. How lucky is he to have clients with large amounts of money to spend and a dedicated team to manage such a large campaign. And then he informed me that the client was a department at my very own university.

My second reaction was a mix of amazement and confusion. As the discussion went on, he explained that social media opens up a whole new way of thinking about marketing and advertising. The buzzword associated with this new approach: hypertargeting.

Coined by the team at MySpace, but available in some form or fashion on almost all major social networking sites, hypertargeting refers to the ability to target highly segmented, niche audiences based on the information and interests people volunteer in their social networking profiles[3]. The resulting increase in effectiveness and efficiency has led some to predict the end of “old-school” marketing tactics like audience buying and other broad targeting methods[4].

The logic is hard to deny. With the old way (and I am generalizing quite a bit here), you could spend your money on an expensive television ad or billboard targeting adults between 35 and 50 in Northwest Florida who watch day-time news shows or drive by an elementary school. With hyper-targeting, you could spend your money on a range of relatively inexpensive ads targeting much smaller age groups in Tallahassee, Panama City, and Destin that have children, are interested in entrepreneurship and small business ownership, and have already “liked” a for-profit university’s online MBA program. And that’s just scratching the surface of the vast amount of variables you can incorporate. You can then create different messaging for each segment, like one for stay-at-home moms and another for working moms who have a bachelor’s degree in business. Using built-in analytics, you can test the effectiveness of those messages and change them up mid-campaign. In one case study, St. Ambrose University ran a two-month campaign that appeared 45 million times and garnered 8,000 new visitors to their Facebook page, all at a total cost of $1.15 per click[5].

When you have less, the key is to do more with it. The rise of online and social media advertising has opened up new opportunities for reaching prospective students at a fraction of the cost of traditional marketing. For-profits already have an edge in this space, but many traditional colleges and universities are jumping on board and using these tactics to their benefit in order to compete[6]. Adults are the fastest growing user population on social networking sites, and they’re growing more engaged by the day[7]. The question is, are you willing to cut back on your tried-and-true tactics and compete for them in this new age of social media marketing?

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[1] Dylan Matthews. “For-profit college, in one infographic” The Washington Post, August 9, 2012, Washington Post on the Web, accessed October 10, 2012 from

[2] National Center for Education Statistics, “Students Attending For-Profit Postsecondary Institutions: Demographics, Enrollment, Characteristics and 6-Year Outcomes,” NCES website

[3] Harry Gold, “Hypertargeting Registered Users,” December 8, 2009, available from ClickZ

[4] “Audience Targeting is Dead. Long Live Hyper-Targeting!” January 2012, available from Crowd Science

[5] Shane Shanks, “Status Update: Using Facebook to You’re your Admissions Goals,” July 2011, available from Zehno

[6] Alex Palmer. “Nonprofit colleges and universities develop for-profit marketing tactics” Direct Marketing News, July 1, 2012, accessed October 10, 2012 from

[7] Mary Madden, Kathryn Zuckuhr, “65% of online adults use social networking sites,” August 26, 2011, available from Pew Internet

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