Let’s Not Shame Higher Ed For Using Facebook Ads

This week The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article that read like an expose. The juicy topic? Colleges using application information to target Facebook Ads to students through its Custom Audiences platform. The official tweet for the story read, “Colleges are engaged in ‘the same practices that these Russian operatives used’ to influence the election.” (Pro tip: when the Chronicle tweets a premium article, you can read it for free for 24 hours.)

I am dismayed that one of our esteemed professional news sources is resorting to click-bait, which is certainly what that tweet amounted to. This has nothing to do with Russia, and by making that connection I fear that some senior administrators who are unfamiliar with the specifics of Facebook advertising will bar their staff from using smart, personalized, and relevant marketing tactics to reach college students where they are, and where their messages are actually received.

Let’s start with some facts.

What Russia Did

According to The Washington Post, the ads that Russia used to polarize the US electorate and influence our election were served “to different groups of users based on their political and demographic characteristics.” This means it used Facebook Core Audiences targeting. Anyone with a credit card can do this, and it doesn’t require any personal information.

This type of advertising is not inherently evil, and has been used by colleges, universities, and most major retailers and small businesses for years. I was doing it on a small college campus in 2011, and openly blogging about it. This tactic is nothing to be ashamed of.

What Colleges and Universities Do

The colleges and universities profiled in the article were using Facebook Custom Audiences, which allows advertisers to use contact lists or website visit information to reach people they have already identified. Specifically, the article honed in on using information from admissions applications or inquiry forms (like email addresses and phone numbers) to target advertising on Facebook.

Similar Tactics Don’t Equal Similar Intent

Russia’s end goal of their Facebook advertising was to polarize a nation. Colleges and universities use Facebook advertising to increase applications, enrollment, alumni donations, and public support. They should not be shamed for using the largest, most targeted media platform available to modern marketers.

Personalization Does Not Violate Privacy

The article also quoted privacy experts that seem to be making assumptions about how students feel about seeing ads in their feed. One expert was quoted as saying that students and parents do not expect to be targeted in this way, and another said that these practices were inappropriate.

The 2017 E-Expectations study found that high school students often click on paid digital ads (up to 61 percent of sophomores), and that Facebook is the second most common site where they will click on them (after Google). About a third of parents that responded to the E-Expectations study are clicking on digital ads. So in this case, I think the quoted privacy experts misspoke. 

There was some truth in the Chronicle’s article about privacy—namely that students should be informed via the campus privacy policy how their information will be used. But most schools do this when they inform students that they are opting in to receive communication about admissions-related information. Facebook ads are communication, just like an email or a postcard. And frankly, because they can be hyper-targeted at a very affordable price, they’re more likely to improve students’ application experiences because they’ll receive the right message at the right time.

Targeted Advertising Serves Students

Higher education is a major investment, and students and their families should make informed choices. While it would be great if prospective students read every page of the websites for their top school choices, and met with multiple staff members and took in-depth campus tours, that doesn’t happen often. With targeted advertising, however, they’re given a glimpse into everyday life on campus through photos, videos, and stories from students and alumni. They’re reminded about next steps so they don’t miss important deadlines. They’re connected with advisors and counselors that can help them make their decision. This is all done in a way that is much more timely and accessible than the traditional brochure and glossy viewbook.

I applaud the higher education marketers that are using all the modern tactics available to them (Facebook Custom Audiences, digital retargeting, geo-fencing, IP targeting, partner advertising, website pixels, etc) to make their budgets stretch further while being more effective and measurable. Not only are they being better stewards of institutional resources and hopefully finding better fit students, but they’re responding to the needs of consumers that grew up with Amazon, Netflix, and Stitch Fix.

Other Voices

Judging by my Twitter feed today, I doubt I’m the only person with thoughts on this topic. As additional pieces are published, I’ll link to them here. Contact me if you’ve got one to add.

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2 Comments on “Let’s Not Shame Higher Ed For Using Facebook Ads

  1. Pingback: NACAC’s “Top recruitment strategies” in 2017 “State of College Admission”… online advertising not included

  2. Pingback: Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter… November 2017

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