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Higher Ed Advertising Part 1: Choosing the Right Social Media Platform
Higher Ed Advertising Part 1: Choosing the Right Social Media Platform


Higher Ed Advertising Part 1: Choosing the Right Social Media Platform

Aug 25, 2020By Daniella Nordin

Choosing the Right Social Media Platform

So you don’t want to advertise on Facebook? You’re not alone. To date, almost 1,000 advertisers are boycotting Facebook over the platform’s need to better police hate speech. Every marketer — including those in higher ed — is asking if it’s worth it.

We all know the benefits of Facebook advertising. Despite controversies over the years, Facebook continues to be the most widely used online platform among U.S. adults. For higher ed, the numbers are a bit different. Facebook no longer dominates the social media landscape for teens (ages 13–17). But for the same demographic, Instagram’s popularity has skyrocketed. (Facebook purchased Instagram in 2012.) Let’s not forget that Facebook also owns WhatsApp, the top messaging platform with 1.6 million users. In fact, Facebook commands the second-largest share of the U.S. digital ad market behind Google.

But as movements such as Black Lives Matter gain momentum, we’re seeing social media play a different role. Facebook doesn’t motivate or organize supporters the way it has in the past. People flee the platform over fake news, hate speech, and privacy violations. And this time, advertisers are paying attention.

If you’re a higher ed marketer, you should pay attention, too.

Your audience — parents, alumni, and donors — pays attention. Approximately 27% of internet users find new brands and products through paid social ads. Students certainly pay attention: They see your ads. They remember them. They engage with them. Ads raise awareness and drive students to your .edu. Ads generate leads, which means they generate applications, which means you meet enrollment goals.

Facebook may be the largest and easiest platform for higher ed advertising, but it isn’t the only one. Higher ed marketers should know their options and choose which platform works best for their institution. (Spoiler alert: It’s most likely a healthy mix of all platforms.)

What are the advertising options?

Seems as if every day there’s a new social media platform popping up — and disappearing. (RIP Vine.) Before diving into any platform, higher ed marketers need to be clear-eyed. Start with a sound strategy that lays out goals and identifies the target audiences you want to reach. Then investigate your options to find the right audience on the right platform.

From Facebook to Snapchat, here are the top* social media advertising options for higher ed marketers.


Not everyone has the luxury of boycotting Facebook. But if you’re going to advertise there, you should be clear about why and about what you can gain from your ad spend. And sometimes you’re going to have to execute a campaign on Facebook. If that’s the case, you should know what Facebook offers.

Here are some fast facts:

Beyond the fact that you can reach some of your target audiences on Facebook, one of the main reasons it is so popular among advertisers is its ad targeting options, which give advertisers tons of control. Advertisers can create custom audiences by uploading their own lists, installing a Facebook pixel on their website, or tracking engagement on their Facebook and Instagram accounts. Your best bet: Focus on a custom audience to increase your chances of reaching the right audience and maximizing your conversion rate.

Facebook also offers its own CPM bidding model, known as oCPM (optimized cost per thousand impressions). It’s easy to use and performs best with a large audience: The larger the audience, the more Facebook’s algorithm can optimize. However, costs add up fairly quickly, and lack of transparency can often make it difficult for advertisers to glean meaningful insights or build audiences on other platforms.

Facebook Analytics is a powerful tool — full stop. It allows marketers to visualize their entire sales funnel, understand the lifetime value of users, and see how organic and paid strategies intersect. Even better, it’s free. Advertisers need only a Facebook page and a tracking pixel. But, like most of Facebook’s features, Analytics can be a bit overwhelming. You need a Business Manager Account. (If you haven’t set one up, we highly, highly recommend that you do!) Once you’re up and running, the possibilities are endless. Pro tip: Ease into things by creating a Funnel report using one of the predefined events to track your user journey.

What does all this mean for higher ed marketers? A little bit of money goes a long way on Facebook. Dip your toes in by targeting your ads to parents or older alumni. If you’re eyeing prospective students, try targeting international students. Pay attention to your audiences and analytics to fully realize if you’re getting a good ROI on your efforts. Lastly, don’t put all your eggs in the Facebook basket. Try experimenting with and investing in other platforms or ramping up your email marketing or inbound strategies.


Over the past few years, Instagram has evolved from a simple photo-sharing app into a powerful marketing tool. In 2018, it was the fastest-growing social media platform, though TikTok might soon surpass it. Regardless, Instagram should be high on your list of advertising options.

Did you know that 95% of high schoolers use Instagram daily? Who else is on Instagram? With more than 800 million monthly active users, Instagram commands one of the highest audience engagement rates in social media, 58% higher than Facebook and 2,000% higher than Twitter. The majority of users are ages 18–29 and skew toward females and people of color. These highly engaged users are looking to follow businesses and brands — about 90% already do.

Marketers also have access to powerful analytics and insights, allowing them to retarget and better convert audiences. Higher ed marketers should also use Instagram analytics to engage with audiences, find optimal posting times, and identify opportunities to engage with students via comments or stories.

Keep two things in mind when advertising on Instagram:

  1. No stock photos. You shouldn’t use stock photos in your marketing efforts anyway, but especially not on Instagram. Real photos of real people only.
  2. Take hashtags seriously. Hashtags drive Instagram, and they are a great way to find niche audiences.

The key takeaway with Instagram advertising: Spend some money here. Your prospective students are here and they are looking to engage with your institution in a meaningful way. What remains to be seen, however, is how these socially savvy students will continue to engage with the platform in the #stophateforprofit era.


If you’re looking to break out of the Facebook/Instagram advertising monopoly, Twitter wants you to know it’s here for you. While Facebook has taken a more hands-off approach to fake news, Twitter added fact-checking features in May 2020. Regardless of how users feel about the decision, these new features propelled Twitter into the spotlight after a period of disillusionment.

Everyone knows about Twitter even if they aren’t using it. In the United States, 92% of people are familiar with Twitter, which makes sense because the majority of Twitter users are from the United States; however, less than 10% are teens (ages 13–17). In terms of gender, race, and ethnicity, Twitter user demographics mirror that of the general American population, and its users tend to be slightly older, more educated, and earn more money.

Twitter advertising costs depend heavily on the ad type. Advertisers can choose to promote a tweet, an account, or a trend. Promoting a trend starts at around $200,000 a day. And that’s really the thing with Twitter advertising: Marketers end up spending quickly. If you bid too high, you can see $500 spent in just 30 minutes. Start low with bids and adjust as you see the clicks come in. There are a few more things marketers can do to increase engagement and ROI:

  1. Use video. Twitter ads with videos get 10 times more engagement and are 50% cheaper in cost per engagement.
  2. Target your ads. Increase your conversion rate by targeting keywords and hashtags so your ads display to engaged users. Go the extra step and target those who have liked, retweeted, or replied to a specific sponsored tweet of yours in the past.

Twitter’s reporting is nowhere near as robust as Facebook’s analytics. In fact, Twitter’s own help section explains reasons for confusing campaign stats, ranging from mismatched keywords to a 36-hour lag time in reporting. To fully understand your ROI, you’ll need to rely on Google Analytics or another third-party app.

At the end of the day, is Twitter the best choice for your higher ed marketing efforts? Maybe. There are some advantages: less competition, different audiences, and extra targeting options. But the limited ad options (promoted tweets, accounts, and trends) require higher ed marketers to be smart about their ad spend. Consider promoting timely faculty research or scholarship. If your institution has an app, promoting downloads is a great way to track ROI.


LinkedIn is the little engine that could. While advertisers are concerned about Facebook drama and Twitter user stagnation, LinkedIn continues to grow in both users and popularity. The professional networking platform probably isn’t the go-to choice for prospective students, but if you’re a higher ed marketer looking to engage alumni, this is sure to be your best bet.

More than 675 million people are on LinkedIn, and about 300 million use the platform monthly. The majority of users are between the ages of 25 and 34. The most impressive LinkedIn stat? Seven out of 10 professionals describe LinkedIn’s content as trustworthy. This community is composed of young, smart professionals, and your advertising efforts should reflect that.

LinkedIn gives advertisers access to location, industry, age, job title, and company. If you want to target the CFO of Walmart, you can do so just by setting the right parameters. Because you can basically target any person you want, LinkedIn is a platform that embraces quality over quantity. You’ll see fewer clicks, but they’ll be from the right people. LinkedIn knows they’re giving you access to a high-quality consumer, so they charge you for it. While you can get pretty good engagement on Facebook for pennies per click, LinkedIn averages around $6 for CPC ads.

Unfortunately, LinkedIn’s back end could use some work. A lot of the campaign-reporting metrics in LinkedIn need to be manipulated manually. For small higher ed shops, this can be time-consuming. Reports are difficult to find, and so are key datasets such as lead generation forms. They’re also difficult to share. InMail messages are a powerful feature, but the platform doesn’t allow advertisers to click on the profile of the sender or reply to messages in-platform — key factors for increasing conversion rates.

LinkedIn advertising is best for business-to-business marketers. But higher ed professionals, especially those looking to engage professional alumni with purchasing power, can see some high-quality return on their advertising efforts here.


Marketers were perplexed when Snapchat burst onto the scene in 2011. Before Snapchat, social media platforms were blasting one message to many users. Snapchat differentiated itself on a one-to-one idea: that your direct message is just that, a direct message to one person. After a few short seconds, the message seemingly disappeared.

Snapchat’s demographic has always been Gen Z. According to Pew Research, 46% of American Snapchat users report that they visit the site several times a day. That puts the site just ahead of Instagram’s 42% and just behind Facebook’s 51%. Snapchat is expected to grow 14% in 2020 (which was predicted before the impact of coronavirus). An average user spends 30 minutes on Snapchat every day.

Snapchat advertising includes robust analytics reporting. Delivery metrics, spend metrics, conversion metrics and everything in between let you know if your Snapchat ads have delivered their desired outcomes. Plus, you’ll get hints on how to do better next time. Make sure you know how to use Snapchat Insights before your campaign starts.

Another thing to note before your campaign starts: Snapchat is not without controversy. Dealing with everything from hacks and leaks and lawsuits to privacy concerns, Snapchat hasn’t done a great job of policing sexual assault content and has a history of making insensitive comments. This could affect the socially conscious Gen Z audience higher ed often targets.

Where should higher ed marketers advertise?

Before advertising anywhere, make a plan. Think about your goals. Do you want to raise awareness for your institution? Are you looking to increase prospective student leads? What is a reasonable budget for a campaign, and how long do you want it to run? Setting expectations for your social media advertising efforts will go a long way with leadership.

Pay attention to your results. Monitoring and analyzing campaign performance and engagements will help you hone your strategy so that your campaign pays off. And don’t be afraid to test, test, and then test some more! You’re looking for ways to make your content stand out to your target audience.

There’s no magic formula for higher ed advertising. Diversifying your advertising dollars to include social media ads, display advertising, influencer marketing, and more will garner the most success. Keep your audiences in mind when selecting a social media platform and do your research to get the biggest bang for your buck.

*A note about TikTok and YouTube: We deliberately excluded TikTok and YouTube in this assessment for two reasons. 

  1. TikTok advertising requires a minimum of $500 and a daily minimum of $20. At that price point, we don’t think it’s a great fit for higher ed institutions that don’t have the budget for trial and error. If you’re keen to advertise on TikTok, think about an influencer campaign in which students can help spread your message. 
  2. Information about advertising on YouTube could fill a hole the size of the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” And while YouTube is considered a social media platform, it makes the most sense to pair your advertising campaign with a Google Ad campaign. Stay tuned for more information about this in an upcoming Intelligence post!

  • Daniella Nordin AVP, Marketing Daniella brings more than a decade of experience with digital engagement, social media marketing, online fundraising, and digital marketing to mStoner. Prior to joining us, she helped nonprofits like the Girl Scouts find their audience on the right platforms and the right times. She spent nearly seven years as part of the marketing and communications team at Skidmore College, where she built the social media strategy from the ground up and found creative ways to share student stories.