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CIEE swells study abroad enrollment through digital marketing

CIEE: Council for International Education Exchange has an ambitious goal: improve international relations through cultural exchange. Each year, this leading nonprofit helps thousands of young people travel abroad to study. For those willing to get on board, it’s a life-changing cultural exchange experience that opens their eyes and minds.

To reach adventure-hungry students and deliver on its promises, CIEE has to rise above a crowded marketplace. With a well-deserved reputation for quality and support, CIEE has a powerful selling proposition. Getting the message out to promote the benefits of study abroad, and present CIEE as the best choice, takes sustained marketing efforts. The question is, what’s the most effective way?

Busy college students, the organization’s key constituents, can be challenging. This is a generation that lives its life online – the digital space is where they socialize, gather information, make up their minds and shape others’ opinions. It’s where marketers need to be, if they’re going to make valuable connections.

Testing the digital waters

Long reliant on more traditional marketing on campus, CIEE knew it had to expand its direct-to-student digital efforts. The organization found the perfect testing ground to try some new strategies: six universities in California, where CIEE programs were undersubscribed.

Selecting a specific market was a smart move because it took advantage of digital marketing’s greatest strengths: tight targeting, customization and precise measurement. If a way could be found to increase student applications from those six universities, CIEE would have a proven approach that could be rolled out nationwide.

CIEE called on Tenet Partners to craft and execute a new digital strategy. Tenet’s digital marketing expertise, combined with insight derived from a long and deep relationship with CIEE, helped to guide the team in selecting the most effective channels and marketing methods.

Targeted, relevant, persistent – and effective

The test campaign was designed to reach out to students in places they’re likely to visit on the web – Facebook and LinkedIn – with banner ads triggered complemented by Google searches on key words like “study abroad.” The campaign was also restricted by “geofencing:” ads would appear only if the student was on or near the campus. Limiting the ads to display when viewers were in an academic setting made them more relevant, while giving CIEE better data on effectiveness.

And thus the customer journey began… from banner ad, to customized landing page and call to action, to a request for information that triggered an intelligent email “drip” campaign. It was a carefully crafted sequence of events designed to strengthen the engagement and lead to final buy-in.

CIEE built meaningful relationships with students by keeping messages relevant, useful and actionable.

The campaign strategy allowed CIEE to readily determine which search terms were most effective, which channels resulted in the most leads, and exactly where those leads were coming from. With instant feedback, CIEE was able to nimbly fine-tune the campaign to improve results. For example, CIEE soon found that ads on Facebook were generating relatively few responses and reassigned more resources to LinkedIn.

The test was a great success and results were better than expected, with a lead generation rate of more than 17 percent. That gave CIEE the confidence to expand its digital marketing push, and take it in new directions.

Turning up the volume with a nationwide campaign

Building on the success of the California test campaign, CIEE launched its “Best Summer Ever” campaign nationwide. With summer study programs worldwide, CIEE wanted to showcase a key differentiator – the breadth of its offerings. The ad campaign led students to one of 19 customized, destination-specific landing pages.

This additional customization allowed CIEE to boost response by tapping into another strength of digital – intent-driven marketing. Search words are an indicator of intent. For example, a student searching for “summer study Spain” is closer to signing up for that destination. By giving the student exactly what they are looking for, a Spain-specific ad will result in higher rate of engagement than a general ad. It worked. The targeted ads and landing pages generated response rates far higher than the industry norm.

The lessons learned were put to good use. Remarketing (the placement of banner ads) was done at a more granular level, contact forms were shortened, coverage was expanded to Pinterest and Google+, and the keyword list was optimized to make the best use of marketing investments.

The results? The numbers speak for themselves. More than 11 percent of clickthroughs resulted in active leads – several times higher than industry norms. Far more impressive was CIEE’s ability to convert those leads into actual program applications. One out every two leads resulted in a student signing up for a summer program.

The way of the future

The CIEE Best Summer Ever campaign was a successful tour de force that showcased the unique ability of digital marketing to reach, engage, convince and compel to action. For CIEE, it demonstrated how digital engagement can drive results, and pointed towards a future of closer, more relevant relationships with its customers.

With CIEE’s assertive move into a new realm of marketing, the organization has a solid digital foundation to build on. Since 1947, CIEE has dedicated itself to bringing the benefits of international education and exchange to students. Now, it is poised to deliver those experiences to more young people than ever before.

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