Digital Ads Best Practices – Digital Marketing 201

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Before diving into what practices make a successful ad, be sure to read our introduction to Google Search Ads and Google Display Ads as a part of our Digital Marketing 101 series. In this post, we will be outlining our best tips to create effective and engaging ads and our best advice to optimize ad performance.

Niche Presents: Digital Marketing 201

Part of the 201 series, a deeper dive into various topics for enrollment marketers.

Best Practices for Digital Ads

In an increasingly digital world, Display Ads and Search Ads play a leading role in the advertising landscape. With the best advertising tools at the tips of our fingers, it is important to understand how to effectively utilize them. The foundation of a powerful ad is in its content and design, while the success of a campaign overall heavily leans on its targeting and optimization. Below, we will be breaking up best practices for digital ad campaigns into two sections: Content and Design, and Targeting and Optimization.

Content and Design


The first hurdle in advertising is to get people to look at your ad, then engage with the content, and finally, convert (inquire, apply, visit, etc.). As mentioned before, digital ads are increasingly more common, therefore competition for ad space is higher than ever. Make sure your ads have a competitive edge by choosing copy and creatives that stand out. Once you’ve captured your audience’s attention, reel them in with engaging copy that teases your value proposition while leaving enough room for further inquiry. These techniques can look different for your ad tactic:

  • Display: Use the idea that a picture says 1,000 words. When it comes to copy, keep it short and avoid intrusive overlay text. Try not to use generic photos that may look pass for stock images, instead tell a story with high-quality pictures of your campus and students. An image of a student making eye contact with the camera is likely to stop users from scrolling and build connection.
  • Search: In search ads, you have limited space to work with so it is important to stay on message, get your biggest points across, and leave the details for your website. That being said, make the most of your character limit — Write copy that entices families and students to learn more about what your school has to offer. Make sure that the landing page content will meet the expectations of your copy. An ad about scholarships and aid directing to a visit page will have a higher bounce rate and hurt performance.


Take the time to make your ads relatable and deliver a personal message that will resonate with your audience. Drive clicks by presenting a clear value proposition and communicate how attending your school would benefit students and their futures. It’s more important to focus on the stories and outcomes. Again, connecting to audiences can look different in display ads versus search ads.

  • Display: Display ads are excellent for driving brand awareness and for remarketing. Give audiences a feeling of what it is like to be on your school campus. Think of the programs you are proud of and aim to capture the culture your school has worked to achieve. Avoid tight-framed photos that can make your school hard to identify.
  • Search: Search ads are presented to audiences actively searching for schools like yours. Make sure your ad copy is relevant and matches your audience’s intent by including the keyword you will be targeting and bidding on. Stand out from the competition by using messaging that is reflective of your brand and your values. Initiate connection with your audience by using direct language, like “you” and “your”.

Drive Action

An integral feature of any ad, and the most important, is its call-to-action (CTA). After providing your audience with an enticing look into your school, get them to your website to learn more by stating a clear and concise CTA. You’ve already given students and families a reason to take further action, now let them know exactly what you want them to do by using language like, “Schedule a Visit” or “Browse Our Programs”. Again, make sure it is relevant to the story that the rest of the ad is telling. CTA’s don’t vary much between display and search ads in terms of copy, but the placement and position of your CTA is a key factor.

  • Display: Display ads typically embed their CTA’s using a button icon to show audiences what physical steps they can take to inquire more.
  • Search: The placement of a CTA is up to your discretion. However, keep in mind that some audiences may not get to the description of a search ad, so make your CTA bold and visible right in the headlines of your ad.

See our article, Data Dive: How Do Different Call to Action (CTA) Link Types Perform?, for a look into the best performing CTAs of 2020.

Targeting and Optimization

Now that you’ve created a clickable ad, how do you make sure it gets in front of the right people? 

Landing Pages

Your landing page is the destination URL linked to your ad. Optimize your ad by linking a landing page that includes similar keywords to those used in your ad copy, thus maintaining relevance to your target audience. The more relevant your landing page is, the more likely the users who land on your site are to convert. A strong landing page should use design and colors that organize information in a way that is easy to look at and digest. Keep content concise while maintaining the storytelling you started in your ad. It’s always a nice touch to include pictures, videos and/or testimonials when it feels appropriate.


Target your desired audience based on their

  • Audience. Reach people based on how they have interacted with your site before, their habits and interests, and even their life events. With audience targeting, you can use users’ behaviors to anticipate what campaign they should be shown. You can also choose to monitor how your ad performs in certain audiences prior to targeting specific criteria and narrowing your reach. The “Observation” setting in Google collects data on how your campaign is performing under the criteria you select, so you can then optimize your campaign by making bids adjustments or creating a new ad group to target those audiences.
  • Location. Choose where you want your ad to be shown from radiuses around specific cities or zip codes to broader regions like entire countries. You can also choose to exclude locations in your campaigns to avoid unnecessary spending and irrelevant traffic.
  • Demographics. Target, or exclude, your ads to people based on their age, gender, household income, and parental status.

Note that targeting can narrow your audience pool but increase the quality of your traffic. Prior to targeting your ad, confirm your campaign goal and define your desired audience accordingly. For example, is your ad’s goal to increase brand awareness? Then don’t limit your campaign too much. However, if you want to drive the most applications, you’ll want to leverage any combination of targeting you see fit.


Keywords are the words or phrases that you anticipate users to search for. On Google, there are three techniques to input keywords you want to serve with your ad:

  • Broad Match matches search queries that contain any variation of the words or phrases you choose. For example, “colleges” could target anyone who has the word “college” in their search, whether it’s exactly related like, “liberal arts colleges near me” or very loosely related like, “top college preparatory high schools”. Typically broad match is used to expand your brand reach, however it may not attribute to your goals.
  • Phrase Match matches search queries that include the phrase you chose but may include other descriptors before or after. For example, the phrase match keyword “colleges in Pennsylvania” might target someone who searched “top party colleges in Pennsylvania”.
  • Exact Match serves ads to user search queries that match your input intent exactly. For example, “best colleges for engineering” will target anyone who searches for “best engineering colleges” and not “best engineering colleges in New York”.

Choose keywords that would put your ad in front of high-intent audiences. You can also use negative keywords to prevent your ad serving people who are searching for particular, irrelevant search terms.


Testing your ads is important to understand your audience’s preferences and help you improve your ad performance. For every campaign, create at least 3 ads with the same goal, but vary its copy, creative, or CTA. Multiple versions of an ad not only help you test which is most successful, but it gives the Google platform more options to choose from in an auction to serve. When testing, choose one variable at a time and let the test run with enough time to collect data before trying to analyze the results. Over time, you can refine your strategy and serve your best-performing ads. For more information, check out our Guide to Digital Marketing Experimentation and Optimization. 

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