|Marketing Case Study – Brown University

Marketing Case Study – Brown University

The Background

In the summer of 2012, Brown University began marketing a new Executive Masters in Healthcare Leadership program with the first cohort scheduled to begin in the fall of 2013. This 18-month blended learning degree was designed for experienced executives in healthcare and related fields such as health insurance and healthcare law. To raise awareness and generate interest in this new program, Brown developed a robust marketing strategy, including radio, trade publications and digital advertising. Because this program was new and relatively unknown to the target audience, a key part of this strategy was to ensure ads appeared for any individuals using major search engines to search for graduate degrees for executives in healthcare or related fields.

In June 2012, Brown launched a Google Adwords campaign designed to reach qualified prospective students and convert them into program inquiries, leading to a successful new program.

The Before

Brown built and launched the original Google Adwords campaign in June of 2012. During the first 8 months, this campaign yielded a cost-per-inquiry of $1,416, which Brown recognized as unsustainable for their program.

Brown remained resolute that paid search and display advertising had the potential to effectively reach their target audience, if it could be made less costly and more productive. The university reached out to Google in hope of improving the conversion rate and lowering the cost-per-conversion for this program. Google made several changes to the campaigns such as differentiating Adgroups and creating new text ads. Unfortunately, the Google-built Adwords campaign performed worse than the original campaigns built by Brown University. While the click-through-rate in the new campaign was higher, the cost-per-inquiry climbed sharply and the average number of inquiries generated each day decreased.

Realizing a different tactic was needed, Brown decided to re-engineer the campaigns with help from JMH Consulting, Inc.

The Approach

To improve the effectiveness of their campaigns, JMH worked with Brown to employ a variety of strategies including those detailed below.

Expanded and targeted Ad Groups

JMH constructed a new campaign with a highly organized structure that allowed better tracking and optimization of the programs. The targeted search terms were expanded and reorganized into more than a dozen ad groups containing ads written specifically for those terms.

First, ad groups were divided according to relevant search terms (i.e. Executive Masters Healthcare, Healthcare Executive Education). Second, keywords were identified under each ad group to correspond with the relevant search term. Next, three to four text ads per ad group were developed so that each emphasized key terms from the specific ad group. For example, searchers entering “executive MBA in healthcare” might see an ad titled “MBA Alternative at Brown” while searchers entering “public health masters degree” might see an ad titled “MPH Alternative at Brown.”

Expanded to Bing Ads platform

JMH expanded the marketing to Bing. Many searches targeted by this campaign were highly competitive, forcing Brown to bid extremely high to place their ads in top positions on Google. Bing Ads offers a similar paid search platform that places ads on the Yahoo! and Microsoft search result pages. Though it reaches an audience only 30% the size of Google, there are often fewer competitors on Bing Ads for popular search terms. The Google campaign was replicated on the Bing advertising platform and bids were set much lower. The resulting cost-per-click on Microsoft was $4.74 compared to $11.46 per-click on the Google platform during the same period.

Separated search and display advertising

Paid search and display advertising require dramatically different optimization approaches; however, Google Adwords’ default setting configures campaigns to run on both channels and the original campaign did so. JMH created separate campaigns during the redesign process so that each channel could be more carefully managed and optimized. As a result, the cost-per-inquiry on both search and display was reduced by more than 50%.

Created display ads

Several professionally designed display ads were created for the new display campaign, as shown below. An example of the ad is included below.

Added Sitelink Extensions

JMH added several sitelink extensions to the paid search campaign to appear below the ads. Sitelinks provide searchers with more information about the ad’s site and allow them to jump directly to specific pages in the site, as shown on the right.

Bid adjustments

JMH adjusted bid amounts for each ad group (and some keywords) based on how effectively those search phrases targeted the audience. Bids were increased for terms such as “executive healthcare masters” which were deemed more likely searches for the target audience, while bids were reduced for less targeted terms such as “healthcare leadership education” and “best healthcare masters.”

Sophisticated display network targeting (topics, interests, etc.)

Recognizing the target audience for this degree was extremely small, JMH developed a separate display network strategy to place ads on websites likely to be visited by prospective students. This strategy consisted of using Boolean logic to narrow the placement of ads on pages (for example) that focused on healthcare and included the phrase “executive masters.” Six ad groups were developed using combinations of keywords (search terms), individually selected healthcare websites, healthcare executive job listings on career sites, and other pages likely to be viewed by healthcare executives.

Custom landing pages

JMH built a set of custom landing pages and A/B tested the pages against the program homepage to determine if removing navigational elements and shortening the inquiry form would result in more visitors completing the form. Testing results showed that visitors were far more likely to complete a short or medium length form, as shown in the chart from the first round of testing below.

The Impact

The overall impact of the re-engineered Google Adwords campaign was astounding. In the three months after the new campaigns launched, inquiries increased by 200%, while the cost-per-inquiry dropped by 66%! In addition:

  • Clicks (visits to the website) increased by 114%, from 33 per day to 72 per day
  • Click-through-rates for paid search increased by 722%, from 0.18% to 1.50%
  • Click-through-rates for display ads doubled, from 0.07% to 0.14%
  • The average daily spend increased by only 1%

The chart below summarizes the performance of the campaigns before and after the improvements.

Thanks in part to this campaign, the inaugural Executive Masters in Healthcare Leadership program began this fall with 30 students, 6 more than the goal.


Before graphs of clicks and costs

Before graphs of cost-per-conversion


After graphs of clicks and costs

After graphs of cost-per-conversion

Sample Before Ads

After Before Ads

“JMH did an excellent job of quickly understanding our audience, interpreting our targeting needs, and designing an effective Adwords strategy for us.”

Geoffrey Chisholm, Director of Marketing, Brown University

By | 2017-10-23T01:43:59+00:00 March 9th, 2014|Case Studies, Marketing|