Is Display Passing The Test For Online Universities?

Online Universities

Image from: Online Education Image / Shutterstock

With people working longer hours than ever, it’s no surprise many are turning to online universities for their higher education needs.  The allure of getting that shiny new degree, coupled with the ability to do it on your own terms, and on your own schedule, makes online education a tempting option for many busy professionals.  There’s no shortage of advertising being put forth by schools like University of Phoenix and ITT Tech.  I was able to locate almost 400 online display ads for U of Phoenix alone with a very quick search, and this made me wonder which schools are doing the best job capturing attention online, and how they’re doing it.

I thought it would be interesting to take a look under the hood, and see where all this traffic is coming from.

UVs to Education Sites

Obviously, the marketing and advertising folks over at U of Phoenix and ITT know a thing or two about online traffic and Devry, Capella & Pennfoster are no slouches themselves.  With almost 3 millions UV’s in the month of April, up almost 800,000 from the same time last year, Phoenix leads the pack, with ITT not far behind at a very respectable 2M plus UV’s.

We know these sites are monsters at generating traffic, but the question is, how are they doing it?  Looking into’s referral sources, we can see search is definitely king in their world:

Incoming Traffic to

With more than 6 million visits coming from search engines in April, and hundreds of paid search keywords, Phoenix seems to have the search game nailed down.  However, a quick check to find where some of their display resides tells a slightly different story.  Digging around on, I found a good chunk of Phoenix’s display dollars go to career and job search sites, with Monster, Snagajob, Careerbuilder and Hotjobs all capturing some of Phoenix’s display budget.  Definitely seems like a natural fit, as consumers who are looking for jobs might also be in the market to improve their skill sets.  However, as we comb through’s referral sources, we don’t see any job boards in the top 25, the closest being at number 33:

Incoming Traffic to 33

25k referrals might seem like a lot to a smaller site, but to heavy hitters like U of Phoenix, receiving 25k referrals from a site like Monster that has 14M UV’s a month (and probably charges a premium for access to that many eyeballs), seems a bit small.  It certainly makes me wonder if that is money well spent.  It could get very interesting if we were to take a look at how much of that referral traffic converts into an application, or a “contact us.”  Perhaps Monsters sends very high value traffic, with high conversion rates, but then again perhaps not…Only the folks over at U of Phoenix, and Compete, can answer those kinds of questions, but that is a story for a different day (and Compete’s data analysts!).  A similar look at shows a very similar trend.  Search dominates their primary referral sources, and while I was able to find much less display for ITT, similar referral sources like Careerbuilder were also well down the list for ITT.

All of this data begs the question “is display worth it?”  What do you think?  Do your marketing efforts produce great results in the display arena, or is search always going to be king?  I’d love to hear your opinions.  Hit me on Twitter @tkeene6, or shoot me an email at

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  1. Jeff Berg

    This is a pretty interesting analysis, but it seems predicated on the idea that display advertising is done solely to drive traffic and not for purposes like brand recognition. It does seem to indicate that, in terms of last-click attribution, this may not drive a lot of traffic. At the same time, people today have, on average, something like six touchpoints before purchasing a product. Phoenix’s display advertising, particularly because it has to deal with a fairly involved purchase decision, may have benefits that can’t be observed in traffic data.


    • Tim

      Thanks for the comment, Jeff, and I completely agree. I’d liken a purchase decision like U of Phoenix to purchasing a car. Consumers are going to be back and forth between a number of options before they decide, and being top of mind when they’re ready to make that decision is certainly important.

      That said, I would be very curious to see what kind of interactions consumers have with U of Phoenix post-exposure to these display pieces. I wonder if it would, indeed, look like the auto industry, where you can correlate exposure to ads to purchase funnel activities like using a dealer locator (or in this case filling out a contact form etc).