Pablo Picasso is widely quoted as having said that “good artists borrow, great artists steal.”
I’m not here to confirm nor deny whether or not one of history’s most iconic painters said something so provocative, (although if it’s been a while since you went down a deep internet wormhole, check out this Quora thread on what Picasso did/didn’t actually say) but I am here to use this sentiment as an illustration for my latest enrollment marketing strategy hack!
In a recent survey our team conducted, 75% of enrollment marketers reported conducting “very few” true A/B tests on social media ad campaigns over their last recruitment cycle. This is problematic. In fact, this is very, very bad...especially in a world where every marketing dollar is being scrutinized to kingdom come.
After pressing further into the “why” behind this lack of testing, the common thread between enrollment marketers at varying schools and contexts seems to be a dearth of time and resources to effectively conduct these tests.
And while nothing will ever replace insights garnered from the running of your own paid campaigns, there is a way to save time, money, and effort with a (relatively) simple strategy we like to call “digital ad reverse engineering.”
If you’re strapped for time and just can’t afford to spend several months investing in a myriad of A/B/C/D/E/F copy and creative tests, one of the best ways to make calculated decisions without oodles of primary-source data is to make educated inferences on what works, and what doesn’t, based upon your competitor’s campaigns.
But how does one do that? Glad you asked! It’s time to slow your scrolling, abandon your skimming, and read the following very carefully — we’re going to walk you through a step-by-step process for how to reverse engineer your competitor’s social strategy.
1. How to View Your Competitor School’s Ad Campaigns
Tools like Facebook Ads Library and Moat.com allow you to look up the digital ads that various organizations (including educational institutions) are running at any point in time.
These tools enable you to uncover the lessons your competitors have learned along the way so you don’t need to recreate the wheel.
For the purposes of this example, we’ll be focused on Facebook Ads Library. Once you arrive on the site (https://www.facebook.com/ads/library/), be sure that any adblockers you might be using are turned off!
Next, search for a competitor school/program. We’re going to use Baylor’s School of Engineering as our example competitor.
Once you find your competitor, have a look at the ad campaign they are currently running and make crucial notes of the creative, copy, and offer associated with that ad. Here’s an example of a current ad that Baylor’s School of Engineering & Computer Science is running:
2. How to Steal Digital Ad Learning Insights from Your Competitor Schools
Once you’ve found an ad or two that at least loosely aligns with the goal for your campaign, change the time period and have a look at the ads they ran 2 weeks before, 2 months before, and then another 2-3 months before that. The goal here is to understand what tweaks they made to the copy and/or the creative along the way in an effort to garner insight into which tone/style/offer worked best.
Here are three ads that Baylor’s School of Engineering & Computer Science ran back in late April of 2020 (about six months ago):
Pay special attention to the subheader and pre-CTA text of each ad. Now, because all three of these ads have a similar featured image (a full-frame, featured shot of a late-20s — mid-30s male) and a consistent “Learn More” call-to-action, one might infer that Baylor was testing which pre-CTA text was the most compelling of the three ads.
Was it “Choose the right track” in Ad A?
“Prepare for vital roles” in Ad B?
Or “Advance your skills” in Ad C?
Well, let’s find out! If we adjust the time frame once again — this time moving the period of time up a couple of months to late June/early July, here’s what we see:
What’s different about these ads? Well, not much...the featured images are more or less consistent with the previous featured images, the headline text is the same, and the post text is similar in tone, length, and style.
But, instead of three campaigns, they’ve opted to only run two during this season...and, if you look at the pre-CTA text, you’ll note that the Ad A’s copy, “Choose the right track” is gone, but the copy from Ad B and Ad C remain.
Now, we don’t really know what went on behind the scenes, but a smart enrollment marketer could infer that the reason Baylor dropped Ad A was because Ads B & C performed better.
Ultimately, it looks as if Baylor is trying to determine the right combination of creative, copy, and conversion offer so as to funnel all media spend into just one campaign (hence the decision to cut Ad A and not replace it with another ad set).
So what happens if we jump forward another month or so? Have a look at the only ad campaign Baylor’s School of Engineering & Computer Science chose to run in the month of August:
What do you notice? Once again, the creative, the CTA, and the post text are almost identical to each of the previous ad sets...but, they selected the “Prepare for vital roles” pre-CTA text and presumably opted to take all budget from Ads A and C and funnel that cash into the copy for Ad B.
You still with me?
You see what happened, right?! Baylor must have determined that out of all of the pre-CTA text variations, “Prepare for vital roles” performed best and chose to allocate all of their August spend (which was consistent with their April spend and their June/July spend) to the aforementioned version of the ad.
Is this a perfect analysis? Of course not. Could you argue that swapping out the image in and of itself was also a test? Absolutely. But, if you look at the ads holistically, you’ll note that the most significant variance between ad sets occurs in the pre-CTA text.
So, what does this tell us at the end of the day? It tells us that copy that includes timely language is more compelling. It’s no accident that during a global pandemic, Baylor is running an ad with pre-CTA text that contains the words “prepare” and “vital”.
3. How to Leverage Your Competitor School’s Digital Ad Learnings in Your Context
As you peruse a number of campaigns, it can be helpful to use evaluative frameworks to discern what changes your competitors are making and why they are making them.
For example, if you are evaluating a carousel ad with different creative in each frame, but consistent copy and a consistent offer in each frame, chances are the copy and offer are solid but the best image has yet to be determined.
Remember — this strategy is not meant to be an end in and of itself...it’s not meant to be some sort of silver bullet. But, here’s a big, fair takeaway that one could garner from this Baylor School of Engineering and Computer Science example: timely and time-bound copy inspire more action than timeless and evergreen verbiage does.
“Prepare” and “vital” have connotations of immediacy and significance whereas “advance” and “choose” have connotations of “progression” and “decisiveness,” but no urgency.
Therefore, when crafting an ad campaign for your school’s Master’s of Science in Computer Science, I would ensure that the copy you use falls into the “immediacy and significance” quadrant not the “progression and decisiveness” quadrant.
Finally, this article is designed first and foremost to inspire you to think differently about how to make better, educated decisions on ad creative, copy, and content offers when resources are scarce. It’s still best to conduct your own A/B/C/D/E/F/all-the-way-to-Z tests because every program, audience, and institution is unique.
My hope is that you garnered a learning or two from this piece to replicate in your own context. If nothing else, at least you’ve been equipped with a couple of tools and frameworks through which you can evaluate and critique your competitor’s digital ads — and steal all the great stuff like Picasso would!
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