Think you need a ton of money to run an effective online marketing campaign? It’s not so, says Dr. Ofer Mintz, a lecturer/researcher at the Raphael Recanati School at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center (IDC).

In the context of an online marketing contest sponsored by Google, Mintz’s students pulled off some minor marketing miracles for several Israeli web sites, such as garnering over a million impressions on ads for Israeli non-profit organization Stand With Us, and increasing active users on an Israeli social media start-up’s site by 518% — all within just three weeks, at a cost of only $250.

The secret of their success? It’s all in the keywords, Mintz told the Times of Israel. “The key to success is figuring out what customers want and need, and to understand the market and the competition. And, you have to keep your ear to the ground, keeping track of the performance of your ads to see who is clicking, when, and what they are responding to.”

It’s a whole new world of advertising these days. Where once you would put a classified ad in the newspaper and hope for the best, advertising today is largely moving online, and becoming much more sophisticated and targeted.

The goal of an online advertiser is to get potential customers to click on an ad, whether banner or text, and take an action – buy a product, support a cause, submit an email address. For most small businesses and non-profits, the most convenient and economical method of online advertising is using Google’s AdWords program. Adwords ads are the small or image ads that appear on a Google search page, on top of the page or on the sides of the search results. AdWords ads are Google’s biggest advertising moneymaker, earning the company in excess of $25 billion a year.

For advertisers, using AdWords is a breeze; anyone can place a text ad by typing in a few lines, selecting keywords, and choosing the geographical area where their users/customers are. The ad is displayed on search result pages relevant to the keywords they’ve chosen; and they only pay when someone clicks on the ad. Google “auctions” the keywords themselves, so that the advertisers that pay the most for a word get posted on the prime (i.e. first or second) search results pages.

The trick, of course, is getting the right keyword, because that is an important part of what determines on which result pages your ad shows up. This is where many advertisers go wrong, said Mintz, and as part of his IDC course, students considered the keyword question from a variety of angles – psychological, social, and location-specific.

To test out their skills, Mintz had the students participate in the Google Online Marketing Challenge, in which college and university students of marketing and social media, as well as non-profit organizations, get $250 of AdWords credits from Google to design what they hope will be an effective online marketing campaign. The winners, out of hundreds of groups that participate worldwide (there is one global winner and five regional winners), get a free trip to Google headquarters in California, and Google donates money to the charities of their choice. However, Google says, “students, professors, businesses and non-profit organizations are all winners, because you gain practical experience in online marketing, teamwork and business consulting.”

This year’s winners will be announced later in August, and Mintz is very optimistic. “In the ‘street results’ – what I have heard from other professors involved in the marketing and in the contest – I have gotten a lot of positive feedback on what we have done, and I think our groups are going to rank very high.”

One contender for the top prize, Mintz believes, is a group of students who ran a campaign on behalf of a real estate company. “They experimented with several keywords before they found the right combination – and ended up selling a NIS 12 million (about $3 million) apartment for the agency.”

The keyword the group used wasn’t the cheapest, Mintz said, but it turned out be the most effective. “They had about 1,200 clicks on their ad, but clearly they reached the right audience, as evidenced by the sale.”

Which illustrates one of the important lessons Mintz teaches in his course. “You have to keep an eye on what is working and what isn’t. Fortunately Google makes it very easy, because they have a variety of tools that let you see what the response to each keyword is, breaking it down by location, time of day, and other criteria. Students made sure to check these tools constantly and tweak their campaigns, ensuring the maximum exposure and interaction.”

Another group that tried various things before it found a campaign that worked was the team that ran a campaign for non-profit Friend a Soldier, which discusses Israeli-Palestinian issues from the point of view IDF soldiers. “They ran four different ads, two of them what would be called ‘provocative,’ presenting a negative stereotype of soldiers or the political side of the conflict. Perhaps surprisingly, those ads attracted fewer responses than the ‘straight’ ads that they ran,” Mintz said, with the lesson in this case being not to assume anything about your customers or target audience.

That an academic institution like IDC would be running a course in online marketing, often associated with suspicious-looking Internet banner ads, might seem surprising. But it’s the kind of thing students need in order to ensure that their business skills are relevant to today’s job market, said Mintz. “Google, which is the clear leader in online search, has a lot of growing to do,” he said. Although the company took in some $40 billion last year, the fact is that the vast majority of users — between 96% and 99%, depending on the type of ad — don’t even click on the AdWords ads that show up on their search pages.

Google isn’t going anywhere, and it is working overtime to improve those results, said Mintz. And, of course, there are the other search companies, notably Yahoo and Microsoft (which runs the Bing search engine) that have their own AdWords-style programs. “This is clearly a career path for at least some of the students who took the course,” said Mintz. “The skills they learn will definitely help them get ahead.”