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How to Write Better PPC Text Ads

July 25, 2014

As a Paid Search Marketing Strategist at Blast, I was thrilled to attend MECLABS Web Optimization Summit held in NYC in late May. It was awesome to share and learn from so many like-minded marketing optimization industry leaders.

At Blast, we are a goal and data driven group. As such, we’ve developed frameworks that allow us to rapidly optimize and improve performance, producing the greatest gains for our clients. In this article we are sharing straightforward tips on how we have learned to create measurably better paid search ads. In fact, you’ll find ad examples and an easy-to-use PPC Ad Copy Writing Template that will help you write better PPC text ads.

Paid Search Ad Experiment

One of the first things we did at the Summit was participate in a live PPC Ad Experiment for MECLABS. We were given 15 minutes and a Quick Facts list to beat the following Control Ad:

Best Marketing Strategies
The 1st ever public library of
tested marketing strategies online.

15 minutes is not much to build out a new ad from scratch! Here’s the ad I submitted:

Best Marketing Strategies
10 patented strategic guides.
1500+ proven tests. Free access.

The ad was selected as a Finalist among the submissions by 300+ seasoned digital marketers and voted into an Audience Choice position for live testing.

The next day the results were announced, with my recommended paid search text ad beating out the control by 88%!

Winning is always gratifying, but the biggest gains (as Dr. Flint McLaughlin would say) are found not in the lift but in the learning. And there’s SO much we can learn about paid search ads and our customers!

MECLABS Online Ad Guidelines

To my surprise, I found out during the Summit that MECLABS has a patented heuristic for online ads, written as follows:

MECLABS Online Ad Sequence
ea = 2at + i + as ©

ea = Effectiveness of the Ad
at = Attract Attention
i = Generate Interest
as = Ask for the Click

PPC Ad Copy Writing Template

Although this was the first time I’d seen the heuristic, it follows our approach on how to write ppc ad copy so closely that it could literally be a template for how we write ads at Blast:

Headline = Attract Attention (Be Relevant!)
Description Line 1 = Generate Interest (Be Useful!)
Description Line 2 = Ask for the Click (Show the Value!)

In this article, I’ll deconstruct MECLABS’ heuristic and add my own commentary on why I think it’s effective, as well as how you can apply it to improve your own ppc text ads and customer insight.

How You Can Improve Your PPC Text Ads

Attract Attention (at): Headline

Attracting attention might be the biggest paradox of paid search marketing. Conventional wisdom teaches us that to stand out, we must be creative, louder, bigger, brighter, bolder. Advertisers are especially adept at thinking outside the box to come up with something unique and unexpected. However, in the paid search universe, the best approach to attracting attention is often to be TOTALLY expected by being as relevant as possible.

When a searcher enters a query into Google, she is looking for an answer to her question or a solution to her problem. She is essentially in research mode, and when our ad gets clicked, it’s not because our visitor changed her mind about her search and decided to read some shiny paid advertisements instead. She clicked because our ad looked like an answer to her problem. We got her attention by being exactly what she was looking for.

The best way I’ve found to instantly attract attention and appear relevant to the search is to strategically use the keyword (or search query) in the headline. The reason headline relevancy is so vital is that our potential visitor reads (nay, scans) the headline before deciding whether or not to consider the rest of the ad. MECLABS’ multiplier (2) for attention in the heuristic emphasizes that an ad must be noticed to have any chance of being effective.

Google (who loves relevancy as much as we do) gives us bonus points for efforts to be relevant by bolding the core terms in our ad that match the query. This is true whether the terms appear in the headline or description text. Since text ads on Google currently display the headline at an 18% larger font size than the description text (13pt v 11pt), our big, bolded headlines that simply match our searcher’s query do an excellent job of attracting attention after all.

Beat the PPC Text Ad Teardown: Headline

Control Headline: Best Marketing Strategies
Treatment Headline: Best Marketing Strategies

Analysis: They’re the same headline! My hypothesis was that the Control Ad beat its competitors because of a strong headline that contained the keyword, so I chose not to mess with it. For the sake of giving you a useful “not this but this” example, see below:

Search Term: shoes for runners
✗ Say Goodbye to Aching Feet
✓ Shoes for Runners

Take-away: Be relevant. Attract attention with a relevant, keyword-rich headline. Make sure you use a great keyword research and analysis tool which allows you to find profitable, low competition keywords in seconds and start ranking quickly!

Generate Interest (at): Description Line 1

As with attracting attention, generating interest in paid search is not achieved by being persuasive and clever, but being clear and useful. As a heavily retweeted Flint McLaughlin axiom goes:

For our purposes, “persuasion” refers to claims and slogans. “Clarity” refers to compelling features and facts. Interest is generated when a searcher understands what is being offered and how he can directly use and benefit from it. A punchy list of salient features, facts, and offerings (“evidentials”) tends to make for a better description than a company tagline.

Descriptions should be specific, relevant and explicitly useful for the user. Compare the value of the statement “We’ve been in business for 25 years” with “3 hrs of deep carpet cleaning.” Both may be valuable, important to your customers, and totally appropriate to include on your landing page. When 70 characters precludes you from telling your searcher all but the essential, choose wisely, and continue to test new descriptions to learn what is most valuable to your customer.

Beat the PPC Text Ad Teardown: Description Line 1

Control Description: The first ever online public library of marketing strategy
Treatment Description: 10 patented strategic guides. 1500+ tests.

Analysis: The Control may well contain interesting information, but it doesn’t communicate a clear or useful benefit to the visitor.
Take Away: Be useful. Generate interest in the description line with useful, specific features and offerings.

Ask for the Click (as): Description Line 2

If attracting attention via no-frills “intent matching” seems counter-intuitive, asking for the click may seem redundant and wasteful; our description text is limited to 70 characters, and common sense tells us that if someone thinks the ad is a good fit for his interests, he will click it without having to be told “try now” or “learn more.” Except… ads with an “ask” consistently outperform ads without an ask (we’ll get to why that is at end of this section).

Asking for the click is also known as having a “Call To Action” (CTA). The CTA should state or imply the value our visitor will get by choosing our ad. Strong CTAs answer the question, “What’s In It For Me?” – what will I get by taking this action? This is our micro-opportunity to let our visitor know what he can expect on the landing page. Just saying “click me!” in the ad is not enough, in fact, Google does not allow the phrase “click here” in AdWords ad copy.

We can ask for the click (and communicate its value) by using customer-centric, action-oriented words like get, start, try, save, shop, and earn. Sometimes these words are simply implied (“(Get) Free Shipping!”). Adding urgency with phrases like act now, try today, and sale ends soon can also intensify the force of the ask. But be wary of over hyping/selling when it isn’t appropriate for your customers. For example, Urgency generally isn’t appropriate when you have a long sales cycle for an expensive purchase.

There’s a reason asking for the click gets better results (and it’s not that our visitor is too dumb to realize, without our explicit instruction, that our text is clickable). Asking for the click forces us to craft our ad thinking of the customer rather than the company. Whether the ad contains an explicit or implicit ask, if it focuses on the customer’s needs and tells him what she’ll get by clicking, it will beat an ad that ignores her needs and leaves her confused.

Beat the PPC Text Ad Teardown: Description Line 2

Control Ask: None
Treatment Ask: Free Access

Analysis: “Get” is implied. “Free” adds value. The ad creates a clear next step: by clicking on the ad, the visitor will get immediate access to guides and case studies.
Take Away: Show the value. End the ad with action words that clearly communicate the benefit of the click to the visitor.

In Closing: Test, Learn, and Optimize

Paid search marketing is an art and science, and sometimes the scientist in us wants definitive rules with which to systematize, automate, and scale. At the Summit, I noticed that many marketers mistook the MECLABS Heuristics for mathematical formulas, with several speakers taking pains to emphasize these are not precise calculations.

I stand by the above paid search ad guidelines as a great framework for creating effective paid search ads, but these are principles, not laws. One of our clients does best with fun, clever messaging that’s well suited for the target niche. Some of our winning paid search ads don’t ask for the click. Results may and will vary.

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the goal of writing great paid search ads is not JUST to improve CTR or revenue. We seek to discover more about our customers:

  • What matters most to them?
  • How can we better communicate value and solve their problems?

Paid search ads are a great way to rapidly test messaging that can drive new landing pages, website changes, customer insights, and communication strategies. Test, learn, and optimize to find your best search ads and insights yet!

Amy Hebdon
About the Author

Amy is Director of Paid Search at Blast Analytics & Marketing. She has over 10 years experience optimizing paid search campaigns to hit aggressive KPIs, and loves the industry's unique ability to measure the impact of creative marketing.

Amy Hebdon has written on the Blast Digital Customer Experience and Analytics Blog.

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