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PPC and Direct Advertising Fundamentals

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Succeeding at PPC advertising depends mainly on one thing: your ability to persuade people to take action by using just a few well-chosen words. That’s a much more important success factor than understanding the intricacies of search algorithms or the myriad features of the Google AdWords, Yahoo! Search Marketing, and Microsoft adCenter control consoles.

Writing persuasive ad copy using no more than 145 characters is a big challenge— especially if you’re up against significant competition. Your words must not only persuade; they must stand out from a page full of words all shouting for your customer’s attention (see Figure 1.1). And after your words have convinced the searcher to click through to your site, it’s those persuasive words (augmented by graphics) that convince the visitor to become a customer.

The travel industry is one of the toughest PPC fields—look at all these well-crafted ads for Hawaiian vacations!

Playing the PPC game without first taking the time to learn the fundamentals of direct-response advertising is like sitting down at the poker table with scant understanding of the rules, and proceeding to drop dollars into the pot while better-trained players scoop that money out.

But here’s some good news: Smart marketers have been studying, testing, and refining direct-response advertising techniques for a long time. Unless you already have solid experience in this field, we encourage you to read the book Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins. Written in 1923 (long before the Internet, television, or widespread commercialization of radio), it’s one of the first hands-on manuals that teaches fundamentals based on scientific testing. It includes (almost) everything you need to know about writing, testing, and optimizing direct-response advertising campaigns. You can download this public-domain book by going to You should be able to get through its 52 pages in about an hour, so there’s no excuse to avoid reading it—do it now!

Nearly 90 years ago, Hopkins wrote the following:

The time has come when advertising has in some hands reached the status of a science. It is based on fixed principles and is reasonably exact. The causes and effects have been analyzed until they are well  understood. The correct methods of procedure have been proved and established. We know what is most effective, and we act on basic law.

Advertising, once a gamble, has thus become, under able direction, one of the safest business ventures. Certainly no other enterprise with comparable possibilities need involve so little risk.

This aptly summarizes the core appeal of PPC advertising: Having created ad campaigns based on clearly defined best practices, the advertiser can measure the success of those campaigns soon after launching them. The advertiser can then test campaign variations (such as ad copy and landing page design) and immediately improve or optimize campaign elements to achieve steady increases in revenue and profit, sales leads, or donations.

Hopkins espouses a continual testing philosophy—the notion that an advertising campaign is never perfect and that continual improvement can be achieved through testing and optimization. Successful PPC advertisers embrace and practice this philosophy, so you’ll learn techniques for testing throughout this book.

Other key concepts from Scientific Advertising include the following:

  • The best advertising copywriters think and speak like salespeople—the ad itself is a virtual salesperson.
  • The best-written ads acknowledge that people are self-centered and respond best to benefits (how the product or service will make them feel) rather than just features (descriptions of the products or services).
  • Always assume that people are busy. Hopkins said that three-quarters of paid content is unread by the buyer of that content. That was in 1923—in today’s fast-paced world, that proportion may be as high as 90 percent.
  • An ad’s headline is the most important part of the ad. It is the magnet that pulls attention away from surrounding distractions and starts the reader on the path toward conversion. (Conversion is a word you’ll see often in this book; it simply means the action you want the site visitor to take—like a sale, or the download of a white paper.)
  • Ad designers should adhere to the axiom “If it’s not helping, it’s hurting.” This is especially true when it comes to graphical elements of an ad or landing page: If the graphic is not helping to steer the reader toward the conversion action, it is probably distracting attention away from the conversion action. Hopkins wrote, “Use [graphics] only when they form a better selling argument than the same amount of space [in text content].”
  • Samples sell. Offering a physical product at no cost is often a great way to stimulate repeat customers. Downloadable white papers and trial software often result in excellent sales.
  • Most advertisers neglect the basics of good ad design—especially testing and refinement of ad copy. Don’t assume that PPC advertisers who attain top rankings for their ads are making money—they may be spending top dollar while remaining surprisingly unprofitable.

Scientific Advertising is a gem from start to finish, but one chapter is particularly relevant to the PPC advertiser. In Chapter 15, “Test Campaigns,” Hopkins underscores the fact that no aspect of advertising (including the ads themselves as well as the PPC landing pages) should be constructed based solely on the advertiser’s intuition:

There are many surprises in advertising. A project you will laugh at may make a great success. A project you are sure of may fall down. All because tastes differ so. None of us know enough people’s desires to get an average viewpoint.

Frequently you will find (especially at the beginning of your ad-writing experiences) that the PPC ad you expect to produce outstanding results will prove a loser compared to a test ad that you intuitively sense would be inferior.

But there’s good news: In the fast-moving world of PPC advertising, testing and refinement of ads and landing pages can take place quickly, in days and weeks rather than the months and years necessary to gauge performance of offline advertising campaigns. Frequently, testing can take place on a small scale and at a low cost, determining winning ad and landing page combinations before rolling out campaigns on a larger scale. Then the advertiser can know with certainty that the larger-scale campaign will be successful and profitable.

In the last chapter of Scientific Advertising, Hopkins heralds the new advertising age, in which not a penny of advertising expense is wasted:

Yet most national advertising is done without justification. It is merely presumed to pay. A little test might show a way to multiply returns. Such methods, still so prevalent, are not very far from their end. The advertising men who practice them see the writing on the wall. The time is fast coming when men who spend money are going to know what they get. Good business and efficiency will be applied to advertising. Men
and methods will be measured by the known returns, and only competent men can survive.

These words drip with irony, because nearly a century later, many advertisers are still flying blind. They don’t know the return on their advertising investment. Many site owners still have not put into place the web analytics devices necessary to know the revenue and profit for each advertising dollar spent. This is bad news for them, but good news for you, because by the end of this book you’ll likely have a distinct advantage over your competitors.

Now let’s take a look at the core elements of a PPC campaign.

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