PPC: Fast and Slow

There might be pressure on you to hop into your PPC accounts and “drive them hard” at this time of year, but if you’re ready for the season, there should be no need for that.

At our house, “Canada’s Worst Driver” is a huge hit. The show is so popular nationwide that it’s into its eighth season. Not too shabby.

Speaking of “hit,” that’s what contestants do to the inanimate objects in the obstacle courses, on a regular basis. On “Canada’s Worst Driver,” the expert judges consist of a retired cop, a couple of advanced driving instructors, and – yes – a psychologist.

This last one is telling, because the show is like a lab demonstration of just how sound theories of attention are. Even if you’re a talented driver, distractions can be hazardous. Distractions can drain anyone’s ability to concentrate. The most dysfunctional drivers also happen, quite often, to be part of dysfunctional couples. When the hyper-critical spouse is riding shotgun, there is screaming, crying, and denting of fenders. When they kick the spouse out and let the “hopeless” driver go it alone, there is often marked improvement.

Many of us would rather rely on our “raw skill” than admit we need to step back and build in a consistent routine intended to manage our natural limitations.

In the highly acclaimed “Thinking: Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman synthesizes decades of research that has uncovered two distinct thinking “systems” in our brains. System 1 (reactive) is essential for bundling together eons of evolution and a lifetime of experience into seamless performance. As amazing as this system is, its performance is easily degraded – for example, by fatigue and distractions. It won’t work effectively in the modern world without System 2, a deliberative form of thinking that is required to produce rational outcomes.

Back to the example of driving: assuming we’re reasonably skilled drivers, Kahneman notes that we’re amazing at letting our eyes and hands work to steer around a curve, with little consciousness of our skill in processing the information and reacting to it. But we need System 2 to tell us to set up a routine like drinking coffee, singing, and rolling the windows down on a long drive. Inside a modern vehicle, System 1 doesn’t perceive enough danger, so if it gets sleepy, it sees nothing wrong with taking a nap.

Too often, we hop into our PPC accounts with an excess dependence on an all-too-human System 1, like we’re some spreadsheet-enabled Tarzan swinging on a vine.

But not even seasonality or being busy should be an excuse for failing to schedule in the deliberative, “slow-thinking” activities as part of the work week. The fact that it feels “right” to nervously tweak incremental details of accounts during the “fast season” doesn’t make that activity particularly effective. It doesn’t mean you’re off the hook in terms of System 2, any more than the lack of daylight and the bitter cold make it any less important for me to step away from this desk, put down the carbs, and go jump rope (unless I want to develop the metabolism and body fat levels of a black bear).

Granting that it’s hard to work on the important-but-not-urgent during a season when everything seems urgent, here’s a list of initiatives to consider:

  • Set up remarketing. These days, advertisers love to build up high expectations in their minds about remarketing, and figure they’ll get to it when they get to it. Remember, though, that a remarketing audience must be cookied as such; your audience size starts at zero. If you plan to remarket to an audience with a duration like “past 90 days,” if you install the code on January 1, you’ll have the whole audience to remarket to by March 31. Procrastinate a couple of months, and you’re into June. How about December 1, then?
  • Review long-running ad tests with insight into why they were set up that way in the first place.Don’t just stab the pause button at lower performers, and don’t end tests that are too close together in performance yet to be statistically distinct. Take some time to recall what principles went into the tests, and if you draw any conclusions, take time to communicate those with someone – preferably in writing. To take an example, a client in the office furniture business has several internal landing pages that are underperforming the home page in terms of ROI on PPC. Had we followed only best practices, we’d have stuck rigidly to the notion that the keyword should take us to the focused landing page, and that is that. We now have more insight into the workings of the site as it relates to different product lines. Testing is about the spirit of inquiry, which requires continuity and planning. It’s not nearly as effective when it’s only about stabbing a pause button.
  • Deliberately incorporate teamwork; don’t be a lone wolf. Successful testing, and successful companies, require a culture of acceptable debate and disagreement, as shown by Jim Collins in “Good to Great” – Collins calls it “confronting the brutal facts.” Testing isn’t about consensus, it’s about learning and iterating. As Seth Godin pointed out in “Survival Is Not Enough,” you need to think about how to involve various perspectives in your decision-making so that there is a robust mDNA (meme DNA) in your operations. Godin insightfully argues that in terms of evolving to meet new industry challenges, “competence” can be a company’s worst enemy, as it gets stuck on a routinized “winning strategy.” To shake things up when seeking input, consider a shortcut: informally “crowdsourcing” within your own company (assuming you’ve encouraged diversity in your company) – use an anonymous process if that helps. Be supportive of “weird” ideas, as long as they’re not the only ideas people suggest.
  • Get high-powered tools working for you. Speaking of testing, a colleague just began setting up an implementation of sophisticated landing page testing software for a client’s high-volume home page. We’ll test upwards of 128-page versions based on variations in numerous page elements. Is she crazy? The holiday rush is on. Shouldn’t everyone just stick to hanging on and implementing bare-bones tactics and leave the fancy stuff until things “settle down”? Not really. There are two problems with this “urgent stuff now: important later” mentality. First is that January is also a high-traffic month for this client, and thus the perfect time to test, without the extreme seasonal skews that make testing harder in December. Planning the test could take two to three weeks, and on top of that we’ll need to create all the collateral (copy, images). If things go well, we’ll be running the test early in the new year. Even with high traffic levels, it could be many weeks before we declare the winner for the best-converting page. That winner will immediately boost ROI by upwards of 15 percent. The sooner this happens, the better. Why wait? The second reason it can be better to do “important” work during a time of “urgency” is to remind yourself that this season is actually too fast-moving for most of your reactive work to be effective. You’ll only get rattled by the current volume increase if you weren’t prepared for it.

Cognitive scientists like Kahneman and his colleagues often employ a simple word to describe the tendency to over-rely on System 1 (reactive/heuristic thought), and to avoid too much engagement with the more mentally taxing System 2: “lazy.” It seems we’re hard-wired to conserve mental energy. To adapt better to modern, complex systems, it’s a tendency we need to combat.

There might be pressure on you to hop into your PPC accounts and “drive them hard” at this time of year, like you’re late for the airport. But if you’re ready for the season, there should be no need for that. Stay the course, and keep mapping the future as you manage the present. Top management will probably dig this too, in the long run. Schedule an appropriate amount of time in your schedule for System 2 thinking, no matter what time of year it is, and you’ll be consistently effective instead of a hazardous, distracted mess.

Originally posted on  ClickZ – PPC: Fast and Slow