PPC Managers and Deferred Gratification

Chatting with a conference speaker who just happens to be a longtime, focused SEO vendor, I didn’t have to wonder how long it would take before I’d hear the SEO lifer’s take on PPC: “It’s like the crack cocaine of marketing.” He got to that point in about six seconds.

The characterization stems from the perception SEO old-timers have that they’re having trouble competing for credibility in the worldview of clients who increasingly desire a stimulus-response sandbox fueled by something crazy called an “advertising spend.”

In short, when marketers want to “poke the box,” they’re not thinking along the lines of results they might be able to discern six or twelve months down the road. Because PPC does offer a tighter turnaround time at least as far as increased impression and click volume are concerned, that puts some pressure on SEO vendors. In their grass-is-always-greener moments, they’re tempted to believe that (a) the PPC channel is therefore somehow “easier” to deal with; and (b) that PPC provides instant results.

Obviously, it’s a little more complicated than that. At a high level, it’s absolutely true that strategies aimed directly or indirectly at boosting organic search referrals require patiently building up the inherent qualities of a website and of a company’s reputation. Even BS SEO tactics might take six months to show solid improvement, given that search engine databases need time to digest behavioral and relevance signals, given the massive effort of the web crawl, and the periodic nature of major algorithmic revisions. Content strategies and building reputation through legitimate means take even longer than that, and nearly always show better long-term results than cheap SEO tricks.

Certainly, none of that is the PPC channel’s problem. But from the standpoint of the marketer who needs to take a dispassionate overview of all the channels to ensure they’re doing the most to help their company achieve profitable growth, it shouldn’t be about wanting any of the channels to behave like the other. While in some sense various related digital channels work in concert, in other senses, they each play out based on their own internal logics; each channel has its own rhythms and patterns.

And once you look past the immediate contours of how PPC works – bid on a keyword, convince a prospect to click on your ad, hope they convert – the results aren’t so instantaneous. PPC managers must balance two mindsets: the ability to manage and respond to a lot of data in near-real-time, while recognizing that those management activities are part of building a framework to produce proven improvements in performance over time.

Many of the individual tweaks, adjustments, and initiatives in a PPC account must derive initially from either best practices, or from credible hypotheses about what is going to happen next (and that what’s next will be an improvement on the recent and not-so-recent history) if you make a certain change to an account. Make hundreds or tens of thousands of changes to an account every week, and you tend to feel the weight of the response. You’ve poked the box thousands of times, and quite rightly you should get a lot of feedback before too long. (I guess that’s where the cute “crack” reference comes into it. The ability for rapid feedback in the form of data is addictive, admittedly.)

But the PPC manager actually has to have a lot of self-control and patience, waiting for anything truly meaningful to come of a specific change to a bid, an ad test, adjusting a time of day segment, etc.

Take the following group of keywords pictured below. [Altered beyond recognition for privacy purposes.]

Among this group are low-volume keywords that aren’t getting too many clicks in part because of where they’re currently bid; perhaps competitors have begun to outbid us on these. Some of the higher-cost, higher-volume keywords in the same ad group (off screen) are bid a bit too high now, so we lower them, and then await the next interval of feedback on cost per acquisition, ROI, etc.

But more sales volume is never a bad thing. The neglected small-volume keywords might need to be bid up. At the very least it probably isn’t worth bidding them down, considering their cheaper prices and lower current ad positions, and the fact that we saw fit to put them in the ad group in the first place, have armed the campaign or ad group with appropriate negative keywords, etc. So to see what happens, we poke that box, and bid them up modestly, by 10%; maybe 15% at most.

That’s by no means an easy call. While some of the pictured keywords have very solid numbers to entice us, the others have very little to say to us. How similar or dissimilar are they? The ad group as a whole has been underperforming of late, so we came here in the first place to tighten it. We now might have to make several exceptions to the general tightening bias we’ve brought to the ad group.

(As an aside, if it’s ever the case that we do gain enough evidence that there is one approach we should almost always take to such a mystery or puzzle, then we should of course be pushing this into a consistent rule of thumb or even an algorithm. We can’t and shouldn’t automate everything, but if we develop superior strategies, they shouldn’t be reduced to whims and constantly-reinvented wheels. I’ll discuss this in a future post. Hat tip to Roger Martin for the notion of pushing knowledge from mystery to heuristic to possibly algorithm.)

Guess what. Raising four or five of those bids might not result in a sale tomorrow, or even next week. You won’t even have very good data on how many new clicks that caused. But we’d be irresponsible to “test response faster” by bidding up 100% or more, if all that did was cannibalize user queries from other keywords. And it’s impractical to double bids every time you want to learn something.

So life as a PPC manager is more like: make your best, well-reasoned predictions, frequently, and monitor the response over time. It works, but not like crack cocaine.

(Another aside: for important tests, to provide a true A/B testing sandbox for bid levels, you can run AdWords Campaign Experiments, which can be a way of assessing the performance of an ad group or a campaign with two different bidding approaches. It’s not practical to use it for many small tests, though.)

Sadly, in much of the SEO world, the temptation – in the long downtime between the start of an initiative and the emergence of provable results – is to fill the void with narrative.

Narrative tends to be the antithesis of scientific experimentation, so maybe that’s why SEO wound up fitting surprisingly well with the long history of Mad Men era “creative ad buying.” It’s not the same thing, yet it does have that commonality: mystique. Take the granular nature of an old yellow pages style listing, and couple it with a compelling narrative about what a confusing dark art it is to “rank,” and you’re actually speaking an updated version of what clients have been buying from ad agencies for over half a century.

The main historical analogue for PPC is something like direct mail. And everyone else in the ad biz always wanted to shun those direct marketers. No fun at a cocktail party.

But… making money thanks to scientific direct response methods is fun enough. Possibly, its own reward.

Call it crack cocaine if you like: businesses drinking from a fire hose of data – as opposed to listening to compelling fireside chats proffered by imaginative story vendors – are mopping the floor today with businesses that aren’t as data-driven.

SEO, content, and social are a key channel, of course (we call our integrated service in this area Findability). A patient, strategic, and integrated approach is a must. This side of the business must become more data-driven, but it’s true that it can take months to see results, and looking at data frequently doesn’t make all that data meaningful. You can’t build a bridge halfway across a canyon.

But make no mistake, the best disposition for a PPC manager is also a patient one. No matter how many times you poke the box, you’d better not expect individual pokes to ring the cash register tomorrow. You’re building an increasingly robust, predictable, provable response engine; but it’s predictive in nature, and subject to significant uncertainty in terms of the impact of any specific change. Time, analytical tools, data aggregation, and a strong grasp of fundamental best practices help that patient PPC manager win that long game. The fact is, there’s little room for impetuousness in any digital marketing channel.