Use Empathy to Create Breakthrough PPC Ads

This article by Howie Jacobson was originally posted on Search Engine Watch.

Desperately seeking inspiration or to obliterate writer’s block and create relevant and engaging PPC ads? Creative breakthroughs generally come from two places: empathy and context. So let’s talk about empathy and how to generate it for PPC.


By empathy, I mean something more than “I feel your pain.” That’s sympathy. I mean more than an intellectual appreciation for your prospect’s problems, desires, feelings, and needs.

Empathy, as it informs creative marketing, is nothing short of becoming your prospect at the moment they’re struggling with the problem you can help them overcome.

If you’ve ever done acting, or improv, or taken funny mushrooms, you know what I’m talking about.

You see the world through their eyes. You feel the air through their skin. You accept them completely, love them as if they were you, and understand their fears and foibles as if they were your own.

In short, their perception of the world becomes yours while you engage in this deep empathy. Not only do you observe and distort and filter reality as they do, you identify with this perception as if it’s the only logical one.

But Aren’t You Just Making It Up?

gretsch-guitarsObviously, you can’t ever know if you truly understand another person. You could go on the deepest “I grok you” trip ever, and come back without a real clue about what makes your prospect tick.

But by exploring the depths of the human psyche, you’ll be in a position to create messages that reach for those depths. Even if you guess wrong, you’re still ahead of the game, because PPC is an instantaneous feedback machine.

Stick to the obvious messages (“free shipping on Gretsch guitars”, “huge selection of Gretsch guitars”, “shop online now”) and you’re consigning yourself to be one more voice in the crowd, one more white cap in the sea of sameness that constitutes nearly every search engine results page (SERP).

Go for the empathy gold by imagining your prospect’s deepest longings, and you may strike out or strike treasure:

“Dad, I didn’t know you could rock!” (father who wants to connect with and impress his child, and be a positive, cool role model)

“Nothing ‘Gently Weeps’ like a Gretsch” (Boomer-age Beatles fan, bored in a corporate job, heading toward retirement, who wants to recapture the passion and pathos of his adolescence)

“Plug in. Strap on. Shred.” (wannabe rock star accountant – basically the same appeal as Harley Davidson motorcycles, to ride this extraordinary instrument to remind you of your unfettered true nature)

Empathy Exercise: Avatar Creation

So how do you achieve this mystical state of union with your prospect?

Start by creating an Avatar. You may have come across this concept called a “persona” – basically, a fake person who represents a niche or segment in your market.

Your prospect may be a 45- to 60-year-old male, college educated, making $50,000 to $150,000 per year, but that doesn’t give you much to hang an emotional understanding on. Call him “Eddie,” make him 46 years old, give him a 10-year-old son and a job in which he is unappreciated, and you’re starting to get somewhere.

I like to go well beyond the basic demographics of my Avatar. I approach Eddie like a novelist creating a major character; I explore his backstory; the stuff that never makes it into the plot. What was his childhood like? What’s his darkest secret? Of whom is he envious? What is his single biggest regret? Of what is he most proud?

And I play other games: If Eddie were a car, an animal, a tool at Home Depot, which would he be? A Honda Civic or a Land Cruiser? A duck or a leopard? A sawzall or a socket wrench?

For extra credit, sit like your prospect at the moment they sit down to perform the search that will lead to your ad. What emotional stories are contained in the state of Eddie’s imagined body? Are you:

  • Tense or relaxed?
  • Slumped back or leaning forward?
  • Hyperventilating or holding your breath?

Here’s your task, at this point: Spend 7 minutes writing Eddie’s diary entry at the moment he’s about to search. You can start the diary entry, “Nobody realizes how hard it is to…” or “If I only could…” or “What I really want more than anything right now is…” or whatever works for you.

Then talk about:

  • What you want.
  • Why you want it.
  • Why it matters.
  • What mistakes you’re scared of making, who might judge you for those mistakes, and what you fear will happen if you make them.
  • How you’ll know when you’ve found the exact right thing.


Your empathy exercises have turned you into your best guess of your prospect, body, mind, and soul. The diary entry gives you an imaginary but deep picture of what’s in your prospect’s heart and head just as they’re about to perform a search.

My next post will teach you how to use the SERP, and specifically your competitors’ ads, to write creative and powerfully relevant ad copy that speaks to your Avatar in ways your competitors do not.


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