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Writing Search Ads In Context – Vitruvian Advertising
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Writing Search Ads In Context

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

A mother gives her son two ties for his birthday. He goes upstairs, puts on one of the ties, and comes back down to show his mother. She looks him up and down, then says, “What’s the matter, you didn’t like the other tie?”

This mother understands something that many search advertisers don’t: we make all our choices in context. Meaning, when we’re trying to select one option, we’re comparing it to all the other options in our consciousness at that moment. We’re trying to figure out which one will best meet our current needs.

Why We Limit Our Options

If I have a $5 bill and I walk past a smoothie bar, I’ll immediately start the mental calculus of whether I would be better served by a Very Berry Blast, a Pina Colada Shake, or a Peanut Cacao Freezee.

Noticeably absent from my choices are:

  1. Buying a set of hinges to fix the broken garden gate.
  2. Donating the money to the Land Institute.
  3. Putting the money into my kids’ 529 plan.

Why wouldn’t I compare a frozen cup of fruit chunks to any of these arguably much better causes? Why does my brain exclude them from consideration?

Because of context. Making decisions, it turns out, expends a tremendous amount of energy. Not just metaphorical energy, but real, caloric, glucose-guzzling energy.

And allowing billions of choices equal time would blow our daily energy budget within one minute of waking in the morning. So our brains ruthlessly expunge everything that doesn’t seem immediately relevant to the decision at hand.

Books like Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational” and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s “Nudge” are textbooks in using this tendency of the brain to frame other people’s decisions. If we’re conscious of the phenomenon, we can engage in “choice architecture” to increase the likelihood that people will select one option over another.

Context in Search Marketing

The search results page is the ultimate in controlled and contrived choice. The user types in a short phrase indicating their current need, and anywhere from 10 to 25 listings appear, all vying for that user’s click.

The question for advertisers is, how can you use the principles of choice architecture to get that click for yourself.

Defining Which Click You Want

chicken-coopThe first, most crucial step is to realize that you can’t get – and don’t want – every single click. You must decide which subset of the search market you’re going to attract with your ad.

For example, if you’re bidding on the keyword “chicken coop,” you need to decide if you’re catering to a continuum from extremely DIY (“just give me the plans and I’ll build it myself”) to extremely DIFM (Do It For Me: “build it, ship it, and set it up wherever you think it should go”). In between go coop kits, collaborative builders, and many other options.

For this example, let’s say you cater to DIYers looking for chicken coop plans, as your main business is selling backyard chicken supplies, and your plans are an effective lead generator.

Reading the SERP

Once you’ve identified your ideal customer, it’s time to view the search engine results page (SERP) through their eyes. Think of search advertising like chess: you wouldn’t make a move based on looking at your pieces, while ignoring those of your opponent.

Which ads speak to the primary need of your ideal customer? Which ones make some sort of empathetic connection?


The top and bottom ad above both target the DIYer, with different emotional appeals. LivingtheCountryLife.com uses words that appeal to “progressives”: amazing, inspired. By contrast, CatawbaCoops.com appeals more to “conservatives.” Both the “old world styled” descriptor and the purposefully ungrammatical headline with its double negative speak to someone turned off by “new and shiny” things.

The middle ad, while not targeting the DIYer, does raise a potentially important criterion: ease of cleaning.

As an advertiser, your challenge and opportunity is to claim a piece of territory in this fray. To position your offer in this already raging competition.

Invoking Your Ideal Customer Avatar

You can’t do this effectively unless you know something about your ideal customer. You can use a comprehensive process to achieve this kind of deep empathy through Avatar creation. Now, in the context of the SERP, you harness those insights to make an appeal that is more relevant and emotionally engaging than those of your competitors.

For example, let’s say this is your Avatar: a suburban mom named Shannon who shops at the farmer’s market, tries to buy organic and local food for her family, and wants four backyard chickens for a variety of reasons:

  1. Her dad grew up on a farm, and she wants to give her rushed, hyper-programmed suburban kids a taste of farm life.
  2. She worries about the treatment of chickens used in commercial laying operations.
  3. She wants her kids to eat the healthiest food possible.
  4. Her city just approved a chicken-friendly ordinance, and she wants to be a leader in her neighborhood.

Now, she also works a full-time job and doesn’t have a ton of time to build something. But she enjoys woodworking, and is proud of her skills. When she was a teenager, she and her dad would bond by doing little projects in the garage.

From this exercise, here are the messages I think will resonate with Shannon:

  1. Not all coops are equally healthy for chickens. Make sure you get the facts before building something “pretty.”
  2. “A taste of farm life in the suburbs.” This coop design honors farming traditions while conforming to suburban rules and mores.
  3. Easy to gather the eggs. Some coops look great, but make egg gathering a royal pain. This design will have your kids volunteering for the chore, not arguing about who has to do it.
  4. A chicken coop that’s so pretty, clean, and quiet, it will convert your neighbors. Some of them may be worried about the smell, about the noise, about the looks, about avian flu, about all sorts of things. When they see this coop, they’ll relax. Next thing you know, they’ll want chickens too.

An Ad Writing Contest

OK, now it’s your turn. Based on the assumptions I’ve made so far, write a Google ad that Shannon will click in preference to the other two DIY chicken coop ads. The winner gets an autographed copy of “Google AdWords For Dummies”.

Rules: 130 characters total (25 for the headline, 35 each for the two description lines and display URL). You can invent an appealing URL.

Post your entries (you can create as many different ads as you like) as comments to this article. People can vote on their favorite by “Liking” individual comments. I’ll make the final decision, but since I’m pretty lazy, I’ll weigh the voting very heavily.

Have fun! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to gather some eggs.

Image Credit: HA! Designs – Artbyheather/Flickr

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