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Sunday, February 25, 2024

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Back to School Time: A Refresher Course on Writing Great Ads

As summer in the U.S. winds down and millions of students head back to school this week, the rest of us head back to work, refreshed and ready to stimulate the economy with great new ad campaigns.

I know from my own experience that with all the time we spend on the analytical aspects of our PPC campaigns like quality scores, click-through rates, costs per click and match types, it is very easy to lose sight of this simple truth: what your ads communicate is much more important than the metrics you use to track them.

Well-written ads define your brand, differentiate your products from competitors, give searchers important information about your features and benefits and create long-lasting competitive advantages for your campaigns.

In this month’s column, we’ll take a quick refresher course on what goes into writing great ads and then we’ll evaluate a few recent ads to see if they make the grade.

The making of a great ad

One of my favorite ads is this curious little classified ad alleged to have appeared in a London newspaper around 1914 to recruit crew members for Ernest Shackleton’s famed expedition to the Antarctic:


This ad was targeted squarely at men of adventure willing to risk life and limb to earn fame during the era of the great explorers. It has clear, dramatic benefits, filters out the faint of heart and has an implied call to action of applying at Shackleton’s residence. Any online ad that can capture the same passion and energy as this offline ad has done will certainly perform well.

Well-crafted online text ads share a number of common characteristics:

  • Well-targeted
  • Speaks to audience
  • Clear, dramatic benefits
  • Filtering language
  • Succinct headline
  • Simply stated offer

To illustrate these traits, let’s take a look at a set of Bing ad results on the search query “student loans.”

Bing search ad results page for student loans.

Well targeted

A well-targeted ad is one that appears for the right keywords, but also one that motivates your target audience.

In general, student loans are primarily sought by 18-24 year old students and their 35-49 year old parents who will do anything to help their little Johnny or Jane into the school of their dreams.

The first ad hits the target perfectly. The searchers are looking for student loans, and Simple Tuition delivers student loans.

The second ad could be for car loans, mortgages or pay-day loans. Does this company even offer student loans? Who knows? This is ad is not as well-targeted to the search query. The advertiser, StateLender.net, certainly could have been more specific as they used only 50 of their allotted 70 characters in the ad.

The third ad, from Scholarships4Mom.net, is targeting a subset of the student loan marketplace very directly and non-subtly. They want to reach Moms looking for help with college costs.

Speak to the audience

When you understand your target audience, you can use language that speaks directly to members of that audience.

The SimpleTuition ad does a great job with their language by cleverly using the number “2” in their headline. This simple form of texting shorthand signals that they are in tune with their young target audience.

The second ad does not appear to speak to any particular audience. It is akin to a ticket scalper out in front of a sports arena shouting “Tickets? Need tickets?” They don’t care who hears them as long as someone hears them.

The third ad speaks directly to its audience of moms faced with huge college tuitions and no money to pay them. The ad offers a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and speaks directly to the desperation that Moms feel during this process. Whether you like the pitch or not, it speaks directly to the target audience.

Clear, dramatic benefits

As tough as it can be to express strong creative benefits in short text ads, these student loan ads are all good examples of how it can be done quite effectively.

The first ad offers strong clear benefits. You are in control. You pick your own loan. The process is easy. The process is fast. It’s no surprise this ad is at the top of the search results. It is a well-written, hard working ad.

The second ad says it offers fast application and “all credit types” are welcome (and you know who you are! Now that I think about it, perhaps this ad is well-targeted after all). They are targeting anyone who can’t qualify for other types of loans, and these challenging economic times, that is a huge benefit.

The third ad offers the potential benefit of salvation from college debt, but hangs the benefit on an “Enter now!” call to action. The $10,000 scholarship is a great benefit, but perhaps a better call to action would help reinforce it.

Filtering language

In crowded and competitive keyword markets, your ads need to include filtering language to prevent unwanted and unproductive clicks.

The first ad filters out anyone except student loan seekers by making it clear they do student loans. That’s all it needs to do. The second ad filters out no one and that appears to be by design.

The third ad is really directed to moms, and purposefully or carelessly filters out students themselves and their dads. The filtering is probably effective, even if the strategy behind it may have some flaws.

Succinct headline

While your ad copy is generally what draws the click-through to the site, your headline is often what draws attention to the ad in the first place.

The simplest way to draw attention is to include your keyword in the headline because those words are bolded when they match the search query. The best headlines, however, are the ones that are unique and interesting, whether or not you include the keyword. More interesting headlines lead to higher CTRs.

The third ad in this series certainly is succinct. It uses just the keyword as the ad headline and because of that it will likely draw the searcher’s attention.

The first ad uses the keyword, too, but in a much more unique and interesting way.

The second ad is also interesting because it states the real question you would ask the searcher if they came into your store or office. I wonder if a similar version of that ad, “Need a Student Loan?” might have worked better because it also incorporated the keyword.

Simply stated offer

Especially in comparative shopping situations, your offer can distinguish your ad from those of your competitors.

All three of these student loan ads make it clear what they are offering, either implicitly or explicitly:

  • (You Get to) Pick Your Loan Now!
  • All Credit Types Welcome (We can give you a loan even if no one else will)
  • (If you) Enter Today, (you may win) a $10,000 Scholarship

More explicit offers for student loan advertisers could have included interest rates, loan terms, waiver of set up fees, and other numerically expressed offers. Whether the offers are implicit or explicitly stated, the best ads will keep them simple so that they are understood by the target audience.

That wraps up our short refresher course for today. Your homework assignment is to do this same exercise on Bing and Google searches and evaluate them against the same six characteristics. We won’t be collecting your homework, but if you have some observations you’d like to share, please leave a comment below. Have fun!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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