Search engine marketing, or SEM, has become the advertising medium of choice for small businesses of all kinds, thanks to its return on investment, its ease and flexibility. But writing good SEM ad copy is an art in itself, because you have only a few words with which to attract searchers.
For an introduction to SEM, read What Is Search Engine Marketing?
For many, writing ads is the hardest step. You have to create a catchy headline, some short, snappy “body copy” text, and end with an irresistible “call to action” that will cause the reader to click on the link back to the landing page on your site. (Each ad should send customers to a tailored page known as a landing page, rather than the front page of your site. We explain more in Create Landing Pages That Land Business.
Search ads are all text — no pretty pictures or interesting typography. They consist of a headline in bold and a few words of copy, followed by a link to your landing page. Put the keyword you’re targeting in the headline; in the body copy, be specific about what you offer, especially about what makes you a better choice than the other ads that will also be on that page.
The advertising basics still apply: Your copy should be clear, offer a specific benefit to the user, and include a call to action.
If you advertise in other media, you know how time-consuming it can be to get results, and how difficult it is to fine-tune tests and to figure out exactly what a test result means.
The great thing about SEM is that you don’t have to speculate about what will work — which word is more appealing, or whether a discount will lift response more than a freebie. You can tweak and try variants endlessly, gaining more insights into your market and understanding its hot buttons.
The search engines have made it very easy for you to test by letting you set up campaigns, or groupings of your keyword buys to run simultaneously or in a specific order. Changing and stopping campaigns is easy, and starting new ones equally easy. And with the Web’s rapid response, you can get reactions from your potential customers faster than in any other medium.
This unprecedented level of testability demands that you take advantage of it. Don’t wait until later — test from day one! And later, you’ll find it’s valuable to test even proven campaigns again and again in different seasons and as your market evolves.
Because you buy and manage search ads online, it’s easy to get a campaign going. So, it doesn’t cost you much money or time to feel your way along and try things out. The search providers also offer free tools that let you analyze how well each ad is working. (For more on this, read What Is Your Cost Per Click?
However, you’ll probably get good results faster if you’re a bit more methodical.
First, make a list of keywords — terms that you think potential customers will use in their search queries. For example, if you’re an accountant, you’d start with “accounting” and “accountant.” If you’re a CPA, you’d add that keyword. What about “taxes,” “tax preparation,” “income tax services,” and “income tax accountant?” Let your mind run free, generating as many keywords as you can. These are the keywords you’ll bid on. You’ll be able to test which ones work best.
Next, think up some attributes of a great accountant: fast, accurate, friendly, detail-oriented. Now, put together the keywords and the attributes into a series of headlines for your ads. For example, you might write, “Fast, accurate tax preparation,” and “Friendly income tax services.”
Next, write short body copy that reinforces the message.
Finally, match each headline with the body copy; for example, if you have five different headlines, you’ll end up with five ads. Next, set up a campaign in which all these variations appear. Using the search engines’ online tools, you can see which combos perform better.
To take it to the next level, choose the two top-performing ads, and begin to switch out words. For example, if “Fast, accurate tax preparation” is attracting clicks, test whether “Friendly, accurate tax preparation” will draw even more.
You may have started with a list of a few dozen keywords jotted in a notepad, but experience will show you the critical difference between the right keyword versus the almost-right keyword. Soon, you’ll have plenty of examples of ad campaigns that illustrate Mark Twain’s remark, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”