With so much talk about machine learning, voice search and other technologies that might one day be important, it’s easy to forget what really matters today. While the changes to our favourite advertising platforms come thick and fast, the fundamentals largely stay the same. So what’s really changed in the world of PPC over the last few years?

To help answer this question, we’ve broken down successful PPC campaigns into seven key elements. And, while some of these are relatively new to the game, most of them are the advertising fundamentals that have rung true for decades – and it’s important we don’t let the excitement of new technology distract from them.

Audience: Know who they are and what they want

Some things will never change in marketing and this tops the list of key elements that will always apply to advertising. Everything starts with knowing who your audiences are and what they want – in fact, the only thing that’s changed in this regard is how we go about determining who our targets are.

With more research and analytics tools available than ever, we’re able to create more detailed buying personas than were previously possible. We can now pinpoint users down to the individual, which is more than we need when there’s no practical way to automate marketing to individuals on a large scale basis.

eMarketer is one of many online hubs for industry reports and data

Technology will gradually make this easier, of course. But, in the meantime, identifying your target audiences is something of a balancing act. You want to target specific interests, but you also want to reach the widest possible audiences and create the minimum number of campaigns necessary to reach your maximum conversion rate.

Offer: Turn audience research into something they can’t refuse

Once again, this theory is nothing new, but it takes more work to create offers that inspire action these days. This is why audience understanding is vital.

When you know who your target audiences are and what they want, crafting your offer isn’t such a difficult task. Price conscious buyers want to save money, quality conscious buyers want the best products and some people simply want everything for nothing – but that’s another story altogether.

How special your offer needs to be also depends on the competition you face. People can buy iPhones from thousands of different retailers but international travel insurance for them and other gadgets is far more niche. You can’t reduce the size of your competition but you can work hard to create something unique and valuable.

Always remember it’s not the product, service or any special deal that really matters. It’s the real-life, everyday benefit that captures people’s emotions. Nobody gets excited about buying insurance, but people do have an emotional connection to their phones. The idea of travelling without taking selfies of every minute detail along the way kind of defeats the point of travelling at all. If your policy can provide this freedom and protection against iPhones taking a swim in crystal clear waters, you’re offering a lot more than a signed sheet of paper.

Ads: Make them outstanding

Yes, they quite literally need to stand out. Users are bombarded with ads from every angle and it’s getting harder for individual brands to differentiate themselves. This is particularly challenging with AdWords search ads.

With AdWords you really have to nail your ad copy and use of ad extensions. Notice how the second ad stands out from the pack in the example above, even though it’s not the first ad users see, thanks to its seller rating extension (colour contrast goes a long way). You also want to try and match user queries in your ad copy wherever possible because Google bolds this text by default.

In many ways, things are a lot easier when it comes to standing out on Facebook. Facebook ads are visual by nature but this comes with the challenge of creating visuals good enough to capture people’s attention. In most cases, this is a question of budget and investing in quality visuals more than it is about difficulty.

For more info on this, check out our guides to creating killer Facebook ads.

Targeting: Get your ads seen by the right people

Targeting has come on a long way in recent years but its Google and Facebook that are really pushing things along. The likes of LinkedIn, Twitter and the other alternatives are nowhere near the level of the big two – so keep this in mind (note: Instagram comes with all of Facebook’s targeting options).

The targeting options available on Google and Facebook are constantly improving. Facebook still has the edge in terms of how specific you can be with who you target but Google has the advantage in terms of user intent. People are looking to do business when they use Google, but not so much with Facebook.

Understanding user intent is vital to your targeting strategy, too. You need to map out the buying journey of each target audience, understand how their intent changes along the way and use the appropriate targeting to deliver relevant ads at every stage of the buying process.

For more info on targeting, take a look at our guides for Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Optimisation: Never stop improving

Optimisation has become a huge topic in itself over the last few years. Now brands seem to be A/B testing everything, collecting more data than they can handle and getting lost in an ocean of metrics they can’t decipher.

Optimisation is important, but you need to make it manageable. The goal is to improve performance; not collect a bunch of data you’ll never use. For most PPC campaigns, these are the key areas to optimise:

  • Ad copy
  • Bids
  • Targeting
  • Landing pages

That may look like a short list, but it isn’t. Once you start testing button colours on all of your landing pages and every other small variation you can think of, you’re quickly in a mess. Instead, focus on things that actually impact conversions – like page loading times, for example.

People don’t care which shade of magenta your CTA button is.

The same thing goes for ad copy. Don’t fret over single words; test full headlines or even full ads against each other and make sure you run tests long enough to get a definitive answer.

Optimising your bids and targeting is a more refined process. You’re not A/B testing visual design elements anymore but the core operation of your PPC campaign. Normally, this starts with optimising bids for the most profitable days of the week and then times of day. You can also optimise bids for device types, audiences, location and a number of other variables. This won’t happen overnight, but it’s the long game you need to play if you want to get the best return on your ad spend.

Automation: Overcome time/volume constraints

Optimising one PPC campaign can be tough. Managing hundreds or thousands at any one time is another thing altogether. So how do agencies like ourselves manage to do this?

The answer is automation. By automating as much of the data collection and processing side of things as we possibly can, two things happen. First, we’re able to optimise at scale across any number of accounts. Second, we free up more time to focus on the creative side of advertising that really need human involvement.

Let’s go back to budget optimisation as a basic example. Rather than cross reference conversion rates vs CPCs per hour, day, week and month – and then manually adjust bids for every keyword – we automate this entire process using formulas and AdWords scripts. This gives us an overview of where ad spend is most effective, telling us where to up bids and where to drop them across any number of accounts.

We can even set scripts to automatically change bids based on historical performance. Above all, automation allows us to handle a much larger (almost infinite) volume of data than humans could possiblly manage.

Strategy: Bring every lead closer to the finish line

Google has been pushing the notion of micro-moments for a few years now and it’s a smart way to sum up the current state of marketing. As people move through the consumer journey, they face different obstacles, questions and concerns. Know what these are and you have an anchor point target users at each stage of the buying process with ads that encourage them on to the next.

This is where your PPC campaigns need to integrate with your other marketing strategies so you can use every resource to bring every lead closer to the finish line. Let’s say someone clicks your ad and spends a bit of time on your landing page but, ultimately, doesn’t convert. Most brands target these users with remarketing ads promoting the same offer that didn’t work the first time around, but you can be more strategic than this.

An alternative approach is to target these users with remarketing ads for downloadable content, based on their original search query. For example, you know this visitor typed “best marketing software” but didn’t choose your product – so target them with remarketing ads offering a free guide to the best marketing software products. This way you get their email address and a solid lead to work with, rather than simply repeating the same offer that didn’t work the first time.

You can then use your email lists to target new audiences in AdWords and Facebook that have similar search and browsing behaviours/interests.

Out of these key elements, it’s only really optimisation and automation that haven’t always been fundamentals. Even targeting has been important for decades – from choosing the right audiences, channels and times of day for any given campaign. What has changed though is how we approach targeting in the digital age and this applies to all of the advertising fundamentals.

Audience research and strategy, for example, are different animals today and much of this change has been driven by technology. But the core fundamentals of successful advertising campaigns are essentially the same and this isn’t going to change any time soon. There’s too much emphasis put on the tools we use to get the job done these days, which distracts from the task we’re actually trying to achieve. Worse still, it can create problems that don’t really exist – like how to create an engaging chatbot, for example.

Consumers don’t care about chatbots or any other technology you use. They simply want the best possible buying experience and this start with the same key elements we’ve looked at today.