A few years ago, I remember spending what felt like a lifetime creating the Google Ads process document to end all process documents. No detail was going to be left out, with meticulous instructions on how to create and optimise campaigns – it would be the solution to perfect performance for every client!
About 2 weeks after I finished it, several very significant changes were made to the platform which made most of the document not worth the virtual paper it was written on.
As frustrating as it was at the time, it reminded me that paid media, marketing and business don’t stand still.
Ad networks come and go, key features are sunset, automation continues to redefine the day-to-day occurrences, consumer behaviour changes, competitors pop up and laws change around data privacy, ultimately culminating in the best way to drive success being a moving target – not a linear process.
This creates a challenge when it comes to creating consistent, effective strategy and staying on top of performance.
You can learn ‘the what’ with the abundance of resources available on the specifics, it’s everyone’s starting point. For example, we have Skillshop for Google Ads, Blueprint for Facebook and you may even have a good ol’ fashioned process document like mine (which is probably now more out of date than my taste in music).
The question is: How do you learn the context of being able to apply the specifics in a way that will generate a positive return to each product and service that you are trying to promote? How can this be done across different sectors, territories, websites, brands and margins? And how do you shift and pivot your approach based on new opportunities?
Personally, I don’t think the answer lies in learning the specifics.
I believe the solution comes through mindset, identifying and building on existing traits and developing particular ways of thinking.
It’s creating a mindset that’s as fluid as the sector, where you’re constantly sparking your curiosity to ask “why”?
You’re not just blindly following consensus or process. Instead, you’re applying critical thinking when you have a hypothesis to avoid making (or more often not making) decisions based on cognitive bias.
The answers waiting just beneath the surface are often surprising. They can save you wasted time and ad-spend through optimising for a solution to the problem that you don’t have.
Building on this type of mindset gives you a robust methodology to follow and it means that whatever the specifics may be, and however frequently the ad platforms change, you get to the root of the problem and create an effective, adaptive strategy to achieve what you need to.
This is also important given the continued automation of the specifics. If you’re competing on ‘the what’ (meaning on the fact that you make PPC campaigns, for example) then you’re likely to be in trouble in the near future.
Understanding ‘the why’ is the most effective way to get yourself (and others) to start thinking about context, which leads to creating effective strategy and therefore driving performance.
Our value as advertisers is now in creativity and strategic thinking – it’s not easy though and it’s certainly not something that happens overnight – it’s a long-term solution for long-lasting change.
Some people are naturally more open to experience / change than others and if you are then you’re likely a good fit to be in the environment described at the start of this blog post.
Openness to experience is one of The Big 5 personality traits which indicates how open-minded someone is. There are a number of online psychometric tests that you can do to see where you rank on these types of traits.
In my experience, openness to change is a very good predictor of success when it comes to learning PPC. Being open to change doesn’t only give someone the ability to ‘roll with the punches’, but when ad networks mix up the interface or remove a key feature, they can flip that entirely from being a barrier to being a building block to success.
Rather than rocking the boat, it’s a chance to learn something new, to find an even better way of achieving what you were before – quicker and more cost-efficiently.
This also applies from a testing perspective. Having the curiosity to want to try new ad formats, campaigns and channels can open up opportunities (not just via paid media but more broadly too). For example, you see an opportunity to try video ads on YouTube. You then run a test to validate or disprove your hypothesis. Finally, you see the results from the test and have proven that there is viability for the business to advertise there and see a return.
You’ve also just proven channel viability for other activity (assuming it’s not already active). If you’re going to be running ads then you need a channel with organic content.
Paid media offers instant feedback which means even if the test comes back negative (depending on the context and a significant enough amount of data of course), the same outcome applies. This way, you can prioritise other areas and keep resource focus on where it is going to be most valuable.
You’re going to miss opportunities if you’re waiting for them to fall in your lap.
From a more day-to-day point of view, being curious allows you to deep dive into why something is working effectively so that it can be doubled-down on, or alternatively, you can correctly identify specifically what isn’t working and why.
I will come onto this later in the blog post, but if sales are dropping in a campaign, the curious and more open individual is more likely to probe into the compounding factors of why sales dropped, which makes them able to be more effectively resolve the issue, as opposed to taking it on face value.
This is really important for optimisation. Checklists and process documents often don’t help here because what needs doing will usually be highly contextual, even more so than creating the right campaign to begin with.
Reducing fear of failure
Openness as a personality trait is hard-wired, however, sometimes it can be masked so that it’s not all that apparent. I think anyone can become more open to change overtime through working on certain ways of thinking. The key blocker in both of these instances is usually fear of failure.
This can easily happen when you’re working in an environment where there is a lot of change happening and where there is an overwhelming amount of information to take in at one time.
A limiting cycle can start to take hold whereby you don’t want to break away from process or routine due to a fear of seeing worse performance so you stop trying new ideas, running tests, growing your skillset – which ultimately loops back into more fear and hesitation.
You can see really clearly why this is going to be such a problem when you’re in an environment that is moving at the speed it does. The question is what can we do about it?
Before I worked in marketing I used to teach music and had a range of students of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels. I’m not a psychologist, however, the commonality that I have found is that if you reduce fear of failure then curiosity and openness can flourish, while the technical skills fall into place naturally. This is the case with music and marketing, as well as many other aspects.
Fear of failure is just your subconscious trying to keep you safe. It is a misfiring of the old part of our brains. It wants to keep your anxiety levels down by making you avoid doing things that could bring risk.
As demonstrated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow, the most personal growth and feeling of accomplishment comes when we do activities that sit in the place between boredom and anxiety. This means we can’t not take any risk, but we do need to consider how deep we can delve into anxiety, to avoid feeling too anxious and increasing the risk of fear of failure.
The way that I’ve found best to overcome this is to simply break training down into short, digestible chunks rather than long ‘death by powerpoint’ type sessions.
If you’re looking to start learning Google Ads, you’re better off getting into a live account for 15 minutes per day and self-exploring, rather than you trying to spend 2 hours taking in every detail of every possible campaign type and setting from a course.
The most important factor here is to do that as much as possible so that you have consistency.
Doing 15 minutes once per week is unlikely to achieve much progress, as is spending 2 hours, feeling overwhelmed and avoiding it for another month.
High consistency, low session length means that a positive feedback loop starts to occur. Usually by day 5-7 you will have enough base understanding to have removed the barrier to getting started. More often than not by day 5-7 I find people are figuring things out for themselves as they are curious to prod and poke around and ask questions or look online to find out the details and don’t need much further support.
This works very effectively as you are training yourself and others to look into things in a hands-on way. Essentially, you’re removing low level blockers, like where to look to start with, and you’re avoiding becoming overwhelmed. To use Mihaly’s example, you’re not ‘going too far into anxiety’.
As an example this is what I would recommend breaking a new channel into:
Familiarisation and navigation – Just get used to being on the platform, where to find information and what happens when you go into different places. Look for how performance is displayed, how you can segment using filters, what does ‘business as usual’ performance look like for this account etc
Reporting – Once you’re able to navigate, choose metrics that will make you have to dig into the specifics a bit deeper than account level performance. Get used to being able to find information.
Creating – Start making campaigns to understand how the process works and learn more about the details of what inputs need to go into them. You don’t have to turn it on, just pause it once you’ve made it – this is far more useful often than just reading about it online.
Insight finding – This is the part that often gets missed. It is different to reporting because you need to understand how the campaigns are made and why what’s happened has happened. More on this in the next section.
You might go from steps 1-3 in a day or a few weeks – it depends on the individual. The important thing to take away is that most people try to start at 3 and stay there.
I find this process is also useful for my own learning on whatever it might be, whether that’s business related or not. My problem is I become interested in everything so have a high risk of becoming distracted and not being able to focus on any one particular thing. I anticipate other people feel the same.
I had to do this recently with a book I’ve been putting off reading for 6 months. I want to read it, but I just never felt like I had the time. The problem isn’t time, it’s getting started. In my head it means spending hours reading – hours which I would struggle to find. The solution was to start with 4 pages per day, and if I can’t do 4 then 2, but something every day, no excuses.
Once I got 5 days in I couldn’t put it down! In fact, I found myself spending an hour at a time (or more). So, funnily enough I did have the time. This goes to show that the stories we tell ourselves in our heads aren’t always correct.
This concept is best summarised by a quote from Seth Godin:
“The best way to change long-term behavior is with short-term feedback.”
Critical thinking & cognitive bias
Being able to provide insights, not data, is something that will really set apart individuals and agencies, especially as we move further into the world of machine learning and automation.
Insight finding is imperative to business growth, in order to spot opportunities and changes within the market and capitalise on them as quickly as possible.
Sending someone a metric from Google Analytics is not providing insight and it’s definitely not being ‘data-driven’.
What businesses need is insight into what that piece of data means and what they should actually do with it. Sometimes it’s that they should do nothing, but knowing this is what is game-changing.
As humans, the biggest barrier we face while trying to do this is that we are somewhat set up to fail. Our brains (as amazing as they are) are prone to a vast number of cognitive biases which makes us high risk for making the wrong analyses and therefore decisions. Our brains are trying to make sense of huge amounts of data and to do so have to apply rules or biases in order to make decisions.
There are over 180 known types of cognitive bias. You can see the codex in full detail here, which will show you the categories and examples of the types of bias within each of them:
This should make you feel uncomfortable.
We need to be questioning ourselves, our ideas, what we’re doing and why we’re doing it constantly. We’re unlikely to remove every bias in every instance but we can do our due diligence through applying critical thinking and the following the scientific-method.
What this has to do with marketing, paid media and business growth is that we need to be aware of how prone we are to making assumptions and coming to the wrong conclusion. This is so that when we’re working in the objective world of performance data, we do what’s most likely to lead to performance, and not what we think ‘makes sense’, because often what makes sense isn’t the full picture.
The answer lies in critical thinking and this is where we move from providing data to providing insight. It will enable us to make more strategic decisions, troubleshoot performance better and optimise activity for growth.
When we have an idea or hypothesis around why performance is the way it is, we need to look into that hypothesis with a curious and sceptical mindset to ensure that the answer we come to is as objective as it possibly can be – especially when it works in our favour to go with our assumption.
Let’s take an example:
Leads or sales look low in your Google Ads campaign this month in comparison to last
We think that January is a potentially a quiet month due to seasonality
As you can see in the “Too much information” part of the codex, “we are drawn to details that confirm our own existing beliefs” and “we tend to find stories and patterns even when looking at sparse data”.
There is very high risk here as we start to explore further by looking at other channels in Google Analytics, for example, we will find what we’re looking for and confirm our own bias.
We need to use critical thinking to not only look into data that validates the hypothesis but also to actively try and find data that disproves it.
Through being aware of cognitive bias and applying critical thinking, we dig deeper into the compounding factors that would go into leads or sales from our Google Ads campaign.
Demand – Visibility – Engagement – Post-click (i.e UX, CRO, price)
No website changes were made that would have affected post-click
Engagement rates are consistent month-on-month
The number of clicks and impressions has dropped
Search query volume has dropped by x% which shows a reduction on consumer demand aka seasonality
No website changes were made that would have affected post-click
Engagement rates are consistent month-on-month
Traffic dropped due to Avg CPC increasing
We check auction insights and see that a new competitor has entered the space
In either example, we can now provide valuable insight.
Example 1 insight
We can see that leads or sales are down this month in Google Ads and this is due to a decrease in consumer demand as evidenced by x and supported by other metrics y which have not changed. The business should do z in order to drive more demand and maintain the required level of leads or sales.
Example 2 insight
We can see that leads or sales are down this month in Google Ads, we can see that this is due to a new competitor entering ads auctions and potentially the market generally as evidenced by x and supported by other metrics y which have not changed. The business should do z in order to maintain levels of competition in Google Ads and more broadly perhaps needs to review value proposition and pricing to remain competitive.
What does it all mean?
You’re right if you’re reading this and thinking ‘this must take a lot of time’. It does and you have to constantly pick yourself up on remembering to do it- your brain is hardwired to prefer the simpler option of confirmation bias.
We could have stopped in example 1 at ‘the number of clicks and impressions dropped’ and said that confirms it’s seasonality. But we’re right to have not, as these types of metrics are more indicative than measurement metrics. This simply means that clicks being down is indicative that demand has gone down, while actual search queries is more of a measurement of demand being down.
Being curious to go that step further and ask ‘why did clicks and impressions go down though?’ is the reason why people who are high in the trait openness (and are therefore curious and creative thinkers) are naturally well suited to the paid media field.
The value that this adds to strategy is massive, and so the investment of time is far outweighed by the reward that comes through applying critical thinking and working to reduce cognitive bias.
The best thing about this way of thinking is that it doesn’t require appeals to authority or consensus. Go and try it for yourself. It stands up on it’s own. Through looking into performance in this way you will also teach yourself how to use the platforms better and develop your understanding of how campaigns work which will lead to better strategy and so on – no process document required.
To quote Naval Ravikant:
“People spend too much time doing, and not enough time thinking about what they should be doing.”
Machine learning has automated a huge part of the PPC executives day-to-day activities and that’s great. But we should spend time on this sort of strategic thinking. After all, it’s where the biggest opportunities lie.
If we flip the negative performance issue in the examples I gave to be about leads or sales being higher, the same critical thinking process should apply. If performance has increased, specifically what made it increase? We need to know so we can do more of it.
Could we possibly enhance this increase 10 times by investing more of the right things?
As I said at the start, often the answers we find are surprising. This can lead to challenging situations and conversations. Sometimes we have to break consensus and ‘rock the boat’ though, if that’s what is evidenced in the data as the right thing to do.
We work in a rapidly changing, busy sector filled with an overabundance of metrics, buzzwords, channels and just data data data everywhere!
Focussing on being more open to change, reducing your fear of failure, being aware of cognitive bias and applying the critical thinking methodology will teach you ‘how to think’ not what to think. This gives you a map for what you need to do next, what to optimise and most importantly why – no playbooks or process documents required.
Through developing my own knowledge in this space, and training people both in-house and agency side, I can guarantee that time spent doing this will give you 10 x more effective outcomes than learning the specifics, and will make you a future-proof marketeer who can pick up the details in any given circumstance.
Cut the noise right down, make a plan and set aside whatever amount of time you can commit to everyday to work on what you need to. It might be more than 15 minutes and that’s great, but the consistency is more important than the length of time. Consistency is key!
Spend less time trying to make changes for the sake of changing, and more time thinking and analysing, so that when you do make a decision or try something, you’re doing it on a more objective foundation which in return will guess what?
Reduce your fear of failure 😉