21 PPC lessons learned in the age of machine learning automation
What you’re about to read is not actually from me. It’s a compilation of PPC-specific lessons learned by those who actually do the work every day in this age of machine learning automation.
Before diving in, a few notes:
- These are “lessons already learned.”
- Things change (the platforms giveth, taketh, and sometimes just plain change the way campaigns need to be managed).
- Below are a mix of strategic, tactical, and “mindset-approach” based lessons.
Lesson 1: Volume is critical to an automated strategy
It’s simple, a machine cannot optimize toward a goal if there isn’t enough data to find patterns.
For example, Google Ads may recommend “Maximize Conversions” as a bid strategy, BUT the budget is small (like sub $2,000/mo) and the clicks are expensive.
In a case like this, you have to give it a Smart Bid strategy goal capable of collecting data to optimize towards.
So a better option might be to consider “Maximize Clicks” or “Search Impression Share”. In small volume accounts, that can make more sense.
Lesson 2: Proper learning expectations
The key part of “machine learning” is the second word: “learning.”
For a machine to learn what works, it must also learn what doesn’t work.
That part can be agonizing.
When launching an initial Responsive Search Ad (RSA), expect the results to underwhelm you. The system needs data to learn the patterns of what works and doesn’t.
It’s important for you to set these expectations for yourself and your stakeholders. A real-life client example saw the following results:
- RSA Month 1: 90 conversions at $8 cost per.
- RSA Month 2: 116 conversions at $5.06 cost per.
As you can see, month two looked far better. Have the proper expectations set!
Lesson 3: Old dogs need to learn new tricks
Many of us who’ve been in the industry a while weren’t taught to manage ad campaigns the way they need to be run now. In fact, it was a completely different mindset.
For example, I was taught to:
- Think of the “ad as a whole” as opposed to thinking about individual snippets and the possible combinations and how they might combine to make creative that performs.
- A/B testing using the Champion/Challenger methodology where the “control” is always the top performing creative and you can only alter one specific element at a time otherwise you have no idea what actually caused the performance shift. Now, in a high-volume campaign, machine learning may determine that one assembly of creative snippets performs better for an audience subset while another variation performs better for a different one.
Lesson 4: Stay on top of any site changes
Any type of automation relies on proper inputs. Sometimes what would seem to be a simple change could do significant damage to a campaign.
Some of those changes include:
- Change to the URL on a “thank you page”
- Addition of another call to action on the landing page
- Plugin or code that messes up page load
- Addition or removal of a step in the conversion path
- Replacing the hosted video with a YouTube or Vimeo embed
Those are just a few examples, but they all happened and they all messed with a live campaign.
Just remember, all bets are off when any site change happens without your knowledge!
Lesson 5: Recommendations tab
The best advice to follow regarding Recommendations are the following:
- Take them with a critical eye. Remember this is a machine that doesn’t have the context you do. Give the recommendations a look.
- Be careful where you click! It’s easy to implement a recommendation, which is great unless you make an unintentional click.
Lesson 6: Closely watch Search Impression Share, regardless of your goal
Officially defined as “the impressions you’ve received on the Search Network divided by the estimated number of impressions you were eligible to receive,” Search Impression Share is basically a gauge to inform you what percentage of the demand you are showing to compete for.
This isn’t to imply “Search Impression Share” is the single most important metric. However, you might implement a smart bidding rule with “Performance Max” or “Maximize Conversions” and doing so may negatively impact other metrics (like “Search Impression Share”).
That alone isn’t wrong. But make sure you’re both aware and OK with that.
Lesson 7: Stay on top of changes (to the ad platforms)
Sometimes things change. It’s your job to stay on top of it. For smart bidding, “Target CPA” no longer exists for new campaigns. It’s now merged with “Maximize Conversions”.
Smart Shopping and Local Campaigns are being automatically updated to “Performance Max” between July and September 2022. If you’re running these campaigns, the best thing you can do is to do the update manually yourself (one click implementation via the “recommendations” tab in your account).
Why should you do this?
- Eliminate any surprises due to an automatic switchover. There probably wouldn’t be any, but you never know and it’s not worth the risk.
- Reporting will be easier as YOU will pick when it happens so you can note it properly
- There’s a general peace of mind when you are the one to make the update happen at a time of your choosing.
Lesson 8: Keep separate records of your rules
This doesn’t need to be complicated. Just use your favorite tool like Evernote, OneNote, Google Docs/Sheets, etc. Include the following for each campaign:
- The what (goals, smart bidding rules, etc.)
- Why (Your justification for this particular setup)
There are three critical reasons why this is a good idea:
- You deserve to take a holiday at some point and the records are helpful for anyone who may be watching your accounts.
- At some point, you’re going to be questioned on your approach. You’ll get questions like “Why, exactly did you set it up that way?” Having the record readily available come in handy.
- It’s helpful for you to remember. Anytime you can get something “out of your head” and properly documented somewhere, it’s a win!
Lesson 9: Reporting isn’t always actionable
Imagine you’re setting up a campaign and loading snippets of an ad. You’ve got:
- 3 versions of headline 1
- 4 versions of headline 2
- 2 versions of headline 3
- 3 versions of the first description
- 2 versions of the second description
- The list goes on…
Given the above conditions, do you think it would be at all useful to know which combinations performed best? Would it help you to know if a consistent trend or theme emerges? Wouldn’t having that knowledge help you come up with even more effective snippets of an ad to test going forward?
Well, too bad because that’s not what you get at the moment.
Lesson 10: Bulk upload tools are your friend
If you run a large volume account with a lot of campaigns, then anytime you can provide your inputs in a spreadsheet for a bulk upload you should do it. Just make sure you do a quality check of any bulk actions taken.
Lesson 11: ALWAYS automate the mundane tasks
Few things can drag morale down like a steady stream of mundane tasks. Automate whatever you can. That can include:
- Pausing low performing keyword
- Pause low performing ads
- Bid adjustments based on success metrics (example Maximize Conversions)
- Bid adjustments to target average position
- Bid adjustments during peak hours
- Bid to impression share
- Controlling budgets
Lesson 12: Innovate beyond the default tools
To an outsider, managing an enterprise level PPC campaign would seem like having one big pile of money to work with for some high-volume campaigns. That’s a nice vision, but the reality is often quite different.
For those who manage those campaigns, it can feel more like 30 SMB accounts. You have different regions with several unique business units (each having separate P&L’s).
The budgets are set and you cannot go over it. Period.
You also need to ensure campaigns run the whole month so you can’t run out of budget on the 15th.
Below is an example of a custom budget tracking report built within Google Data Studio that shows the PPC manager how the budget is tracking in the current month:
Lesson 13: 10% rule of experimentation
Devote 10% of your management efforts (not necessarily budget) to trying something new.
Try a beta (if you have access to it), a new smart bidding strategy, new creative snippets, new landing page, call to action, etc.
Lesson 14: “Pin” when you have to
If you are required (for example by legal, compliance, branding, executives) to always display a specific message in the first headline, you can place a “pin” that will only insert your chosen copy in that spot while the remainder of the ad will function as a typical RSA.
Obviously if you “pin” everything, then the ad is no longer responsive. However, it has its place so when you gotta pin, you gotta pin!
Lesson 15: The “garbage in, garbage out” (GIGO) rule applies
It’s simple: The ad platform will perform the heavy lifting to test for the best possible ad snippet combinations submitted by you to achieve an objective defined by you.
The platform can either perform that heavy lifting to find the best combination of well-crafted ad snippets or garbage ones.
Bottom line, an RSA doesn’t negate the need for skilled ad copywriting.
Lesson 16: Educate legal, compliance, & branding teams in highly regulated industries
If you’ve managed campaigns for an organization in a highly regulated industry (healthcare, finance, insurance, education, etc.) you know all about the legal/compliance review and frustrations that can mount.
Remember, you have your objectives (produce campaigns that perform) and they have theirs (to keep the organization out of trouble).
When it comes to RSA campaigns, do yourself a favor and educate the legal, compliance, and branding teams on:
- The high-level mechanics
- Control mechanisms available
- How it affects their approval process
Lesson 17: Don’t mistake automate for set and forget
To use an automotive analogy, think of automation capabilities more like “park assist” than “full self driving.”
For example, you set up a campaign to “Bid to Position 2” and then just let it run without giving it a second thought. In the meantime, a new competitor enters the market and showing up in position 2 starts costing you a lot more. Now you’re running into budget limitations.
Use automation to do the heavy lifting and automate the mundane tasks (Lesson #11), but ignore a campaign once it’s set up.
Lesson 18: You know your business better than the algorithm
This is related to lesson #5 and cannot be overstated.
For example, you may see a recommendation to reach additional customers at a similar cost per conversion in a remarketing campaign. Take a close look at the audiences being recommended as you can quickly see a lot of inflated metrics – especially in remarketing.
You have the knowledge of the business far better than any algorithm possibly could. Use that knowledge to guide the machine and ensure it stays pointed in the right direction.
Lesson 19: The juice may not be worth the squeeze in some accounts
By “some accounts,” I’m mostly referring to low-budget campaigns.
Machine learning needs data and so many smaller accounts don’t have enough activity to generate it.
For those accounts, just keep it as manual as you can.
Lesson 20: See what your peers are doing
Speak with one of your industry peers, and you’ll quickly find someone who understands your daily challenges and may have found ways to mitigate them.
Attend conferences and network with people attending the PPC track. Sign up for PPC webinars where tactical campaign management is discussed.
Participate (or just lurk) in social media discussions and groups specific to PPC management.
Lesson 21: Strategic PPC marketers will be valuable
Many of the mundane tasks (Lesson #11) can be automated now, thus eliminating the need for a person to spend hours on end performing them. That’s a good thing – no one really enjoyed doing most of those things anyway.
As more “tasks” continue toward the path of automation, marketers only skilled at the mundane work will become less needed.
On the flipside, this presents a prime opportunity for strategic marketers to become more valuable. Think about it – the “machine” doing the heavy lifting needs guidance, direction and course corrective action when necessary.
That requires the marketer to:
- Have a thorough understanding of business objectives in relation to key campaign metrics.
- Guide the organization’s stakeholders setting overall business strategy on what’s possible with PPC.
- See how the tactical capabilities to manage a campaign can further a specific business objective.
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