Why You’ve Given Up on AdWords

Most people who've tried to grow their business with AdWords have given up in apparent failure. After struggling to understand the complicated interface, they finally get a campaign up and quickly see lousy results. They pay lots of money to Google and their sales don't increase at all.

They turn off the campaign, mutter something about another Internet scam, and go back to all the other ways of getting traffic that weren't sufficient before.

Why does this happen so frequently? And what can you do to avoid this gaping chasm of failure?

Why I Never Go to California

I live in Durham, North Carolina, and I just hate going to California.

Here's why: On the map, California is west of Durham. But RDU, the nearest airport to me, is in Raleigh, which is east of Durham. So driving east to go west feels like failure. Every mile I put in driving to RDU seems to be taking me farther away from my goal. Therefore, I refuse to go to California because I don't believe I'll ever get there based on the drive.

Oh, and to make things worse, my car is parked slightly north of my house. That's why I have trouble flying to Atlanta and Florida.

And my chest of drawers is west of my bed, so that pretty much rules out Europe, Asia and Africa.

Honestly, I don't know how I make it to the office in the morning.

When the Terrain is Unfamiliar, Almost Everything Can Feel Like Failure

Obviously, the above examples of me not going anywhere because the first steps take me in the opposite direction are ridiculous. But the same faulty thinking can sabotage our success in many other journeys, including the one to AdWords profitability.

When the first steps in unfamiliar terrain don't lead to immediate payoffs, we can quickly conclude that the journey isn't working, that it can't work, or that we can't work it.

In their absolutely fabulous book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip Heath and Dan Heath talk about a fundamental change strategy they call "Shrink the Change." 

What they mean is, chunk down a big change into small initial steps, so that even the very hard part at the beginning feels like a small success. When we "taste blood," we get very motivated. When the first steps don't provide positive feedback, we lose faith and heart.

Overwhelmed by a messy house? Don't try to clean it all at once. You'll wander around, moving stuff from pile to pile, and quickly give up in helpless frustration.

Instead, the Heath brothers advise, set a timer for 5 minutes and tackle the worst spot. Why only 5 minutes? Because it's a small enough sacrifice of time that we're willing to make the gamble, and the effort we put in will almost certainly reward us with a feeling of "this is actually possible."

Why We Love Video Games

Think about how successful video games are designed: we start on Level 1, the easiest level. We get some quick successes: we waste a few aliens, we steer our race car for a few hundred feet before flying off the overpass, we create an Avatar with cool clothes who sort of looks like us.

Instant positive feedback, despite the challenge inherent in this new and strange environment. 

So when we get wasted ourselves, or come in 6th out of 6 cars in the Grand Prix, or accidentally poison all our pets, we're not disheartened. Instead, we want to get back into the game and try again. Right away.

Imagine if AdWords worked like that, instead of being the huge "inadequacy engine" that it now is.

How to Turn AdWords into a Video Game

We have to turn off the giant negative feedback loop built into AdWords. (The one that goes, "work hard, spend money, get nothing in return.")

Obviously, we can't jiggle AdWords so that it starts bringing hungry customers to our Web site right away. We can't make our landing page convert better than it does just by throwing traffic at it. There is a real learning curve at work here, and no wishful thinking will short-cut it (shorten it, yes, but not eliminate the steps).

The trick is to understand the end goal, and how each part of the AdWords process contributes to that goal. Since failure along the way is inevitable, we have to prepare ourselves for multiple failures, and redefine them as experiments that must be conducted to achieve ultimate success.

Redefining AdWords Failure at the Impressions Level

The first thing you need in AdWords is the right traffic. That means choosing the right keywords (let's keep this example simple by focusing only on search, not the Content Network). 

Your first point of failure will be to choose keywords that bring you too few impressions. Luckily, this failure costs you time, but not money. Remember the first rule of AdWords: "No Clicky, No Pay Google."

This failure can show you that there isn't a hungry crowd searching for your product or service (which is a good thing to know before, say, spending all your money building a fancy website and all your time optimizing it for organic search engines).

Or it can show you that you don't understand the mind of your market well enough to predict the words and phrases they use when they are searching for help that you can provide.

Either way, the failure is a smashing success in that it saves you a lot of downriver grief.

AdWords Click Failure = Success

Similarly, what if you get lots of impressions but no clicks. First, you can provisionally congratulate yourself on finding the rich vein of your market. Good job!

The lack of clicks means a disconnect between your ad and the searcher. That can feel like a failure, and most people give up at this point. 

But it's really a huge success, when you think about it. Google has kindly given you a circuit-breaker that saves you money while showing you the disconnect. Imagine if you got charged for impressions instead of clicks! Yikes!

Instead, you've discovered that you need to change the way you talk to your market in order to sell to them. Good thing you learned that on Google's dime rather than your own. 

AdWords Conversion Failure = Success

Now say you've improved your ad so people are clicking on it. Now you're in the game for real, generating data and paying Google for each visitor. But no one's buying. They may be fleeing your Web page almost as soon as they land on it. Now is a really good time to give up in abject failure, right?

Not so fast – you're now almost there, almost at the point of ultimate success. Don't quit now. 

You understand from your ad what capture's your prospects' attention. Now you have to figure out how to turn that attention into interest. You work on the top part of your page to convince the visitor that they're in the right place, that a solution to their problem is likely here.

Once they're spending time on your site but still not buying, you work on removing obstacles to their desire. Proof, testimonials, answering objections. 

And then if they're filling out the shopping cart and still not buying, you work on compelling action through clear directions, policies, and risk reversal. 

You Determine the Meaning of Each Step

Since AdWords is an unfamiliar environment to the beginner, and it's such a lonely activity for most people (unlike, say, learning how to ride a bike or pilot a plane or Salsa dance), you're all alone in assigning meaning to the results of each step.

It's possible, I suppose, to choose the right keywords, craft the right ads, and build the perfect Web site the very first time you try.

I've never heard of such a thing, and it feels just as unlikely as someone who's never been inside a cockpit before flying a 747 from Raleigh to Los Angeles by luck alone.

Since that ain't gonna happen, your job as a novice AdWords aviator is to assign your own meaning to each inflection point along the way. Each piece of feedback is either fuel for the journey, or a breakdown. 

And whichever you think is true, is true for you. So choose carefully…

Camp Checkmate – Free Pre-Camp Email Course

While you're here, I thought I'd just throw in a mention of Camp Checkmate Chicago, which will be held on June 10-11, 2010 in Chicago. 

You can find out more and sign up for the extensive pre-Camp Checkmate training series of articles, tutorials, exercises, and live and recorded webinars and teleseminars at CampCheckmate.com.

I'm giving away so much material because, quite honestly, there's no substitute to being there and experiencing Camp Checkmate. Check out some reactions to a recent Checkmate workshop I gave at the System Seminar:

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11 Comments. Leave a comment or send a Trackback.
  1. #1 • Jack said on April 19 2010:

    Each and every time I read something that Howie writes, I learn something new. (That's not to say that I simply forgot what I read previously and are merely repeatedly going the same things over and over). I've read countless articles, scanned many books and pondered 'em all, usually suckered in by the "user-friendly" claims of their authors.
    But Howie's instructions are spot-on; true "best practices" of what any potential AdWords user might want to learn. I've tried the rest, now I'm stayin' with the best!
    Keep up the good work, Howie. You have a rapt, attentive pupil @ the other end of this thread!

  2. #2 • Philip Davis said on April 19 2010:

    That's an interesting way of breaking down my apparent failures with Adwords.
    I got so disgusted and discouraged that I did quit and I haven't been back just as you mentioned.
    I now know it was my failure, poor keywords and an even worse landing page and yet I've had a hard time getting up the courage to go for it again.
    So on your advice I will and I'm sure I'll do better and if not I'll e back here reading more of your posts!

  3. #3 • Paul said on April 19 2010:

    Excellent article and your 100% correct Howie!   My biggest fear is spending too much money without taking any in….The idea of attacking Ad Words in portions is probably the only way I'll ever get through it.   Creating a landing page and fitting the right keywords is a monumental task for me….figuring out a budget to keep me afloat….. that just adds to the stress!!   But when I read your articles I get the feeling that all is not lost….and if I peck away at it someday soon I'll be successful.   Thanks Howie!

  4. #4 • jim ob said on April 19 2010:

    Great article. Very aptly describes my experience.I was able to get a click thru of just over 1% but very few leads.  Those leads that did come in were not qualified. My challenge is also that I am selling in a B2B environment, and to large corporations (Fortune500). Is it also possiible to get "bad traffic" to the landing page?? That is what I thought that was maybe my problem.
    Howie: Any ideas?
    I willeventually start the campaign again. In the meantime,I am going back to my more tired and true marketing: cold calling. It has always worked for me. For now.

  5. #5 • Ruth Marbaek said on April 20 2010:

    Let me repeat the mantra: "Thank you Howie" Every time I read your good advice I'm encouraged to continue working with AdWords. And let me stress, I love AdWords! Every day I'm meet people who have no confidence i AdWords, they think it's a google money machine, believe me in Denmark people are very suspicious of a media like AdWords, and if they try it and don't see results emidiately they quit! Now I would like to confront them with the argumentation you present here, Howie. Thanks again:-)
    I apologize for spelling and grammar mistakes.

  6. #6 • Nigel Charig said on April 20 2010:

    Nothing terribly original to say I'm afraid but I simply had to write and thank you for this advice, because what you say reflects my situation and state of mind with such profound accuracy. I have been experimenting for literally years with Adwords, and have never, ever, EVER had one single enquiry! Not one! I've had plenty of clicks though, and given plenty of money to Google.
    But like Jim Ob, I really want it to work, to free myself from cold calling. My first Adwords enquiry would be a life changing experience. So as you suggest, I'll keep trying. Maybe I'm like Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen – that scene where he's struggling to get his boat out of the swamp and the trees – but the camera shows us what he can't see – clear open water just a few feet away.

  7. #7 • Biba Pearce said on April 20 2010:

    Thanks for a very informative article… and so timeous too. I was about to quit a campaign I've had going due to lack of coversions (not lack of impressions, mind you!), but now – following your logical steps, which I knew, but was so frustrated that I forgot, will persevere.
    Where I live in South Africa, the failure is even more bitter, since we're paying Rands for Dollars per Click. It means failure is expensive here and it's very easy to quit rather than incur the possible expensive of continuing a doomed campaign. But as you so rightly say, perseverence pays off in the end.

  8. #8 • Heike said on April 20 2010:

    Hi there, thanks for the advice. Your articles are all scratching the itch…but i am just starting and am not having anything online yet…the set-up of the campaign already costs plenty of time, but i am very couraged to see, what i wil get…now that i have read the book and some articles…and the adwords-day here in germany yet to come…

  9. #9 • Jackie said on April 20 2010:

    Hey Howie,
    Thanks for the info and the encouragement.
    I stopped at AdWords Conversion Failure = Success. I had a 10/10 quality score for my ad (surely based on what I learned on one of your calls), great impressions and people were clicking like crazy. But, no sales. I changed the headline and tweaked the page based on feedback, but after spending $239 to test a $30 product, I got cold feet. I know it's not a lot of money but I felt I was throwing good money after bad.
    With every new keyword, every new sales page I feel like I'm starting from scratch. It wouldn't be so bad if I could test for free! It's good to know that I was almost there. Maybe I'll dust off the page, tweak it again and pick up where I left off. Now, if I can just find that page…

  10. #10 • Tom @ Scinti said on April 20 2010:

    The reason I gave up on Google Adwords is I never could figure out the formula for a good quality score.  No matter what I did, it was always low.  Every time I asked Google support about it, I would receive a long generic email that didn't help me.  I finally went to Yahoo advertising and my quality scores are much better there.  Yahoo is not the biggest game in town, but at least I feel like I'm in the game. 

  11. #11 • Moe Muise said on April 20 2010:

    Howie, your reference to "chunking" things down reminds me of an excellent book that recently came out on how world-class athletes (and chess players, and artists…) get world-class. It's called "The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born, It's Grown". A good read for those who are interested in building their AdWords muscles!