Improving User Experience in PPC

A user's experience of a brand is a complex thing. At every point of the customer journey, they're forming an impression of what kind of company they're dealing with. Yet somehow online marketers tend to equate user experience (UX) with simply landing page design or conversion rate optimization (CRO), and forget about the other touch points. 

Since advertising holds a weighty responsibility in forming a positive UX, it's important to look at the world of pay-per-click (PPC). In turn, we need to ask ourselves: how can we use PPC to create a great experience for our customers?

Earning Attention Through A Quality Experience

UX in relation to PPC isn't only in the landing page experience - it begins with serving the ad itself. When we enter a query into a search engine, the ad your paid search campaign delivers is a response with your name tied to it.

You shouldn't be thinking of ads just as a way to push your brand to consumers or catch them in your net. You should be striving to present an ad that presents a valuable answer to the question implied by the query - in short, something that goes beyond capturing a moment of their attention and opens the door to an experience that will keep it. In clicking an ad, we are choosing to invest time and energy with the expectation of a positive experience.

This isn't just a matter of principle - it's also a matter of fundamental psychophysiology. We take in 11 million bits of information from our senses every single second, of which we can consciously process 40-50. As far as our brains are concerned, attention is one of the most precious resources we have, with a tremendous opportunity cost present in choosing what to focus on at any given moment.

The trick here is that the choices we subconsciously make about attention aren't necessarily logical. They're based on a largely subconscious system seeking to maximize reward and minimize effort. Typically, the more any given action will require us to think and decide and the less certain we are of the reward, the less likely we are to make it.

As far as your brain is concerned, firing up just one more episode of your favorite show is a brilliant choice, because it requires far less effort than getting up and, say, deciding what to write your blog post about.

This means you need to offer an experience that is uncomplicated, direct, and highly relevant - the path of least resistance and highest reward - all in the roughly 1-2 seconds a user will spend looking at your ad.

Luckily, in PPC we can stack the deck in our favor by making sure we present the right experience to the right people. Part of this is as simple as choosing the right keywords and showing them preferentially at the right times. However, it's important to remember that user experience is subjective - what triggers the 'PAY ATTENTION' alert is dependent on the desires and tensions present in the mind of your audience.

For example, if you're selling enterprise data storage appliances and reaching CIOs is mission critical, you need to consider that top level strategic issues are what matter most. Leading with your processor architecture specs and speedy inline compression features might be an exciting proposition for a technical team, but to a busy executive could read "minutia you pay other people to read". The opportunity to "futureproof your storage infrastructure" and "reduce storage costs by 50%" is the kind of strategic win they're tasked with considering.

A Wild Advertisement Appeared!

You're probably not a CIO though, and neither am I, so let's move forward with a real live example from the world of marketing. Say I'm a marketing manager searching 'marketing automation', looking with an intent to edify myself on the technology as I begin to consider finding a platform to fit with my company's needs. These three ads are quite consistently the top three results for that query as I write this:

That's a tremendous difference in approach taken by Marketo compared to the others. Granted, their ad has the benefit of supporting sitelinks in the top position here, but Google's triggering them for a reason. 'Learn about marketing automation', a 'definitive guide', demos, comparisons, a buyers kit and a guide to a key automation function? That pretty much takes care of the top half of your buyer's consideration funnel in one go - a pretty excellent experience!

Notice that Dynamics and MMI use a very traditional 'features and benefits' angle which may or may not draw clicks, but don't offer the sort of educational experience our hypothetical marketing manager is seeking. I'm taking extra UX points off from Microsoft, for scarcely even implying a connection to marketing and asking me to go right for a free trial of a massive enterprise business integration solution.

Incidentally, a good trick for understanding the frame of intent you need to fit in for a given keyword is to simply Google the term and see what ranks. In our marketing automation example, the top results are Wikipedia and a 'What Is..." article from HubSpot. Even if I was utterly clueless about the category and typical sales/consideration cycle, I can clearly see that this is treated by Google as an informational query, and build my ad copy and landing page experience to fit.

Speaking of landing pages, let's follow those ads to their actual destination URLs!

Landing Page Experience (and Relevance)

We've established that the initial ad impression is an important experience, but as soon as a user clicks through we add another experience.

Not only do I get the option to download the guide that I was promised, but the copy resonates beautifully with a top-funnel informational need and promises to address exactly the questions you might expect an automation-naive executive to ask. Even better, the supporting reviews are ABOUT THE GUIDE. Not the software. Anyone is going to be at least a little suspicious of a guide offered by a vendor with skin in the game, but that instinct (which could lead to a bounce to investigate their credentials) is satisfied immediately. 10/10, since I also love robots.

Note - I'm not getting a dime from Marketo here, so if you by chance wind up downloading their guide as a result of my mention, kindly ask them to send me a purple robot for the favor.

While I, by chance, happen to be familiar with MS Dynamics and ERP software, most people in marketing are not. Worse, that 'free trial' is nowhere to be found, and seems to instead be a 'test drive' three clicks in behind a Microsoft Account sign in wall. And the words 'marketing' and 'automation' are nowhere to be found on the entire landing page. 0/10 - dizzying PPC UX fail.

We're at least back on the topic of marketing here, but this experience is probably best described as 'confusing'. There isn't an extremely clear connection between the ad copy and the purpose of the landing page, which proceeds to raise more questions than it answers for a likely naive visitor with an informational head term query:

  • Who or what is "Marketing Matters Inbound"?

  • How is it associated with HubSpot?

  • Are one or both specifically concerned with marketing automation?

  • Do I want to dive into a demo of a specific marketing software?

  • Do I want to give this undefined company eight form fields of information?

  • Why is everything floating in this formless expanse of Seattle-sky-gray?

The more questions the experience raises, the more attention and energy the user needs to expend to determine what to do. As that bar rises, so too does the chance that they will veer off track to figure out where they wound up or simply bounce on to the next option. 2/10 - Don't make them think!

Creating An 'Easy' Experience Onsite

Remember what we learned earlier about attention once you do get people to your site. Offering a smooth, simple path produces a positive and enjoyable experience, while loading up an excess of information and pressing decisions will put users off. Here are a few salient points to keep in mind when considering PPC landing pages.

  • Minimize distraction and create a very clear path for the brain to follow.

    • Don't be afraid of spreading actions out over a couple sequential pages. Several small, simple actions can be much easier to convert than a single monstrous form that sends your users running!

  • Avoid creating a paradox of choice - again, simpler is better.

  • Be cautious in how controlling you are - don't get pushy.

    • Excluding navigational elements from a PPC landing page can help drive up conversion rates, but for some users this is exactly the wrong experience. Make sure you're sending the right people to capture pages.

Inform UX With Analytics

With PPC, you have a great deal more control over where exactly you send people and what they see for any given search term. You also have the benefit of some very thorough analytics to guide your choices in doing so.

In a lead generation campaign, you can use site behavior to help understand where in the customer journey users are when entering on given keywords. Consider the above question of removing navigation from PPC pages. You might test the presence of navigational elements and determine how likely traffic from certain keywords is to make use of them. If you're getting loads of users flowing back to your home and about page from certain terms, review the possible intent and look at sending them to a more suitable page, narrowing incoming traffic down to more qualified terms for immediate lead capture.

For ecommerce, use analytics to look at what products traffic from specific keywords are actually purchasing. Very exact product terms will, of course, tend to focus on their specific products, but look for deviations or trends to driving extra purchases of alternate products.

Particularly look at brand/brand category traffic behavior when establishing where to direct the user experienceto. A brand search will often be informational or navigational - but it could also represent a transactional intent for a particular item that a user strongly identifies with your brand. If you find this is the case, you'll want to be sensitive to what that item is and optimize a UX path for that particular product, from ad to landing page and beyond.

UX Doesn't End With 'Submit'

UX doesn't stop being relevant to PPC after a user converts. Many of the decisions we make in optimizing PPC campaigns or landing pages spring from analysis of not just whether an initial conversion happened, but whether the lead qualified/closed or how many product a customer wound up buying over time.

Make the effort to understand what goes into that process, and how it might affect the data you're using. For example, when companies respond to lead submissions within an hour, they are 60 times more likely to reach and qualify the prospect than those contacted 24 hours or more later.

Many managers are unaware of this fact, and chances are if your company is in that 24hr+ response group, your lead gen campaign is going to be getting blamed for a lot of "bad" leads that might have progressed if they had been addressed more quickly. You may not be in position to fix a marketing automation system or the time management of your SDR team, but it IS your responsibility to understand what happens to those leads and why if you're going to analyze and optimize your marketing effectively.

Beyond that, PPC can re-engage in creating the user experience with further advertising like remarketing, ads on later product searches, and more. Remember, every impression you serve is affecting someone's experience with your brand. In what ways do you take UX into account? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below!

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