Every marketer understands the importance of producing ads that stand out. A great ad is an ad that potential customers notice and act on. An average ad will be overlooked and unnoticed by the majority of our audience. The quality of our ads can make all the difference between campaign success and failure. In pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, there are financial incentives for writing great ads, beyond the obvious benefits of more clicks and sales. Most PPC platforms, including Google Adwords and Bing Ads, offer discounts on click costs and more prominent ad positions for advertisers that achieve higher ad engagement rates. The world of PPC advertising has a problem though.
A great ad is an ad that potential customers notice and act on. An average ad will be overlooked and unnoticed by the majority of our audience.
Most PPC ads are written using a simple formula. I have come to call this formula “PPC Ads by Numbers”. The “PPC Ads by Numbers” approach came into being for a good reason; the search engines asked for it. Getting cheaper clicks and higher ad positions in paid search marketing depends on a number of factors. These factors are neatly summarised in the Quality Score metric. This can be found next to your keywords in your PPC accounts. It is usually expressed as a score out of 10. Higher scores result in higher ad positions and cheaper clicks. Lower scores result in lower ad positions and more expensive clicks. A quality score of 10/10 is therefore highly desirable for PPC advertisers. While search engines carefully guard the secret recipes for their Quality Score algorithms, both Google and Bing offer guidance on the factors that contribute to Quality Score. The top components that contribute to Quality Score and their estimated weighting can be seen in Figure 1.
- Following the Quality Score guidelines from the search engines means that marketers must attend to:
- Keyword-to-search relevance: we should use more Exact Match keywords
- Keyword-to-ad relevance: we should use keywords in our ad copy
- Ad-to-landing page relevance: we should ensure keywords are prominent on our landing page
- Relevant ad extensions: we should use site-links, call buttons and other extensions wherever we can
- Unique selling points (USPs): we should give good reasons for the searcher to click
- A call to action (CTAs): we should tell the searcher what we want them to do next.
A PPC marketer needs to follow these guidelines while writing hundreds, often thousands of ads. The task is often performed in an Excel spreadsheet or a desktop editing tool such as Adwords editor. The combination of guidance from search engines and the need to quickly produce thousands of ad variations, all customised for different keywords, led to the evolution of a formulaic approach – the “PPC Ads by Numbers” approach. This is the step-by-step “PPC Ads by Numbers” recipe for PPC ad writing, along with a fictional illustration (see Figure 2):
- Insert target keywords. Repeat two or three times across the headline, description lines and the display URL
- Insert USPs
- Insert a call to action using whatever space you have left
- Bolt on all available ad extensions
If you search for any transactional keyword, you will probably see many PPC ads that follow this formula. The problem is that when every advertiser follows the “PPC by Numbers” process, competing ads can start to appear very similar to the customer. It becomes difficult for an advertiser to really stand out It’s important to say that this approach is not wrong. It is a tried-and-trusted process. It allows thousands of ads to be produced quickly. The ads produced with this process will usually perform reasonably well. Differences in CTR and conversion rate performance will usually come down to ad position, or the strength of our USPs and value propositions compared to the rival offerings. What if we can’t afford to bid for the top ad positions? What if a rival has a cheaper offering or a better USP? What if we’re already in ad position one but still want a greater click share? Is it still possible to attract more clicks? If we want to stand out from our PPC rivals and be noticed by customers then we need to break away from the “PPC Ads by Numbers” approach and find a different way to attract clicks. We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater though. We need to keep the basic ingredients that made our “by numbers” ads work in the first place. We need to keep keywords in our ad creative. We need to retain our USPs and calls to action. We need to keep using ad extensions. Search engines reward these ingredients with higher quality scores and customers respond to these ingredients with clicks. But if we want more we need to do all of this differently. We need a creative approach to ad writing.
To help us to create ads that stand out we can turn to the theory of foregrounding, a theory borrowed from stylistic analysis in the creative worlds of art and literature. Wikipedia offers this neat definition: “Foregrounding is the practice of making something stand out from the surrounding words or images.” This is exactly what we want to achieve with our ads. Just as a painting or a photograph may have a subject that stands out in the foreground, so too can a web page. We want the subject that stands out to be our ad. There are two primary techniques for achieving foregrounding; we can achieve foregrounding through parallelism, or through deviation.
Foregrounding through parallelism
Foregrounding through parallelism catches attention through unexpected patterns (or parallels). The human brain is a patternspotting super computer; it is often said that this is the ability that gave us our evolutionary edge over other animals. We use patterns to pick out the details in our environment that really matter, allowing us to reduce cognitive effort and speed up decision making by not wasting attention on less important surrounding information. In the context of advertising, parallelism can make an ad stand out by creating patterns. Ladbrokes provided an excellent example of foregrounding through parallelism with their “Ladbrokes Life” ad campaign. Aimed at twentysomething males, the successful campaign drew cultural parallels that would resonate with the target audience. The strong red, black and white designs drew parallels with artwork for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. The name of one of the Ladbrokes lads, “Mr Brightside”, also drew parallels with the debut single from The Killers – a dancefloor filler which in 2015 was voted 7th in the UK’s top ten favourite karaoke songs (see Figure 4).
Foregrounding through deviation
Where foregrounding through parallelism creates patterns, foregrounding through deviation breaks patterns, catching attention through unexpected irregularity. In the context of advertising, deviation can make an ad stand out by breaking patterns. Paddy Power provide us with many excellent examples of foregrounding through deviation. In the context of sports betting advertising we are accustomed to a pattern of discourse that revolves around sporting events, sports stars, statistics, odds and sign-up offers. Paddy Power successfully deviated from this pattern by introducing humour and references to current affairs. Although the ad in Figure 5 was never officially released by Paddy Power (since Paddy Power felt it “crossed the line”) the photograph was leaked and widely shared across social media.
Levels of foregrounding
If we want to apply the theory of foregrounding to our own advertising efforts we need to understand some of the types of foregrounding that we can use. Foregrounding can occur on all levels of language – in text, in images and sound. Levels of foregrounding include (but are not limited to):
- Graphological (relating to fonts, design & layout)
- Syntactical (relating to sentence structure)
- Lexical (relating to choice of words)
- Grammatical (relating to language structure)
- Phonological (relating to sound)
Foregrounding can be achieved with parallelism or deviation at any of these levels. Let’s now look at five examples and tips for using foregrounding in PPC advertising.
Graphological foregrounding is perhaps the most familiar foregrounding type in PPC advertising. It includes techniques such as bolding, underlining, font size, font colour and so on. The classic Volkswagen ads in Figure 6 achieve foregrounding for the headlines through increased font size, bolding, centre alignment and use of surrounding white space. These simple foregrounding techniques can be seen all over the search engine results pages (SERPs) today.
Figure 7 shows Google and Bing search results on mobile devices, with several examples of foregrounding through graphological deviation.
Search engines are required by law to clearly label ads. Comparing the Google and Bing SERPs, we can see how Google have turned this legal requirement into a foregrounding feature – the bright orange ad labels deviate from the blue, green and grey text across the rest of the page and immediately draw the reader’s attention to the ads. The block of site-links for the number 1 position ad provides graphological foregrounding for the bellfruitcasino.com ad – it’s no coincidence that Google report adding sitelinks to an ad can increase clickthrough rates (CTR) by as much as 20%.1 Bing in contrast chooses to push their “Ads related to” notice into the background by using a small font size and grey text. The foregrounded features in this example include the keyword bolding, the star symbols for the seller ratings extensions and the site-links. At the top of the Bing organic results, 32Red have achieved graphological foregrounding through use of star symbols in their organic meta description text. Tip for advertisers: to increase CTRs with graphological foregrounding first check the SERPs for your chosen keyword. Look for any patterns that you can break; if your competitors all use keyword bolding at the start of their Ad description lines, try an ad that uses keyword bolding at the end instead. Note that Google no longer provides keyword bolding in ad headlines – to achieve foregrounding through bolding on Google, advertisers should use keywords in ad description lines. In Bing, SERPs keywords continue to get bold fonts when they appear in headlines; make sure your ads for the Bing network take advantage of this. On all search engines PPC advertisers should use site-links wherever possible – site-links won’t always display with your as however when they do they will supercharge your ad with CTR enhancing graphological foregrounding.
Syntax refers to the structure of sentences. Syntactical foregrounding plays with sentence structure, like the Swiss Life ads for financial plans shown in Figure 8.
Swiss Life achieve foregrounding through syntactical deviation by taking two diametrically opposed sentences and blending them together into one single sentence. The foregrounding in these examples is designed to remind the reader how quickly and drastically emotions can change. In the context of paid search ads we can borrow this technique to make an ad stand out. Taking a keyword such as “online bingo” we can deviate from the syntactical norms established by rivals’ ads and try something that appears a little more interesting, like this fictional headline example written to attract new players: Tip for advertisers: Syntactical foregrounding can be as easy as changing the order of words in a sentence. If all of your PPC rivals say “£10 Free” in their ads you can achieve foregrounding through syntactical deviation simply by saying “Free £10” instead.
Lexis refers to words, specifically the collection of words and phrases used by a particular language or field of discourse. Lexical foregrounding can be achieved through repetition of words (an example of lexical parallelism) or through the creation of new words, or “neologisms” (an example of lexical deviation). Continuing with our bingo examples, we can find existing advertisers already making use of lexical deviations, such as the “Bingolicious” website (see Figure 10).
“Bingolicious” is an example of a portmanteau – two words, “bingo” and “delicious”, combined to make a new word. Portmanteaus can be used to achieve lexical deviation in PPC ads too – we can attract reader attention in the SERPs by using unusual words that none of our rivals have used. The word “Bingolicious” used in a paid search context could achieve lexical foregrounding, making an ad stand out while communicating the “tastiness” of the offer (see Figure 11).
Tip for advertisers: search engine advertising policies discourage excessive repetition in ads; for example using “buy buy buy” in a PPC ad is likely to cause the ad to be disapproved. Whether using repetition, portmanteaus or neologisms in ads, experiment to see what the search engines will allow and always keep an alternative ad variation running in your ad group – you don’t want your keywords to go offline because your only ad was disapproved.
Grammar is concerned with the structure of language, encompassing everything from spelling to syntax. The Google voice search billboard ad in Figure 12 provides a simple yet effective example of grammatical foregrounding.
Displayed at Piccadilly Circus underground station in London, the ad achieves grammatical foregrounding through deviation by deliberately misspelling the station name. This ad asks us to say the individual syllables out loud in order to decipher the meaning. In the context of paid search ads, grammatical foregrounding can be more difficult to achieve, since search engines ask advertisers to use ‘correct’ spelling and grammar. Nonetheless we still have some creative freedom to play with grammar to make our ads stand out. This fictional example uses a grammatical deviation to foreground the word “Bingo-ooo” in the headline – we’d like our bingo audience to think of the winning feeling when completing a row. Unfortunately AdWords does not allow exclamation points in headlines, otherwise we could make this headline really shout like a winning bingo player. Does it still work without the exclamation point? We could quickly find out by testing it (see Figure 13). Tip for advertisers: as with lexical deviations, grammatical deviations can fall foul of search engine advertising policies. Experiment to see what works but always keep a back-up ad. If experimenting with misspellings ensure the misspelling is obvious enough for your audience to see it as intentional (as with the Google Voice search example); if a misspelling is perceived as accidental it may harm your brand reputation.
Our fifth and final example of foregrounding concerns phonemes – the individual units of sound that make up a word. Phonological foregrounding can use devices such as rhyme, repetition of vowel sounds (assonance), repetition of consonant sounds (consonance) and repetition of the first sound at the beginning of a word or sentence (alliteration). Advertisers can have a lot of success using phonological foregrounding and there are many famous examples to take inspiration from (see Figure 14).
These stylistic devices, popular in TV and print advertising, are often overlooked in the realm of PPC ads. The fictional example for an ad targeting a “Bingo” keyword shown in Figure 15 uses assonance and alliteration, along with a dash of grammatical foregrounding for good measure.
Conclusions and an exercise
I hope that the descriptions and examples provided here have given you some creative inspiration for your own ad campaigns. While the techniques described here come with no guarantees, they might just offer the creative edge that gets your ads noticed. They might also help to keep us in work for a few more years; machines can easily outperform us in data processing disciplines yet when it comes to creative pattern making and breaking, humans still do it best. If you would like to apply the theory of foregrounding to your creative campaigns, try these five steps:
- Ask for a few rounds of Creative A/B testing, i.e. “Let’s try something different”
- Describe the basic conventions that are encountered in your ad environments; what patterns do you find?
- Discuss how the conventions can be broken (through deviation) to foreground your ad
- Explore parallels that you might create – either within your own ad or with broader cultural references that will resonate with your audience
- Find a way to fit your ideas into the ad space & test test test!
If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about foregrounding through deviation and parallelism I recommend the book that inspired this article – “Exploring the language of Poems, Plays and Prose” by Professor Mick Short.