How to Write a "Cut Through the Clutter" Paid Search Ad

Paid search is the most competitive advertising platform on the planet. All your competitors are there, shouting the same things louder and louder in an attempt to attract prospects. If you want to win, you need a different approach.

In paid search marketing, your ad appears in a hyper-competitive environment: on the same page as a bunch of other ads (paid and organic) all vying for your prospects' attention.

Therefore, the first function of your ad is to catch your prospect's eye. The traditional best practice has been to use the search query (what the searcher typed into the search box) as the ad headline. And follow that up with a key benefit, or feature, and a call to action.

That's a fine strategy in theory, but there's a catch: If your ad resembles the other listings on the search results page, it doesn't stand out. It blends in. And blending in is just like not being there at all.

This Is Your Brain On Search

After typing a search query, you quickly scan the search results page looking for the one message most relevant to you. Because the search results page is such a noisy environment, with dozens of messages competing for your attention, you rely on a subconscious brain program called the Reticular Activating System to delete all stimuli except those vital to your well-being. That's why you can scan 25 Google listings and click the "right" one before your conscious brain has even seen them.

If you want your ad to appeal to your ideal prospect's conscious brain, you have to get approved by their Reticular Activating System first. If most of your competitors' ads are saying pretty much the same thing, you must say something different to attract attention. And not just different - more relevant to your prospect's emotional goals.

A Sea of Sameness

Here's a real example from the Google search results page for the query "Gretsch guitar":

Notice anything pathetic about the headlines for these six ads? Yup, they're virtually identical. If you have the patience to examine the ad text in detail, you'll see that they all say pretty much the same thing: cheap, free shipping, deals, bargains, values. Not an ad among the six offers an angle other than price competitiveness. No emotional connection, no human interest.

Understanding Your Prospect

So what would an ad look like that could get past a shopper's RAS? Before you can answer that, you need to understand your prospect and what makes them tick.

Let's say, for the sake of this exercise, that your prospect is a man in his mid-40s, whom we'll call Eddie. He's a father, an amateur guitar player who grew up listening to the Beatles and now has kids who are discovering the music of his youth. He's had a bit of an obsession with Gretsch guitars (George and John played them, and they have a really cool shape and distinctive smooth twangy sound), and now he's got the disposable income to indulge. But he wonders whether he's being a bit silly, since he knows he's not a particularly good player, and a decent Gretsch is not a cheap instrument.

Now, pretend you're Eddie, reading those six ads. Anything speak to you? Anything stand out? Anything make you say, "Yes! That's for me!"?

I thought not. Just a six-ad sea of bland, unimaginative uniformity.

So what messages might stand out amid this clutter? Here are a few suggestions that might catch Eddie's eye:

Each of these ads addresses a different desire. "Play like George" uses his childhood identification with the Beatles to stoke Eddie's desire.

"Feel the Classic Twang" seeks to bypass the intellect and go straight for the auditory and kinesthetic pathways, following this up with a call to get the instrument into Eddie's hands.

"I Always Wanted a Gretsch" echoes and amplifies the voice in Eddie's head, and addresses the "Do I deserve this?" objection in a sweet and humorous way.

And "Strap on. Plug in. Shred" turns Eddie's "self-centered" desire into an act of great parenting, while appealing to the universal longing to appear cool to an 11-year-old.

Test, Test, Test

How do you know in advance which is the best approach? You don't. One of the above ads might be a huge winner, while the others would flop completely.

Luckily, Google AdWords is the world's quickest, cheapest, easiest, most reliable testing platform. In a couple of weeks and at a cost of a couple hundred dollars, you can find a winning ad and dump the losers. And then repeat with your next set of ideas.

Attraction Is Not Enough

I don't want you to leave this article thinking that a hyper-attractive ad is necessarily a winning ad. Because you're paying for each website visitor, you don't want to attract the wrong people and you don't want to give the right people the wrong impression about your website. I'll cover those requirements in future articles.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to drool over some guitars.

Add New Comment


  • Gemma

    You have hit on a good strategy to hook clients (clickers?) but I see another angle too.  Please bear in mind that I am an outright beginner whose knowledge of keywords and advertising runs to perhaps the space of a small postage stamp.

    When someone is searching on Google, their attention is on the search results in the middle of the field.  They are not looking at the advertisements per se.  These get seen from the corner of one's eye, not directly which means that they aren't going to notice the ones that just say "Gretcsch Guitar" or whatever it was. 

    What the casual onlooker will see is something different up there - just as your suggestions make plain. Once you have caught their attention, then is the time to sort out who they are and what they want.  Which of course is where adwords scores!

  • Adrian Key

    An inspired article Howie. I have always maintained that advertisers need to get inside the heads of searchers and think like them to win with AdWords, not just follow the crowd. If I am targeting a keyword with lots of similar ads, my strategy is to create an ad that fits in with the crowd and then create another that is the exact opposite. It is amazing how often the one that bucks the trend wins.

  • Howie Jacobson

    Thanks for your kind words, Adrian. Your testing solution is very elegant. And the nice thing is, your "wild and crazy" ad can lose 9 times out of 10 and still the process is totally worth it for the 1 out of 10 that breaks through the clutter.

    Now with AdWords Campaign Experiments, we can send a small, safe percentage of the traffic to the new ad, reserving the majority for the safe, working control.

  • Howie Jacobson

    It sure is, Steven. The biggest problem with AdWords is that the interface is so big and complicated, it's easy to forget that we're dealing with people at the other end.

    I recommend that, the next time you do a search, reserve a small part of your brain to watch yourself and see what compels you to click, browse, go back, enter a new search query, etc.

    We can learn a lot about others by paying attention to our own behavior.

  • Jonathan

    Helpful explanation about how to appeal to emotional triggers. I can see how it would work for guitars - will this approach also work for less emotionally driven topics like legal services?
    Jonathan (a lawyer in Atlanta)

  • Howie Jacobson

    Jonathan, depending on the type of law you practice, I would think that hiring a lawyer could be an extremely emotional process.

    The fear of the consequences of whatever triggered the search; any resentments about the legal profession (shocking, I know, but not everyone loves lawyers); feeling lost without a personal recommendation and having no basis for making a decision; these are all powerful emotions that can be tapped to "speak to" the searcher in a way few lawyer ads do.

    I'm just glad that overuse of the semicolon has not been a punishable offense since 12th grade...

  • Brad

    Great article Howie! Totally agree that coming up with something fresh can be challenging when following the "rules". Thanks for reminding us it's OK to bend them ;)

  • Howie Jacobson

    Thanks for your kind words, Brad. If you like this approach, you'll enjoy one of my favorite business books of all time: Jumpstart Your Business Brain, by Doug Hall.

    A brilliant combo of marketing insight and brainstorming technique.

  • john bogdanski

    Mr Jacobson - when I 1st started reading this I poo poo'd the whole thing.
    I figured it was just one way to do it and that you were just talking this new age mumbo jumbo.

    That started to change once I got to the part where you showed your examples.


    You stretched my brain. Once I saw it I realized it's not that I was close minded (maybe a little) I just didn't know how to think about it until I actually had a chance to actually see it.

    I'm a believer. Now it makes way more sense. Before those examples I couldn't even imagine it.

    How do I get more information so I can can learn how to "cut through the clutter" in my own PPC campaigns?

    John Bogdanski

  • Howie Jacobson

    Aw, shucks, Mr. Bogdanski. Now I'm blushing ;)

    If you think this is new age mumbo jumbo, I haven't even gotten started yet ;)

    The wonderful thing about AdWords is, it keeps us honest. I could talk all sorts of nonsense and pseudo-science and psycho-babble, but the proof of the pudding is in the immediate results that AdWords reports.

    I've tested enough mumbo jumbo to be confident that some of it works, at least some of the time.

    For more info, if you're a PPC DIYer, there's a link in my bio box just below the article, to a report that identifies the biggest AdWords problems and how to fix them.