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.

About the author

Howard Jacobson, PhD is co-author of Google AdWords For Dummies, and Emotional Intelligence & Empathic Inspiration Officer (EIEIO) for Vitruvian. When he's not playing guitar or Ultimate Frisbee, he's working on his permaculture garden in Durham, NC