It was well over 10 years ago that I got my first job in paid advertising. I was fresh out of college and applied for a job as an “online marketing assistant.” On my first day, they sat me down in front of Google AdWords Editor (yes, it was still called AdWords then) and I was on my way. I have learned quite a number of things since then and some of them really could have saved me a lot of headaches. So in an effort to make the path for you a little easier, I want to share some things I wish I had known that first year I was in PPC.
7 things anyone in PPC should know
Be prepared for a mix of skills, strategies, and broad concepts in here.
1. Basic coding skills
Thankfully, the majority of PPC skills don’t require an in-depth knowledge of coding, but there have been more than a handful of times that a better grasp of code would have made my work life much, much easier.
For a long time, conversion tracking relied on placing a pixel directly on your website and QA’ing to ensure that everything was set up properly. With Google Tag Manager and there container tools, this is much easier.
Anymore the biggest benefit comes from troubleshooting. If conversion tracking was working but isn’t anymore, someone has to figure out why. It seems like nearly all IT departments are overworked at the moment, so depending on where you find yourself on their scrum list, you may or may not get someone to check out your tracking for days, weeks, sometimes even months.
The solution? Figure how to identify and maybe even fix the problem yourself.
Additionally, some of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal are scripts. Have you ever looked at a script? It’s…a nightmare for someone who doesn’t know code.
From the Google Ads script library.
2. Basic design skills
This is even more important now than it was ten years ago when I started, given the proliferation of social media advertising channels, each with its own type of content that performs best.
You might not need to be the person who has to actually create the image or video file, but more and more, design departments are relying on paid media pros to suggest overall layouts, text combinations, and messaging.
There are tons of resources out there for you to learn about design and I certainly can’t claim to know them all, but the tools and sites that helped me the most are listed below:
- Canva: this platform not only allows you to create ads in a wizzy-wig manner, but it also has a ton of templates available for you to get ideas, inspiration, and built in functionality without having to create something from scratch.
- Facebook Ads Library: Facebook makes most of the creatives that run on their platform available to the public. This is a great way for you to spy on competitors, but also large brands that have in-house design departments or bougie creative agencies coming up with big ideas for them. All you have to do is use a tool, like Canva, to create something similar for your account.
- Moat: Similar to the Facebook Library, Moat allows you to see banner display ads from around the web for free.
3. Attribution will never be perfect
I like to say “PPC pros created a monster.” Way back in the day (circa, 2008-2010), one of the biggest selling features of PPC was that everything was trackable**.
(**No it wasn’t, but it was a lot better than any other channel, like organic, word of mouth or *shivers* billboards.)
This thinking was mostly due, in my opinion, to the fact that most companies really advertised on one, maybe two platforms, likely Google and Microsoft. From a search perspective, these two audiences are likely mutually exclusive, or at least back then were not tied to each other in a cross-device manner. Additionally, any display advertising was likely run through Google—no one to compete with for credit.
Since then, the list of channels most companies use to advertise has ballooned, our understanding of attribution has advanced, and with that…our ability to confidently attribute performance has diminished.
So what do we do with this incomplete picture of performance? If things aren’t perfect, what can we do? Here are my suggestions for getting around this issue and making the most of it:
- Choose one single “source of truth” platform and stick with it. For most, this will likely be a platform like Google Analytics, but for others it could be Marketo, Hubspot, or another platform altogether.
- Track performance in every way possible and add tracking parameters to literally everything you can: paid, organic social, email, referral links, sales communications, all of it. The more data you have, the better chance you have of detangling it and making the best decisions possible. Speaking of decisions…
- Don’t wait for “perfect” data to make a decision. Unfortunately, “perfect” doesn’t exist. It never has. So get to where you’re 80-90% sure of a choice and then make it. Whether it’s extending a sale, reallocating budget, or turning off a channel, just make the call. Monitor performance after you make changes and adjust if things turn for the worst, but don’t be caught in decision paralysis because you’re trying to avoid a mistake. That, in and of itself, would be a mistake.
4. Best practices aren’t always “best”
“If Timmy jumped off a bridge, would you do it?”
Gotta love the age-old question from parents asking their kids why they did something they shouldn’t. It’s always what comes to mind when people adhere too closely to best practices.
“If every other company is doing it, we should too!”
While I can see the appeal of that, there are two hesitations I have for this:
First, not everything is for everyone. Things that work for one company may not work for another.
One might see really strong performance with Max Conversions bidding strategies, another might not. Or they might rely on a Target CPA enhancement to see good results. Or one account might thrive on phrase match keywords while another might need to use exact match for better results.
Although Google loves its expansion suggestions and strategies to find new customers like Performance Max and Display Expansion, these might only work for some companies while others feel like they’re a waste of ad spend.
Second, if everyone is doing the same thing, that also means no one is standing out from the crowd. There are only crowds. The best example I have of this is from my friend Joe Martinez. He has spoken before about using keywords in headlines when writing ad copy.
Using keywords in headlines might be a PPC ad copy “best practice”, but if it causes you to blend into a SERP, then it’s not really helping you, is it?
Don’t let someone else’s success story stop you from testing and learning what works best for your accounts and getting the best results you can. That’s the only real “best practice” there is.
5. You’ll become a business consultant as much as a PPC pro
This is especially true if you work at an agency with small to medium-sized clients. While you may start out providing only thoughts on PPC campaigns and strategy, you’ll likely grow to advise (or at least provide external opinions) on higher-level marketing strategy and in some cases, even larger business decisions.
- Should we expand into new geographic markets?
- Does it make sense to extend our product or service offerings?
- What areas of our company do you think are resonating well and what could be done to improve?
- What are some brands you engage with regularly and what do you like about them? How could those same practices apply to our company?
- Should we have a holiday sale this year or hold off?
- Should we focus on growing our customer base or servicing the customers we already have?
All of these are questions I’ve received over the years that have differing degrees of overlap with our PPC campaigns. Some are related closely and some have almost nothing to do with each other.
To help you get ahead here, there are a number of things you can do to continually expand your business acumen and be a better support to your clients/company:
- Do at least some regular reading and continued learning around business fundamentals and the overall market. Currently, the market itself is…weird. But if you have the right knowledge, you can advise your clients better, weird market or not.
- Understand how business finances work on macro level, not just budget and CPA goals in PPC. Know how CAC, LTV, churn and all other factors impact the company’s bottom line beyond the initial sale.
- Read about high-profile companies doing things well and doing things poorly. What went right/wrong and how could you imagine that happening to your accounts.
- Understand what it means for someone to have VC backing and what series A, B and further rounds of funding typically mean for companies.
My biggest suggestion here: don’t always tell the client what they want to hear. Tell them what’s real. Too many times I see people twist facts to tell the client that their new product line is great or that the market isn’t as saturated as it might appear only for it to go tragically wrong. Lay out the facts and be honest. It’s not your job to make the call, it’s your job to share your knowledge and let them make the choice.
6. It’s as much about who you know as what you know
Paid media absolutely relies on you to know your stuff. Even though attribution tracking isn’t perfect, it’s good enough to know when someone doesn’t know what they’re doing. You gotta deliver the goods.
But beyond that, everything I know and have in this industry can be tied back to the people I know more than what I knew.
Through networking on social media, I’ve been able to get all of the following things throughout my PPC career:
- Knowledge to do the basic fundamentals of the job.
- Answers to tough questions when situations arise in my accounts that I’d never encountered before.
- Introductions to channel reps I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to engage with to troubleshoot problems.
- Regular writing spots at many top-tier publications.
- A freelancing side gig.
- A full-time agency position I was in for the better part of a decade.
- My first speaking opportunity that didn’t go well…
- …then my second that did and that gave me the chance to speak regularly and all across the globe.
- A chance to recruit and work with great coworkers.
- Countless clients and consulting projects.
- The opportunity to be my own boss and write this article from a plane ride on my way to my fourth vacation of the year.
While I might be an introvert who thinks “networking” is one of the greatest evils on the planet, I can’t deny the impact the relationships I’ve made have had on my career.
7. Things will constantly change
When I started in PPC, there was quite a lot for me to learn. At the time, I sort of took everything I learned and expected it would always stay the same. What a joke.
Many of the underlying characteristics have stayed the same (search uses keywords, ad copy always has character limits, social relies on audience building), but nearly all of the actual details have changed. Some multiple times over.
I’ve seen keyword match types come and go, ad formats get developed and sunset, targeting options created then removed, then added back again.
I’ve even been a part of the evolution of online transparency where I had to receive a letter in the actual mail to confirm my identity.
While you’re getting started in digital advertising, the best advice I can give you is to be sure you’re paying attention to, understanding, and retaining the fundamental workings. Notice trends in those foundations even when the actual details change, because they will change, and you need to be flexible enough to adapt while still knowing how to do your job.
Own your PPC journey
In a continuation from the last bullet, you’ll notice that none of the things I wish I knew were direct tactics like conducting keyword research or using excel formulas. They’re pretty much all supporting roles or additional knowledge on top of the regular day-to-day PPC duties. When you start a job, you don’t know what you don’t know and boy I didn’t know a lot. But hopefully my list of learning curve items can help you at least identify some things that you don’t know so you can go learn about them and get to a knowledgeable place faster than I did. Godspeed.