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[Important notice: This is an extensive guide that is much longer than the average article. Brace yourself]
You know this. You either got burned yourself or you heard other B2B pros whining about their bad experience with PPC. “It was such a waste of money”; “the quality was bad”; “we didn’t see relevant leads”; “nothing happened really” … you know how it goes.
I also keep seeing “professionals” or industry influencers who seem to be feeling confident enough (god knows why) to make strong claims such as “PPC doesn’t work for B2B- period” or “no serious B2B marketer should put money on ads” or (this is my favorite) “only greedy agencies use PPC for B2B businesses because it’s easy money for them”
Hmm…. PPC is still here, it still empowers businesses, and can still build brands, even more than ever before. But winning B2B campaigns is not a business for amateurs.
Chris Walker talks about the debate between organic vs. paid media and says: “… But most importantly, organic takes time. And time is money.
Most venture-funded companies that are burning cash don’t have 12 months to wait for an organic strategy to *maybe* generate results.”
In the past 8 years, I have seen, heard of, or made (yes, me) mistakes that led to disappointments. I am now happy to share some of the things that I’ve learned through blood, sweat, and tears, including concrete tips on how to do things better.
It’s not that I think paid media is effective in all cases. I am humble and am not in a position to make such a claim.
But I do know that PPC can be very effective in most cases and that most B2B startups must push communications hard (at the right time) in order to gain momentum. When the brand isn’t strong enough (or hardly even known, in the case of young startups), paid media is one of the most effective tools in spreading the word fast and to the right audiences. Therefore, most B2B startups can’t ignore it.
And when they do, they better know what they are doing.
In order to shed some light, I decided to list a few of the mistakes I’ve seen (or made in the past), and also include my 2 cents on how I operate things today
But first, you may want to read this B2B growth guide:
B2B DIGITAL AND GROWTH MARKETING FOR STARTUPS IN 2021
Mistake #1: You publish ads linking to the wrong content or CTA
I know that you are after demo requests. I hear you. I understand that you want to get to the point where contacts are asking for a quote.
But when it comes to B2B marketing, or specifically PPC, that’s pretty much the end of the road rather than the starting point. Young startup founders, hear me out: you will not get satisfying conversions for ads that encourage demo, quote requests, or anything similar down the sales pipeline.
You are bound to get disappointed. You’ll say that the media doesn’t work, the agency doesn’t know what it is doing, and that your marketers are a failure.
Well, no. You just don’t know how PPC works in B2B. Ads are there to HELP you get people’s attention at scale, add new prospects to the “top funnel” customer journey, build your brand and boost business opportunities. Ads can’t, however, squeeze the sales cycle in a magical way.
My 2 cents:
Top funnel ads (those that introduce your brand, solution, or content to new prospects) are meant to introduce people to your company’s expertise, technology, or innovation and to build trust through thought-leadership. People should want to click on your ads not because you are getting leads out of it, but because they are getting value.
I rarely run hard-sales ads. I use TF (top-funnel) ads mainly to promote articles or other forms of value-added content, encouraging prospects to enter my website (cookie) and gain awareness of my brand.
When I am after building my email list, I sometimes use ads to promote gated content (such as guides or white papers) and I love using paid ads for gated web-tools (such as calculators, auto-report generators, and the like).
BTW, I’ve found webinar ads to be very challenging in terms of conversion to leads; maybe there’s just too many of them recently.
I do use webinar invitations in remarketing campaigns, though, as I’ve learned that people that are already familiar with my brand respond better to webinar invitations. Makes sense.
When the webinar has ended I turn the recording into gated content and promote it via ads, because it works better. I don’t call it a “webinar” video – I use another creative name instead (webinar was used so often that the audience can’t hear it anymore, total blindness).
** Yes I know about the “no gated” approach that’s gaining popularity lately (some marketers claim that gated content isn’t beneficial anymore as nobody bothers to actually read it, therefore it’s better to release it as-is and maximize the impact through more eyeballs on the content). It’s a long discussion, I don’t agree that gated content is dead, I see great results, but that’s for another post.
Mistake #2: Your ads’ creative is lame
I know you’re operating in a highly technical niche. I know that your audience is made of C level executives. Still – we all sell to people. Ads should be ‘edutaining’. Ads must cut through the social feed noise. When your ads are too ‘B2B’ in style they don’t do you good. When your ads are monotonic they are not seen by the audience. When the ads are not bold or colorful enough, the known ad-blindness phenomenon comes into play.
My 2 cents:
First, I don’t let the graphical design team dictate the visual language rules when it comes to PPC. The PPC team is the ruler of banners and landing pages.
Second, I work alongside the graphical team to generate open files, such as Google slides, that allow me to recreate and reformat ad-banners easily without leaning on graphic software. It allows me to create as many ad creatives as I want, ensuring that I have full freedom over the banners’ design and that I can easily refresh creatives often, without depending on design resources. (I also use canva. Magical).
Lastly, I make sure that my ads are bold and emotional. Use images of people, strong colors, a healthy sense of humor… Just imagine that you are the target audience seeing the ad in your feed, and think what would make you interested, what would capture your attention.
This creative, for example, is one of the best-performing ones that I’ve ever had:
Mistake #3: You don’t do remarketing right
You turn remarketing campaigns on before there’s enough traffic, so it runs poorly, underperforms or even shows as active but isn’t really running.
You don’t narrow your remarketing audience properly, so you end up paying for bots, audiences from geos you don’t want, or audiences that visited your website just because they wanted to see what’s under the careers page…
Lastly, you push hard-sales content, assuming that it’s ok under remarketing. But these are still new prospects. Remarketing impressions (in most young B2B startups with low traffic parameters) mainly target new audiences and should leverage ‘top funnel’ content. Simply put – still not the time for a demo or a ‘get a quote’ ad in most cases…
My 2 cents:
Before I turn remarketing on, I ensure that there’s enough data points (signals) under my custom audience (when that’s not available I just check Google Analytics and use my previous experience – usually when unique users in the past 30 days are less than a couple of thousands, it is going to be challenging, but that changes on a case by case basis).
One way to make sure I have sufficient volume when I actually need it is by adding remarketing pixels way before it’s time to run the campaign (giving it time to collect data).
Whenever I can, I narrow the audience until I am sure that I am paying only for the audience I am truly after.
Also, LinkedIn remarketing will let you see the companies (accounts) that received impressions and that’s a double prize! You not only get to know who visited your website (and feed sales teams with AMAZING intent data), but you can also narrow your remarketing audiences by excluding accounts (or industries or even job titles) that receive paid impressions and are not relevant.
One last thing – LinkedIn remarketing can be slow to run when the audience size isn’t huge. And let’s face it – it’s never huge for early-stage B2B startups (post-seed or round A). Keep that in mind and be patient.
Mistake #4: You don’t use prospect lists (** custom or matched audiences)
You are operating a niche B2B startup that’s focused on enterprise sales, so you can’t simply run campaigns like startups that have solutions for the masses. You need to work with lists. Sure, LinkedIn targeting can do quite well without lists, due to its brilliant B2B targeting capabilities, but for other PPC channels, you will most likely have to work with lists.
I will soon explain why multiple media channels are needed, but one more important note on lists, or rather on the ones that do invest (time and money) in creating good quality lists. Oftentimes you try to run marketing activities using lists that are too small. When your lists are too small you will not see enough leads (or clicks) and the costs will be extremely high.
My 2 cents:
I work with my startups on dynamic prospect lists as soon as they are ready to learn about it and implement internal sales, SDR, or prospecting in a methodical way. Lists are the basics for today’s B2B growth and the basis for real collaboration between sales and marketing. In fact, all business-related teams (sales, BizDev, marketing) should work on the same lists, with differences in prioritization. I insist on having at least thousands of prospects on my lists before utilizing them in campaigns (with private emails so FB or LI or Google or Twitter or any other channel can easily match them). Many thousands. Not one thousand. Not two. I am after quality leads at palatable prices…
I know (again) what you are thinking right now: “but what if my potential customer pool is just not that big?”.
Well, your pool of potential customers isn’t that big, that might be true – but your audience for word of mouth purposes must be made of thousands if you wish to be able to run top-funnel campaigns. That’s why, while I insist on having the same lists for sales and marketing purposes, I also insist on different scoring mechanisms and attached rules. I insist on collaborative lists because I want marketing to amplify our unique selling points and ensure that it helps salespeople, by softening objections, educating the market, and creating awareness ‘behind the scenes’.
Why must your sales prospects be the focus of your marketing campaigns? This chart speaks for itself – potential buyers will do most of their buying process when you are not around to pitch them…
If Gartner isn’t clear enough, Accenture is even bolder:
We must push communications to the prospects to bring them down the funnel to sales or “ cook” them on an ongoing basis.
Mistake #5: You don’t run cross-channel PPC
If I had a dollar for every time I heard “my audience isn’t on Facebook”, I would be a rich woman! Facebook (the media channel, not necessarily just the app) owns over 2B monthly active users. It’s practically everybody. You are missing a huge opportunity to pitch your audience for much lower costs compared to LinkedIn and at a much higher frequency. Facebook is just one example. There are Twitter, Google display, and many others.
When you stick to LinkedIn only, you are paying a significant price: First, you get much fewer clicks and impressions for your budget, and therefore suffer by not maximizing the traffic impact of the campaigns, and not optimizing conversion in your remarketing efforts (for instance). Second, since your ads are running on a single channel, you won’t enjoy the extensive frequency that comes with a multichannel strategy. Frequency is known to be key in performance. Third, you are not leveraging cross-channel appearance: When your communications are seen in multiple channels, performance amplifies and the impact grows exponentially.
I think I know what you’re thinking – “what about the quality? I will run PPC on Facebook, I will pitch to irrelevant audiences”. Wrong. This is where the prospect lists from the previous chapter come in handy (and many times you can do great using “just” smart targeting).
My 2 cents:
First of all, I need a damn good reason not to run PPC with a multichannel strategy in mind. Sometimes, too stubborn founders are the reason, because they just won’t let me (though I am not shy in expressing my opinions). What can you do…
I insist on running A/B tests rather than deciding on channels by gut feeling, and then letting the performance win. I do run prior checks to ensure that there’s some common sense in trying a channel (for instance, when there are no relevant keyword searches, there is little reason to build on Google Search Ads, right?).
I often run a competitive analysis to spy on where competitors (or other players in the industry) put their money. The best scenarios (which often happen) are when I realize that the audiences are active on FB or Twitter, but competitors are busy running ads only on LinkedIn. Many times they don’t understand the difference between the social apps and the media channels behind them. Opportunity alert!
I do adapt ads’ content to the channel, of course. That is a must.
Targeting? In some cases, I will insist on using custom audience lists when trying out channels such as Facebook (this is usually what I prefer to do when I am running campaigns for cybersecurity solutions), but there are other places where even that’s not necessary and I do great with smart targeting (a mix of Lookalikes (LAL) to website visitors combined with relevant interests – a known and a good B2B tactic). When I see that the channel includes many professional groups that match the interests, the chances of doing well with LAL + interests grow. This is the exact case with a couple of heavy B2B industries I am working on.
Now one last tip: My PPC strategy includes starting with creating a detailed media plan that looks at the KPIs and splits the budget accordingly. I almost always ‘enjoy’ a small budget and tough KPIs (the reality of most post-seed to round A startups). That means that I must maximize top-funnel traffic volume by promoting articles in “low-cost” media channels such as Facebook or Twitter, or even Google Display (work with caution when it’s Google display!).
I just know that I will not manage to achieve a good enough impact by leaning on LinkedIn alone – not with the budget I have.
Once I do cross-channel PPC, tracking (monitoring carefully the quality of the traffic I pay for) becomes the next prioritized challenge… which brings me to:
Mistake #6: You don’t track the data that shows alarming signs
I’ve learned that when the data looks too good, it’s suspicious. Don’t get too excited when you just start PPC and the results are phenomenal, it’s probably bad.
Many times people tend to fully trust what the ad dashboards report, and they don’t double-check the numbers using Google Analytics, or else they don’t look at the results the way they should.
Here are a couple of concrete examples that I’ve learned (the hard way, I must say):
- Open / clicks in LinkedIn sponsored messages mean absolutely nothing!!!! Everyone clicks on messages to stop them from showing notifications. You do that with all your spam inmail messages. It says nothing about genuine engagement. LinkedIn knows that of course. You should ask them why they share this data as a significant result. Use a UTM in your messages and see if anything significant is shown in Google Analytics
*Below a screenshot of a sponsored message ad. This campaign manager may see a CR as high as 90% and feel so happy over nothing…
- Google Analytics would reveal paid traffic from the wrong geos. All media channels have the habit of planting “traps” that expand the audience; you check them without even being aware. Traps such as the small text in the ad dashboard of “expanding audiences” (checked by default). The most amazing example (still ultimate after all these years) comes from Google ads targeting, where it’s not enough that you select a geo, you still need to visit advanced settings and uncheck “people that show interest in that geo” and check instead “only people that live in this geo”…This image shows what I call ‘a trap’ by Google ads (this is how you end up buying traffic from Peru). The first option is checked by default.
This is an advanced setting under the location targeting and it’s hidden. Nice, Google. Touche.
- Facebook ads sometimes look so good, especially in “traffic” (objective) campaigns, that you may be super satisfied with your achievements. But I’ve learned that this traffic is oftentimes made of fake clicks, bots and that nobody really lands on the website – and if there are lands, the average session duration is so low that this can’t be genuine traffic.
These are just a few out of many examples.
My 2 cents:
PPC for B2B objectives (especially heavy B2B that lean on enterprise sales) is a long road and it must be executed by people who know exactly what they are doing. It’s so different from instant buying B2C that it can’t be done the same way. No way. KPIs are different, content is different, prices are different, tracking is different and the results must be judged differently.
When you start running paid campaigns for your B2B startup, Google Analytics (GA) should be your best friend! Here are some metrics you must track closely:
- How many unique landing page views are attributed to the campaign you see on GA? Due to many reasons, there’s always a gap between what’s reported by the ad channels and what is seen on GA (a gap of ~20% is ok and should not be considered a warning sign), but a huge gap is alarming. I once had the “pleasure” of seeing only 10% of the traffic reported by the ad dashboard on GA – this means that something is wrong (in this specific case, very wrong) with the campaign. The sooner you identify the warning signs, which essentially translate to a loss of money, the better.
- Is the traffic (or conversions) coming from the right geos? When you didn’t manage to escape a trap such as the one I mentioned above, you want to know that AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE.
- What’s the session duration (or other indications of quality) of the visitors coming from campaigns? If they are way below your regular average (from other media channels or other traffic sources) that’s also a sign that something is wrong.
- What is the CR of leads for mobile versus desktop? Paid media usually brings mainly mobile views. If leads come mainly via desktop in your case, you may either want to allow lead objectives campaigns to run only for desktop or optimize your mobile view for leads (for instance, allow mobile visitors to send themselves email reminders).
- Don’t judge an ad campaign just by the ad dashboard data! Cross attribution is tricky and reporting issues are common. Before you decide on closing a channel due to underperformance, do yourself a favor and double-check on Google Analytics, too. I recently had a case where I almost shut down a Facebook campaign because other channels seemed to perform better, but then Google Analytics showed a completely different picture. It’s an attribution issue (could also be an issue related to assisted attribution, too technical for this article, Google it if you want).
Mistake #7: You don’t let campaigns run long enough
While some channels such as Facebook can show performance indicators quickly, others such as LinkedIn are slow to respond, so you should be patient.
A while ago I met a CMO who explained why she was disappointed by the performance of the LinkedIn campaigns she was paying for (which were managed by an external agency). I saw campaigns that were planned to run for just 2 weeks as a pilot.
You can’t run a two-week pilot on LinkedIn. You can hardly run a two-week pilot in any channel for your B2B startup. Prepare for months. Yes, I know it’s a lot of money but that’s the game. You need to run enough A/B tests and reach enough data signals before you can measure any impact and reach significant conclusions. That’s science. I didn’t start it.
My 2 cents
Well, I don’t start running campaigns if I know I can’t keep them alive for at least 3 months. If there’s not enough money for that, there’s no point in starting at all. I can run short term campaigns, mainly geo-located ones during physical industry events (remember those? We used to have them) or when I wish to push a major PR mention to as many eyeballs in a short time as possible (time-sensitive content). But for leads, or as an integral part of my solid PPC strategy? No. It will not have enough time to generate KPIs that will justify the campaign’s continuing existence.
Mistake #8 (last one for today): You don’t put enough daily budget and you don’t make the right bid
We all want to make as many A/B tests as possible so we can split our campaigns into different ad groups and the like. Also, it’s fun.
What happens when you don’t have enough budget, though? Well, you start splitting the budget across endless trials until you end up with a daily budget for each ad group that’s too small. When the budget is too small, you will lose your youth before you’ll have enough data to judge the performance of the ad group. So don’t.
Also, the maximum bid per click, in LinkedIn for instance, should be high for new campaigns, much higher than what LinkedIn suggests, in order to show the media that you put your money where your mouth is and are ready for the competition. You want to reach the audience before other media buyers (there are not enough impressions for everyone, as in this business the demand is usually higher than the supply). When you bid outrageous sums it doesn’t mean that you will see such prices in the actual performance, but it lets the media enjoy a higher level of freedom with your campaign.
My 2 cents:
I start with the right expectations. I know that a new campaign will show prices that are much higher compared to an optimized one that’s been running for a while. I budget this onboarding period and I prepare my startups accordingly. My bidding strategy takes into account the campaign’s seniority. When I launch a new campaign I want it to start running, full steam ahead, as fast as possible, and I want to win over all other buyers – so I’m willing to pay for that.
My KPIs during the initial campaign stage are to learn if this campaign is beneficial as quickly as possible, in order to decide if and how to optimize it for the future. For that, I need enough data points.
An optimized campaign that runs for a while carries different KPIs, such as cost per lead and leads quality. Here I am much less generous with my bids.
I could go on with listing mistakes and tips forever. Running PPC campaigns that are efficient for B2B startups requires a lot of expertise and careful thought. The thing is, that everyone can easily launch a campaign through the system. But that’s when the disappointment starts. My ultimate advice is:
- Define the KPIs and ensure they can be fulfilled by paid campaigns.
- Ensure that you have a sufficient budget for this journey, otherwise, it’s best not to start at all.
- Be sure your audience isn’t too small.
- Work with professionals who can prove they know what they are doing with real-life examples from companies similar to yours.
- Don’t start before you have enough content.
- Supervise the operation carefully. Ensure that the right content is being promoted, that the ads’ creative is good, that Google Analytics is relatively aligned with what is seen in the ad channels dashboards.
- Plan for a long journey and don’t rely on quick wins.