Think Like Lefty, and You’ll Win at PPC


Phil Mickelson has done it again. He’s demonstrated an evolution in his maturity level and game-savvy. He realizes that even if you “have game,” playing safer odds repeatedly often wins out over reckless gambling. Yesterday, in the Farmer’s Open in San Diego, trailing Bubba Watson by one stroke, he opted to “lay up” behind a creek rather than “going for it.” His calculation was that a bad shot would ruin his chances, whereas the safe shot gave him a slightly better chance of winning the hole. Even when Watson holed out to maintain his lead, Mickelson had some chance left: to try to hole out a 70-yard eagle chip.

Mickelson came second this time around, beaten fair and square by Watson. But he collected $626,400 for his troubles. You can’t win them all. And he’s won 50 professional golf tournaments in his career.

In rare instances, a gamble is appropriate. A “knockout blow” that people remember forever, like Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA, becoming the first player ever to beat Tiger Woods from behind in a major. Facing tremendous pressure and tasting victory in a major over the ominously confident Woods, Yang could have played safe and still won; he led by a stroke. Instead, he hit a perfect, improbable 3-hybrid over a big tree, to within 8 feet of the hole, to seal the deal. But such moments happen more rarely than we believe. Repeated high-stakes gambles are generally a losing strategy.

Popular UK novelist Tony Parsons gives us this aphorism: “When a man is 30, he wants to be free. At 40, he wants to belong.”

Who knows, maybe it’s true.

In a perverse way, this might explain the difference between Jerome Kerviel and Bernie Madoff. Or why, at 37, Larry Page wants more than anything else to act like a grownup, and run Google.

But enough about all that. We’re here to talk about Phil Mickelson. And, as usual, your PPC campaigns.

Mickelson became notorious early for his prodigious drives into the deep rough and his low-percentage gambles that often knocked him out of the running instead of into contention. It was only when he resolved to bend the existing rules to his benefit, rather than throwing out the rulebook entirely, that he reached new heights of success.

Perhaps Mickelson’s most famous rule-bending episode occurred during the 2006 Masters, where he did something that was perfectly inside the rules – but not a single other player in the field even considered it. In keeping with the rules of golf, Mickelson carried 14 clubs in his bag. Two were drivers. One, an inch longer with a slight tweak to allow the ball to draw from left to right. The other, intended to hit it more or less straight, or fade slightly from right to left. The end result: fewer fairways missed, and as Mickelson put it, “half the trouble.”

Rather than raging against the rules, Mickelson’s equipment maneuver actually kept him more obsessively “down the middle.” He looked carefully at what was allowed, and saw more flexibility on the menu than other people did. His trick to winning is to play more by the rules, not less.

You’d find the same tendency in challenging logic and strategy games as well, from chess to Scrabble.

Paid search, too, feels like it has a lot of tight, constraining rules. But like chess, once things get started, the dynamic flow allows for a breathtaking number of permutations. Follow the rules better, think of the stuff you can buy if you win, and you won’t be bored.

In a field of relative amateurs, most of whom will be trying to make their mark with “clever” tactics that don’t work, you’re bound to make it onto the leaderboard if you focus zen-like on perfecting fundamentals. While others are trying to impress their friends around the virtual water cooler with long-tail keyword research and Quality Score myths, why not take a few weeks to practice your focus just on writing more effective ad copy? (Of course, you won’t be done in just a few weeks. Some of the theories you seek rock-solid statistical support for may take a year or more to prove out in a large, granular account.)

Here are four key examples of thinking way inside the box. Test and hone these tactics and you’re bound to profit.

Plain, plainer, plainest ad copy. Just communicate with prospects. Don’t try to out-think them. If you’re going back to work on an account full of ads that have been trying harder and harder to grab people’s attention, why not simplify instead of trying to be more clever or creative? Here is a rough approximation of three real world headlines I recently worked on. The existing ads were poor performers – they tried to grab the searcher’s attention with (obviously disguising the real ad somewhat here): “Do You Ride Tiny Elephants?” Everyone doing a search for “ride the biggest bloomin’ elephant I can afford” knows they don’t want to ride a tiny elephant. Instead, I tested “Riding Elephants? Go Big.” It worked better. Then I simplified it further to “Big Elephant Experts.” That one did the best. Why? Because we’re playing by the rules. The high-intent customer’s rules. Their mental map of what they expect and hope to find.

For the customer, it’s quite possible that coming up with the idea to ride the big elephant was enough mental strain for the day.

DKI. It shouldn’t be too surprising that there isn’t a consensus as to whether it’s best practice to use Dynamic Keyword Insertion in headlines. Quite simply, in some contexts it works, and in others it doesn’t. It’s too easy, though, to fall into a pattern of not testing it because you’ve found it usually fails for your accounts from an ROI standpoint. As the new year kicks off, retry DKI in headline tests throughout your accounts to see if it might succeed in some cases. It’s the ultimate example of rule-following, in that its purpose is to mirror the user’s query and give ’em what they want. Often, there’s nothing more persuasive than the searcher’s own words.

Best call to action (or none). Have you fallen into the habit of tacking “Buy Now!” onto your ads and never trying anything else? Within the available character limits, there are dozens of other themes you can try: “Compare and Save,” “Check Out Feedback from 200 Customers,” coupon code discounts for a limited time, or of course, variations on no call to action if the available characters are better used to describe benefits or to signal e-commerce intent (like shipping; large enterprise focus; local or global reach; etc.).

Overweight winning ads in tests. Phil Mickelson cut his trouble potential in half by putting two drivers in his bag so that he’d be hitting the safest shot off the tee regardless of whether a fairway was dogleg left or dogleg right. Similarly, when you’re rotating ads and testing new contenders, run two or more safe, winning ads instead of just one. Always create at least one “copy” (with slight variations if you prefer) of your most proven ad to date, so that new contender ads don’t cost you too much money. Experiments are key; you can’t learn and improve without them. But by using this workaround, you can proactively manage how much of a bite out of your winning routine the experimentation should take.

You’re probably curious to know whether Mickelson won the 2006 Masters Golf Tournament. Yes, he did.

A version of this article appeared at ClickZ on Jan. 14, 2011. Reprinted by permission.

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