Main illustration: Michele Marconi
One of the most effective channels for fueling your startup’s growth is online advertising. Yet advertising can also set a startup back. At best, spammy, impersonal ads will hurt your reputation. At worst, your audience tunes out your ads entirely.
So what separates an effective ad from just another spammy banner or piece of clickbait? It comes down to serving ads that feel personal to the consumer. Invest time getting to know your audiences and what they’re searching for, and you have it in your control to send ads to only people who are ready to buy your product, using content that matches their intent.
Our ad campaigns became profitable when they became personal. Here’s how you can make your ads personal too.
What are prospects looking for?
The first thing we had to get right was showing ads to people based on what they’re interested in and figuring out what job customers are hiring our product for. This meant figuring out what they searched and serving them the most relevant ad and landing page. If somebody’s searching for a knowledge base tool, we’d serve them an ad and landing page that helps them get our knowledge base, and not an ad that shows them how great our pricing is.
There are several different ways to figure out what your users are searching for and integrate that data with your ad channels. Let’s walk through them.
The three paths to the data you need
Let’s say that you run and manage paid ad strategy for AvoToast.io, a popular startup in San Francisco that delivers on-demand avocado toast, from regular toast to toast topped with bacon and goat cheese. You’ve been running ads with some success and you think that figuring out how to deliver the right toast to the hungriest people at the right time will take your ad campaigns to the next level.
To deliver the right toast to the right person, you need to figure out which kind of toast someone is craving.
If you were a running a productivity app, the process is similar – you may want to find out whether a consumer is interested in project management or internal team communication. You then have three good ways to surface the data you need to create effective ads.
1. The low bandwidth solution
A good first step is to help ad networks, like Google AdWords or even Facebook Ads, find new visitors who are similar to your customers, and then send them ads that are personalized to what they want.
Send them an ad and a landing page both focused on the same product, rather than your homepage.
Begin with adding your favorite ad network remarketing tag to the page that you serve users after they make a purchase, whether that’s the order confirmation or a different page. This is so you can tell your ad network who has been on your site and are live customers, and you can exclude these customers from seeing your ads.
Because AvoToast.io has unique landing pages for unique products, such as regular avocado toast, toast with a fried egg, toast with almonds and smoked olive oil and toast with bacon and goat cheese, you will get even better ad customization if you create unique audiences based on people who have purchased on each of these individual pages. At Intercom, we apply this advertising principle to our three solutions: live chat, onboarding and retention, and customer support.
Your ad network should generate a list of visitors who have characteristics similar to your customers within a few hours. You can target these folks with ads that are specific to the product category they’re looking for, with a corresponding landing page. Visitors that your ad network defines as similar to customers who converted on your avocado toast with almonds landing page are likely to want this specific product too. So you can send them an ad and a landing page that are both focused on the same product, rather than your homepage.
2. Using Intercom to surface audience data
If AvoToast.io is an Intercom customer, you can create intentional audiences easily. All you’d need to do is download your customer email addresses from Intercom and upload them to your ad network. Your ad network should anonymize your customer emails for you, so privacy won’t be a concern here. Here’s a more in depth look of how to do it.
- Go into Intercom, and set a filter to include only your current customers. To take this a step further, set filters by which product of yours they’re using too. So you can have separate lists of your customers who have purchased each of your distinct avocado toast products.
- Download this list of emails and then upload it to your favorite ad network.
- Create an ad campaign with both copy and a landing page tailored to their use case. Make sure to target an audience of users who have similar characteristics to that of your customers. For example, if somebody wants avocado toast with a fried egg, show them an ad about avocado toast with a fried egg, with a landing page about avocado toast with a fried egg, to people who your ad network has determined may have predisposition toward purchasing avocado toast with fried egg.
- For Intercom, if we’re looking to acquire customers who are interested in a modern business live chat experience, here’s example of how we’d do it. The banner ad and landing page align clearly with each other.
3. The most targeted solution: For those with access to engineering resources
This is a high effort, very high impact solution, if you have the right resources. When we know what people have searched for, we can also create better audiences for ad platforms, so we could target these folks with ads that matched exactly what they’re looking to solve with our product.
To get started, you’ll need to tag your current URLs with a UTM parameter tied to the user search term. UTM tags allow Google Analytics, and similar analytics tools, to tell you where searchers came from as well as which campaign directed them to you. Here’s one example of a UTM tagging guide.
Then if you’re able to borrow time from a strong engineer on your team, you can ask them to link every user and their email address to these UTM tags. With this, you can figure out with reasonable accuracy which type of toast somebody searched for when they clicked your ad and landed on your site. You can send ads to users based on what they searched.
After you’ve figured out what people are searching, you’ll need to come up with a way to store the information, a custom solution to filter folks by their search terms, and a way to export their user email addresses so you can upload them to ad networks like Google.
If AvoToast.io has all this information, they could filter by who searched “avocado toast with bacon and goat cheese”, send people who searched this with an ad with a landing page that matches their intent, and expect that they’ll become customers. In some cases it makes sense to use the exact term that the user searched in ad copy.
Your sales team could also use this data to proactively have intentional conversations with users and help guide them to purchase a delicious piece of toast.
Your ads need to be personal if you want to profitably scale them
Intercom’s advertising has been historically profitable, and betting big on personalizing our ads has allowed us to scale our advertising significantly.
Start by tailoring your advertising to exactly what visitors are asking for with a relevant ad, grab their attention with the right landing page, and convert them into customers. Once you have this down, shift your focus to the data behind your messaging, what’s working and what’s not working, and optimize your messaging to give users an even more impactful experience.