You hate it.
There are only a few characters. It should only take a few seconds. Yet you cringe in pain every time you have to create new ad text to increase CTR’s or set up new campaigns.
There’s a lot on the line and you can’t get afford to get it wrong.
You’ve got to take all of this information into account, come up with a killer value prop, and then stuff it down into an impossibly low restricted character limit.
Thankfully, there are a few shortcuts available. Tried-and-true formulas from people who’ve already been there and done that.
Best of all, follow these seven AdWords headline formulas and you’ll never have to write another one from scratch again.
AdWords Headline Formula #1. Keep it Simple (Stupid).
Picasso is often attributed to saying, “Great artists steal.” Whether or not he said it is beside the point.
The message is not to copy, but to regurgitate like a bird feeding its chick. (That was a gross analogy. Apologies if you’re eating while reading this.)
When starting with AdWords ad copy, keep it simple and direct, making it easier to go down initially—especially for bottom of the funnel queries where someone already has urgency and is expressing strong purchasing intent.
Super simple and actionable. Keyword + benefit.
Your ad text is highly dependent on the keyword being searched, which is highly dependent on the stage of the buyer’s journey that searcher is in.
Now comes the next piece of the puzzle: congruency. Unsurprisingly, people want to see the same information on the landing page they hit that was just in the ad they clicked.
You know the deal: Visitor expectations + ad text + landing page = higher message match = lower CPC’s and CPA’s.
There’s one problem with this approach now though—the relatively new expanded headline.
Mark Irvine recommends that you go back and rewrite these new second headlines to make sure you’re not simply repeating or regurgitating what’s already there (the new format can actually decrease your CTR if you don’t).
Mark shares an example, with the old one that resembles the tried-and-true formula we’ve all come to know and love:
And here’s a newly rewritten one that attempts to re-emphasize the primary benefit or value prop they deliver:
The new ad reportedly saw a 400% CTR increase. Not too shabby.
AdWords Headline Formula #2. Get Hyper Local
What do plastic surgeons, attorneys, and pest control companies have in common?
They all compete locally for business. (And they’re all featured in this second formula.)
They’re competing against other companies with deep pocket books that want the same precious few clicks.
When ants take over. When you’ve been screwed. When the bags under your eyes look saggy and you’re trying to get on the next Housewives of Orange County. No? Just me?
What do you do? You Google: “[keyword] + [location]”.
The formula is the same meat-and-potatoes approach we just witnessed but with a twist. No need to overcomplicate things.
Now we can slice and dice this same formula a few different ways, with a combination of the (1) location, (2) keyword, and (3) value prop (in the extended headline). Bonus points to this Rodeo Dr. ad for leveraging social proof in the ad text under the headline.
Here’s another example in a wildly different industry.
“Pest Control San Bernadino.” “Pest Control Temecula.” All you gotta do is just switch out the location qualifier and repeat ad nauseum.
Also note the click-through rates in that last example. These are especially important for driving down costs (and tend to be higher for localized-keyphrases because of high intent and good execution). Larry wrote in detail on this subject an excellent Moz piece:
“And one final important point (and yet another reason to kill your donkeys!): low CTRs typically also lead to low conversion rates — this is true for both organic and paid search.”
You know… for all the peeps that do finally get on that Housewives show and need a good divorce attorney. (Speaking of which, I actually did video-bomb a Housewives of Los Angeles episode once. Don’t ask me how. California’s a weird place. Time to fire up that IMDb page.)
This last one is the same formula more-or-less, but this time with a much stronger value prop that ends up delivering an insanely high click-through rate.
AdWords Headline Formula #3. Ask a Question?
Millennials are funny creatures. All consumed with chasing their passions and bringing back ugly 90’s fashion.
It’s hard not to chuckle at their goofy glasses when they’re making your Peppermint Mocha with almond (no whip, please).
Turns out, they also have some funny speaking habits. Like saying “like,” “dude,” and raising the inflection of their voice at the end of a sentence to make everything sound like a question.
In person, that’s not a good thing. In AdWords though, it is.
Marketing Experiments ran a test to see what impacted click through rates more: statements or questions.
They ran three statements against a single question ad, and guess which one won?
Their ad copy in this example is OK. But not great.
“Web content”, while highly important, isn’t always valued as such. Creating blog post after blog post is time consuming and difficult for those who wake up early to slog through it every day, sure. But there’s not a whole lot of urgency behind “content.” What’s better, is to focus on the end result or outcome that web content delivers.
And if possible, try to capitalize on mistakes or threats people might be making or helping them avoid impending doom. Because negative messaging can outperform positive headlines by 60%.
Examples might include power words like “last minute” which pull in a stronger purchasing motivation:
(By the way – probably shouldn’t do a last minute proposal.)
Another way to spin the question formula is to incorporate storytelling. This CrazyEgg example is perfect:
The ad text is almost BuzzFeed-esque. But in a good way, because it creates a narrative and a cliffhanger that makes you want to find out more.
And that crazy number in the headline? That brings us to our next formula.
AdWords Headline Formula #4. The Too-Specific-to-be-Fake Number
It starts innocently enough. It’s all smiles and games. Until you lose the next three hours to Buzzfeeding and you’re late picking up your kid at school (never happened, I swear).
In one AdWords test, a numbered headline outperformed one sans number with a 217% increase in CTR and 23% improvement in conversion rates.
One theory is that numbers signal simplicity in our minds (which we’re drawn to in an increasingly complex world).
But the number you use can make a huge impact.
If you have 30 minutes to kill, or you have to attend another one of your kid’s school-friend’s birthday parties again this weekend, read this excellent in-depth article from Siege Media.
Interestingly, Ross Hudgens starts off the post by admitting that he reduced the number in the headline because he was concerned people wouldn’t believe it.
In Secrets of Great Salespeople, Jeremy Raymond writes:
“A research project showed that when a battery was claimed to last ‘up to two hours’ customers predicted that it would last, on average, 89 minutes; when the claim was presented as ‘up to 125 minutes’, customers’ predictions rose to 106 minutes.”
In other words, people don’t always believe big round numbers. They make people think the real number has just been rounded up.
Odd numbers also have been shown to outperform even ones by 20%, according to an Outbrain study.
Numbers, when done correctly, can also help you tell a story. Besides just emphasizing discounts or a great deal, they can be used to show vast quantities too (so many, that there’s no need to check another website). Take this Trivago ad:
They somehow manage to stuff a keyword + location and two different numbers all in the headline.
The “687 hotels” assures that you’re going to find what you’re looking for. The $64 is such a seemingly random number that you can’t help but think it must be real.
The ad text also does a great job emphasizing their value prop (“Never Pay Full Price on Hotels”) which brings us to our next formula…
AdWords Headline Formula #5. Objection-Overcomer
Before we buy something online, we’re projecting that feeling. We’re worried or nervous, building anxiety about the potential for pain of loss.
That produces risk. Opting into that thing might spam us. Buying a toupee might not make me look like Clooney. (Holding out hope though.)
That’s why the best testimonials overcome objections. You ask leading questions that uncover what obstacles might have prevented someone from taking action (before showing the payoff that shows they’re glad they did).
Objection-overcoming headlines help simplify. They’re zen.
For example, what would prevent small business owners from buying and using any one of the popular email marketing services?
Technology hurdles, for one. Constant Contact does a great job here re-emphasizing that tech skills aren’t required for THEIR program.
You’ve got your direct key phrase in the primary headline, with “No [Objection]” in the extended headline to assure you that the thing in the back of your mind that possibly might prevent you from clicking is not a big deal. Same formula here:
You can also flip the switch here, placing the “No [Objection]” portion at the beginning (if length permits).
In keeping with the zen idea, “No-Stress” almost always works when describing something that’s seemingly complex or causes anxiety:
As always, promising a simple solution to a costly (negative) problem almost guarantees your ad jumps off the SERPs.
For example, you can tell people what they don’t need or shouldn’t be doing (but are probably already experiencing).
Don’t take my word for it. Take it from the people who do it best:
AdWords Headline Formula #6. Provide Incentives
Marketing today doesn’t really look like the marketing of old.
In its theoretical heyday, marketing involved product feature decisions and customer support and packaging designs. Above and beyond the PR and distribution that all advertisers are well familiar with.
Today, marketing in most companies looks more like:
- Step #1. Here’s a discount.
- Step #2. Run ads.
You can’t walk down a mall right now without being accosted by eager salespeople on the floor, chomping at the bit to explain how the latest discount gets added to the sale price which increases a certain percentage if you spend between these ranges.
Consumers have no idea what’s going on. Impossible to keep it all straight. All they know is that they’re getting a bargain.
And that’s the idea.
Incentives tick almost all of the persuasion boxes.
They manufacture urgency and scarcity. They play on our aversion to loss. And they use specific numbers.
Even Google tells you to use discounts and promos in your ads.
In one study, incorporating numbers (like “40%”) and overcoming objections (like “Free Shipping”) can give you a winning combination:
So first you hit ‘em with the keyphrase and the you get ‘em with the incentive (or [“Keyphrase”] - [“Incentive”]). The 1-2 punch we’ve seen repeatedly here so far, that KAYAK executes to a T:
Wanna see how hilariously common this formula is? Check out this SERP where THREE ads in a row use the extended headline to call attention to customer savings.
One variation to stand out in this crowded SERP?
Macy’s can make like Trivago (the ad from earlier) and squeeze in the quantity of available Chukka Boots that the competitors (Clarks and Nisolo) surely can’t match.
How can you upgrade this even more?
The first might refer to the remaining amount of whatever it is somebody just searched. While the second refers to the specific date or time that this incentive expires. For. Ev. Er.
AdWords Headline Formula #7. The Competitive Bid
In the past ten years or so, the social commerce market has exploded.
It’s gone from virtually nonexistent to like $15 billion in just a few years.
So there’s a lot at stake.
There’s also an odd, borderline incestuous history within the group of largest competitors vying for profitable enterprise clients at the top of the heap.
Bazaarvoice, the big industry stalwart, actually acquired PowerReviews (the next in line) at one point in time…
It’s fair to say that the competition is stiff.
So… how do people and consumers choose? They might start with generic searches to get a lay of the land. But when they’re using branded ones, they’re beginning to seriously evaluate their options to purchase.
Google’s Customer Journey to Online Purchase tool can help you see how this behavior plays out:
What better place to hijack a soon-to-be-customer then on your competitor’s branded search then?
While Bazaarvoice valiantly tries to make their case, they’re being sandwiched and outfoxed by PowerReviews and TurnTo Networks who kick off their headlines with the same “Why Choose [Our Brand]” formula.
However my money here is on PowerReviews, who follows this up with a stronger value prop in the extended headline.
Another example beyond, “Why Choose ____?”, includes, “Alternative to ____”.
Ways to improve or test in the original ad?
- Try highlighting the cost discrepancy, the specific and odd “$99/mo starting price” (based on the numbers bit in formula #4 above).
- Try carrying in the “No Startup Fees” or “$0 Startup Fees” or similar (based on overcoming objections in formula #5 above).
- Try including a special discount or incentive (that expires soon) for those considering HubSpot only (based on incentives in formula #6 above).
You’d think it’d be easy. Just a few words, a couple dozen characters or so. And yet it takes all afternoon.
Crafting the perfect AdWords headline is tough cause you gotta take so many things into account. Like what they were searching for and if they have purchasing motivation or not and how do you get this stuff to link with what’s on your landing pages.
Fortunately, you can 80/20 the process if you know where to look.
These common AdWords headline formulas are ready for you to adopt, rehash, and re-use to not only save a ton of time but also increase performance (and your bottom line).