3 Ways a Small Business Can Compete with the Big Guys in PPC [DATA]


Being the little guy can be tough. You’re underfunded. You lack resources. You spend lonely nights eating cans of warmish black beans googling buzzwords like “grassroots” and “bootstrap.” But no matter how many times you nod off to a Seth Godin audiobook on the subway, competing with the biggest and baddest in your vertical can seem daunting.

Fret not! There are ways to thrive in PPC even without an unlimited budget at your disposal. In this post I’ll show you how – illustrated with a real-life example (a WordStream client), so you know it works!

small business ppc competition

Or are you….

Selvera is a small business offering personalized weight management solutions through cognitive behavioral therapy, dietary tracking, and home-delivered meals. As the comprehensive nature of these offerings suggests, Selvera isn’t cheap, but it’s effective: 90% of their clients experience sustained weight loss.

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...which is more than we can say for some alternatives

Despite overwhelming success once clients are enrolled, the price point and comparatively small advertising budget in an extremely competitive space (Selvera’s top competitors include Nutrisystem, Medifast, and Jenny Craig) makes customer acquisition challenging. As such, we delved into the vertical’s most granular recesses to devise an SEM strategy that would yield great returns.

Strategy #1: Uncovering Hyper-targeted Keyword Niches

Using a combination of SEMRush and simple Excel tools to conduct competitor analyses, we determined a subset within the weight loss niche that remained untapped. Typical costs per click for generic weight-loss solution keywords like “best weight loss solution” exceed $15 for top positioning. However, we discovered that keywords pertaining to medical issues related to weight loss are substantially cheaper.

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After researching a variety of medical conditions impacted by weight we found that keywords built around diabetes, like “diabetes weight loss solution,” have CPCs closer to $2 and boast higher conversion rates than generic terms. By pivoting spend away from unsustainably costly terms in favor of keywords explicitly pertaining to weight loss for people with diabetes, we cut the account’s average CPC drastically; tweaks to the ad copy and a landing page catering to the desires of our new target demographic had similarly positive results.

When the strategy proved effective on traditional search, we decided to establish a corollary campaign on the Display Network using managed placements.

Strategy #2: Targeted Managed Placements

Generally speaking, the Google Display Network can be harrowing for small businesses. It serves as an excellent means to grow a brand but it’s not necessarily the most cost-effective paid search channel in terms of generating conversions. Managed placements afford the user a greater degree of control over ad placement on the Display Network than, say, keyword or topic targeting, making it a great tool for businesses with budgetary restraints.

Straight from the horse’s mouth: “[managed placements] are a targeting method you can use to specifically chose websites, videos, and apps that are part of the Google Display Network where you'd like to show your ads.”

Thanks to concentrated text and banner ad creative, the Selvera account has thrived across a carefully pruned list of managed placements. One placement in particular, tiered with a keyword context target for diabetes, has yielded 44 converted clicks in the last 30 days alone. The success on Display reduced CPCs for the campaign even further, dropping down from about $2.02 to just $0.28 after 60 days.

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Strategy #3: Demographics Are Your Friend

Believe it or not, women click on weight-loss related paid ads more often than men do, BUT on the (comparatively) rare occasions when men do click an ad, they convert at a much higher rate! Armed with this knowledge we created a display campaign—using the techniques mentioned above—targeting male audiences.

We started with a series of cheeky banner ads (see below) shown across dating sites and personals. Clicks here were extremely cheap, between $.08 and $.16, and click through rate improved. Best of all CPA for the campaign was just over $14 (for perspective: the account-wide CPA was about 3X this). This success spurred us to expand the campaign, experimenting with topic targeting directed at male audiences, which ultimately proved less effective (in terms of both conversion volume and CPA) than the managed placements.

display ads for small businesses

Unfortunately, when we replicated the campaign, making minor tweaks to target a female audience, the results could not have been more different. The ads received fewer clicks despite higher impressions, and I think we tracked a single conversion over the course of a month. Sometimes changing one variable (this is admittedly quite a large one) yields drastically different results. Speaking of...

The Client’s Results

Since the first week in April 2015 (when these initiatives began in earnest), Selvera has seen a 127% increase in leads generated via PPC (100 monthly leads vs. 227 monthly leads), evidenced below:

adwords for small businesses

As a result, CPA has dropped a precipitous 63%, from $94.00 to $35.17 (again, see below):

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In July, a historically slow month for the weight loss industry, our efforts produced Selvera’s best single-month performance on AdWords to date: this paradigm-thwarting performance is a testament to the power of subversive thinking in PPC.


Hopefully, given the success of the techniques showcased above, you see a different sort of value in the Display Network. While you might not be able to pour hundreds of dollars every day into plastering banner ads in every nook of the internet, you can take advantage of advanced targeting features to make the Display network work for you. By taking the time to research who you’re marketing to you can grow conversion volume—and lower CPA.

About the author

Allen Finn is a content marketing specialist and the reigning fantasy football champion at WordStream. He enjoys couth menswear, dank eats, and the dulcet tones of the Wu-Tang Clan. If you know what's good for you, you'll follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.


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Hillary Howard
Nov 04, 2015

Hey, these are quite amazing smart moves! Thanks for sharing Allen!

Nov 04, 2015

It's very hard for small business companies to compete with big ones, but it's possible. Good article, thanks.
P.S. I really like your style of writing, and pictures are great)

Nov 05, 2015

That's some good work there. I hate PPC. It's like throwing money down a black hole.
But as you proved, it can pay off if done properly.

Nov 05, 2015

Oh and when you used that diabetes niche keyword, do you have it as exact match?

Nov 06, 2015

We've used a combination of phrase and exact match types with varying degrees of specificity (and success): the testing never stops!

Pedro Pereira
Nov 05, 2015

The big problem is the fact that for some industries like software its VERY hard to find alternatives keywords....the Google prices for CPC are becoming to expensive.....

Nov 06, 2015

This is why employing an array of creative strategies, thinking outside of the box and leveraging tools like the Display Network, is essential.

John Vandergalien
Nov 06, 2015

Can you say what the ROI is on the $35 CPA 227 conversions?

Nov 06, 2015

Selvera offers a handful of products and services; the one with the highest margin is probably their program including pre-made meals. Unfortunately we can't share client-sensitive information to provide exact margins, but we try to write copy and make use of strategies that will maximize ROI.

Ketharaman Swaminathan (GTM360 Marketing Solutions)
Nov 06, 2015

Brilliant article. These days, clickbait headlines are very common. WordStream is one of the few companies whose headlines do sound like clickbait but the content absolutely lives up to the headlines. The same can't be said for most companies in today's world. Kudos.

Elisa Gabbert
Nov 06, 2015

What a compliment, thanks so much!

Harald Schendera
Nov 09, 2015

A true masterpiece. Good intro. A conclusion that deserves the name. Not overly long. Comprehensive, data-backed. You don't even need the memes in this one. I will share it with my followers today.

Nov 13, 2015

Excellent article. It hits home! I have a question, on the mainstream keywords that had high bids, did you completely pause them, or just lower the CPC and/or budget for them?

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