by Anne Gentle, technical writer and blogger at JustWriteClick

imageimage I received a copy of The 4-Hour Workweek, a book by Tim Ferriss, at the holidays last year and read it with interest because I’ve heard many others in the high-tech world discuss it at length. In it, he talks about outsourcing even the answering of emails using a personal assistant who doesn’t need to be in the same country as he is. While I didn’t think I needed that much outsourcing in my life, I did sit up and take notice when he talked about starting your own business.

Are You Really Pursuing a Four-Hour Workweek?

The catchy title of this book can catch you off guard. Yes, Tim tells you how to build efficiency into your work, how to have a life outside of working hours, and how not to waste time or gather too much information. His book chapters center around themes of Definition, Elimination, Automation, and Liberation. This article talks mostly about the Automation aspects of running a business.

Scott Abel, CEO of The Content Wrangler, Inc., has an excellent presentation about how to gain back 10 hours in your work week, and I love all the tools that Scott lists. Myself, I’ve found that purposely working part time (reduced hours and, yes, pay) helps me balance the hours required for family and home life.

So while I’m not out to reduce my hours, I am constantly pursuing more efficiency in the hours it takes to earn the money for my life in Austin, Texas, with two kids, two cars, a spouse, and a mortgage. As I kept reading Tim’s book, I found his unique treatment of using Google AdWords to test out a product (or business) concept compelling.

As part of a summer experiment, I decided to find or create an information product that I could then sell using a Google AdWords campaign. Mind you, I have no prior sales or marketing experience, and I’m sure it shows! But in an age when one can experiment for less money than the cost of a few business lunches, I thought I’d see what I could set up. I’ll share my findings with you, and I’d love to hear your feedback on this approach.

Picking an Information Product

When our group needed to learn more about global writing styles and techniques, my manager purchased an audio presentation that contained an audio file and a separate PowerPoint slide deck for more than $100 on the topic. As a tech pubs group, we needed to know about writing for global audiences, but we didn’t want to invest lots of research time in such a broad area. So, finding the right consultant who had a portable presentation, and setting aside an hour for a lunchtime listening session while following the presentation offered the right amount of information at the right time.

Reflecting on our group’s experience, I realized that I had a presentation about wikis and technical writing that I had given in person a few times in different ways, and I saw a parallel between our needs and meeting the needs of other groups in the same organization. I decided to record the presentation and bundle it with the slide deck as a shortcut method to learning about wikis, such as a webinar, but without me having to present in person.

I also wanted to offer myself as a digital coach for implementing wikis in the enterprise, internally or externally. I’ve gathered quite a few case studies and interviewed many few writers who were early adopters in this area, and I wanted to share what I have learned in a way that could be tailored to anyone interested in the presentation.

About Google AdWords

To start working with the AdWords network, you set your budget for the month or you can set a budget to pay for each click-through. I decided to set a $50 upper limit for monthly costs per click, and I wrote two ads. I did some research into picking keywords, and learned that I could set up 20 keywords in combination (phrases, really).

You sign up for an account at adwords.google.com, and their web application walks you through each step. I had to make some complex accounting decisions, but I dutifully read the supporting help topics that accompanied the decision points and chose best for my situation (which, mind you, was experimental and U.S.-based). Your experience may vary, I am not an accountant or lawyer, and various other disclaimers apply.

Writing the Ad

Writing a Google AdWords campaign in and of itself is a fascinating topic. What can you possibly convey with only 25 characters for your title and only two additional lines of 35 characters each? Quite a bit, I found. I read 12 Tips for Writing Effective AdWords Ads, and these were my main guiding points: use call-to-action words, and put the price of the product in the ad (so that you don’t pay for click-throughs of people who aren’t going to spend any money).

The area where you write the ad shows you how it will look and where it might appear on a screen, plus it informs you when you’ve gone over the character limit. The interface maintains the simple, elegant Google trademark design.

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Picking Keywords

Google has a fantastic keyword testing system and suggestion tool. You enter a keyword or list of keywords and then click “Get Keyword Ideas” to explore more keywords based on the starting list you enter. According to Google, the Keyword Tool is especially helpful in three situations:

  • When you first create a new ad group
  • When your current keywords are performing poorly and you need to find better options
  • When you have one keyword that really works well and want to find more like it

This tool also enables you to enter a URL and seek out keywords there. I have a blog at www.justwriteclick.com, so I have an idea of the search terms that people use to find my blog. By running the tool on my URL, I discovered larger categories for my potential keywords, such as technical writing, social networking, technical writer, writing jobs, write, writer, jobs, and Web 2.0.

Next I set up a GoogleDocs spreadsheet at with some ideas for keywords and keyword combinations, keeping in mind the types of audiences to which I was trying to connect and the benefits of the product.

After my first list of keywords, I learned that the keywords you choose, especially phrases, should be enclosed in square brackets if you want an exact match. Using “quotation marks” around the keywords gives you a phrase match, and [square brackets] indicate an exact match.

I’m still testing out keywords, and it’s going to require some time as I continually analyze the effectiveness of certain keywords and phrases. I have not yet discovered the optimal keyword set for my particular information product.

Running an Ad Campaign: What’s an A/B Split, Anyway?

To start my ad campaign, I had to determine how much I’d spend in a month, or I could indicate how much I’d be willing to pay per click-through. Because I was not sure of my keywords’ effectiveness, I opted to spend $50 a month in AdWords. I believe I got a warning that the amount might not be high enough to get many imprints, but that’s the amount I used to start. Imprints are when the ad is displayed on one of Google’s sites, such as on a search results page, or on the sidebar while someone is reading his Gmail. You don’t pay for imprints, you only pay when someone clicks on an ad imprint, which is called a click-through.

I also wrote two ads to start with, and I wrote another that I could use if one of the first two did not do well. This method of testing two ad variations is called an A/B split. You can compare the effectiveness of the two ads and switch out the lower-performing one. A true marketing A/B split uses random target email addresses to send to two groups and has a lot more statistical analysis for determining effectiveness, but in my case, I just wanted to run two ads and have one to trade in if needed.

Here’s one of the two ads I ran initially:

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Costs

The following table summarizes my costs for the experiment:

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Results?

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After the first 24 hours, I had over 3,000 imprints of my two ads but no click-throughs. After running two AdWords ads for seven days, I had more than 27,000 imprints but only two click-throughs. There were only 2,275 hits on searches, and the search results were the only place where a click-through occurred.

The keyword combination “wiki answers” caused the most numerous displays of the ads. However, I believe that people searching for “wiki answers” were looking for a specific wiki. I also had the phrase “wiki best practices” as a keyword and had a single click-through on that phrase.

After three days with no purchases and only two click-throughs, I decided to switch out the ad that was getting displayed fewer times. I also bumped up my monthly spending to $200 a month, figuring I still wouldn’t spend that much in a month based on the rates I was seeing.

After five days of no purchases of the product at all, I paused the campaign with a simple click of a link. I had spent only about $6, and my experiment was complete.

My findings? A Google AdWords campaign is quite simple to set up and will take some dedicated time for maintenance, and finding the sweet spot for keywords and click-throughs is both an art and a science.