PPC Marketing from the US to the UK – The State of Affairs

PPC Marketing from the US to the UK – The State of Affairs

This article is written primarily for US-based businesses looking to expand their PPC marketing efforts to reach a UK audience, although the content here relates to any form of business expansion to the UK. I apologise unreservedly for my UK spelling (we don’t like using the letter Z over here).

First, a bit of background. I’m a UK-based PPC expert who has (and continues to) run many successful PPC campaigns for UK businesses. I’ve also run and continue to manage successful PPC campaigns for businesses that are based in international locations, including the United States, Australia, Singapore, India, South Africa and countries across Europe. Currently, most of my PPC clients are based in either the UK or USA.

This article is not so much a warning to US-based businesses looking to expand their PPC targeting to a UK audience, but more some friendly pointers for you to consider how the UK’s consumer mindset varies compared to the US market. This will impact your PPC  approach considerably. Before I explain these differences, I’d like to give businesses a brief overview of how a PPC manager designs and launches a campaign, as this approach relates to both the UK and the US.

The PPC Setup Process In a Nutshell

There is a certain type of approach that experienced PPC marketers take when they plan a new campaign. Wherever possible, they begin the process by analysing a client’s existing traffic data, to understand what has historically worked and what has not. But where this data is not available – for example, with startups or when a new PPC campaign is designed because the business has never tried PPC advertising before – a careful, considered approach is always taken. Keyword research is carried out to identify the most niche, relevant keywords that are likely to work amongst the audience, often those that are product-level based or which directly describe the products being sold. The right type of PPC targeting settings are utilised, long-term marketing lists are produced that will also help to optimise PPC bids, and the unique selling points of the business are exposed to the audience through carefully-crafted ad copy, in order to increase the chances of conversion success. If the business is an e-commerce operation, then a fully functioning shopping feed is created, as this will likely be the most successful PPC route.

There are of course other important parts of the PPC setup process, but these are the ones that typically dictate how the campaign will be initially launched. The PPC campaign HAS to succeed, otherwise the client will not see the value in carrying on with their investment and will stop spending money in PPC advertising. The numbers never lie – revenue from PPC must be enough to generate profit or the client will give up on their PPC approach.

In short, right from the start a new PPC campaign has to be careful, considered, perfectly-targeted and must not waste the client’s money. It has to generate a profit quickly in order for the client to understand the true value of PPC advertising, before they give up with PPC and move on entirely.

UK Consumers Are a Difficult Bunch

Over the years of running PPC campaigns for UK businesses, I noticed a curious trend which started around 3 years ago, back in 2015. Slowly, but surely, I discovered that the most creative, fun and fantastical ideas – the ones that made the most of all the bells-and-whistles that PPC has to offer, and the ones where true marketing creative genius was at the forefront – these approaches slowly but surely stopped working effectively for my clients. The UK audience suddenly wanted two things, and two things only: a cheap product from a brand they can rely on. I say this with bumbling British apology, as I myself am a cynical Brit and fall into this hard-to-please category. This may cause a huge problem for startups or businesses who have just migrated to an e-commerce operation, particularly those with minimum capital available: they don’t always have the brand recognition or trust, nor can they always offer the cheapest product for their consumers without going bust in the process. Unless you’re a business-to-business service, it’s hard to sell products to a Brit, particularly so if you’re a new e-commerce business they’ve never heard of before.

Even if you have the latest, best UX-designed website possible, with products that cost more or less the same as your competition – even this will rarely be enough to charm us British consumers. We just want a cheap price from a brand that we can rely on. I think a lot of this stems from what appears to be a poor work ethic in many previously-trusted UK institutions, particularly amongst the big brand names whose employees are consistently providing a poor customer service experience. I guess you could say that the UK is experiencing a form of workplace entropy in some of the previously-trusted brands – staff there just don’t care like they used to, and unfortunately this can be seen in many businesses, both small and large. As such, we have become cynical and expect nothing less than being let-down from newer companies or those that we have not used before. The easiest thing to do is simply to head to Amazon, where at least we know we will receive the products easily and mostly on time.

If you’re investing in PPC, the money spent needs to pay for itself quickly, which is where targeting a UK audience gets tricky. Thankfully, there are ways of optimising for the UK cynic. As the PPC campaign matures, more and ever increasing amounts of data are accrued, as the search queries that have historically failed to convert can be paused, allowing more budget to be invested in the keywords, demographics and advert copy that consistently work. Well thought-out remarketing lists and other clever campaign settings can be utilised to better work for the performance of the PPC account. Eventually, the niche audience – the less cynical types – can eventually be captured perfectly, and the business can slowly grow at a profitable rate from a well-optimised PPC campaign.

However, all of this may not be without a lot of hard (and ongoing) graft. The website needs to be continually optimised to provide a perfect user experience, strong reviews from other UK-based shoppers need to be aggregated and thrown across the website via a reviews feed, customer service must be impeccable and the price – oh the price – has to be carefully dropped incrementally until the business captures that sweet spot of just making profit and producing sales. And don’t even get me started on the postage costs – these often need to be removed entirely for a UK-based startup. And of course, the PPC campaign needs to be monitored and optimised closely.

So, in short – UK-based shoppers are now a really difficult bunch to please. They trust very few brands unless it’s a brand they’ve heard good things about, or one to which they’ve been recommended by a trusted friend. And they hate hate HATE postage and packaging costs. With a venom. They also don’t fall for marketing gimmicks or fancy slogans. Sheesh.

Please let me apologise (apologize!) on behalf of all British shoppers. We don’t mean to make things hard. It’s just the way we’ve been forced to shop.

The US Audience Is a Lot Easier in Comparison

When I first started carrying out PPC work for US-based clients, I went into each and every new PPC launch with the same careful scepticism as I would when targeting a UK audience. After all, this is based on years of experience marketing to a highly cynical audience who were hard to please. In other words, I would assume that very little would work well in the campaign to begin with, so I would always launch a campaign that was safe and niche-targeted with minimal flare at first, and assume that valuable data would be accrued so that I could expand the campaign at a later date. Only once the campaigns worked well would I slowly expand the campaign and traffic volume. All of this is best practice, anyway.

However, after launching my first few US campaigns, I was very quickly amazed by the effectiveness of newly-launched PPC accounts compared to the UK market. In fact, I found that as long as my targeting settings were spot-on, I could almost tell my US-based target audience on Google what to do through a carefully written call-to-action, and they would most often do it. The conversion rates were staggering. I found that I could very quickly expand my US clients’ campaigns to drive even more revenue, because profit would often be achieved within 24 hours of launch anyway. Suddenly I got a bit cocky – I would launch small test campaigns comprising fancy, creative ideas, broadening the marketing horizons and sending higher volumes of what would normally be risky traffic for a UK audience. I got to enjoy being a true marketer once again, one who made use of my creative thinking. I was able to create clever campaigns-within-campaigns to target higher-level funnel traffic, and feed this back to the website at a later date through clever content marketing ideas. And I was recording conversions at a good return on investment, too. Everything worked in the USA! Why didn’t it work in the UK? Should I be applying for a green card?

I even began utilising Facebook advertising again, as this worked far better for my US cousins across the pond than it ever did with my UK brethren, who rarely purchased an item via a social media advert. Suddenly, an influx of data flew into my mind and I had a subjective-based epiphany: UK shoppers are bloody hard to sell to online! The idea stuck hard in my mind like that film, Inception, and I couldn’t get shake the idea that it was far easier to sell to Americans than cynical Britons. The data-led marketer in me had to test this theory as fact. So, using an old Facebook page I owned and had let slip for several years, I ran a fun little experiment: I created a sponsored Facebook Page promotion campaign, targeting users who worked in or who were interested in my niche. I created two separate campaigns, one targeting the USA and one targeting the UK. Below are the results of my split test after a month of running it:

UK Cost-per-page-like: $1.48

US Cost-per-page-like: $0.35

If we look at conversion difference based on cost, that’s a 76% improvement on audience acquisition, just by targeting the USA! I tried another test – I had created my own display campaign to help promote my book. My initial idea had been to offer a 50% discount to users who signed up to my mailing list. It was a sound, typical marketing approach to claw in users early on in advance of release. My display targeting settings were spot-on, and yet the UK audience were not signing up to my book in the volumes I had originally anticipated. So I tested my theory and shifted the campaign settings to target the US audience instead and, lo and behold, suddenly the Display audience was far more interested and began signing up to my mailing list through the campaign. The conversion stats were as follows:

UK Cost-per-signup: $4.73

US Cost-per-signup: $1.12

The US Cost-per-signup was 70% better than the UK one! Suddenly my display campaign for my book would hopefully pay for itself.

It didn’t stop there. I expanded my US-based clients’ PPC campaigns using YouTube video advertising, promoting their services and wares with in-stream videos. I watched in amazement as users actually clicked-through onto my clients’ website and carried out valuable actions (video advertising rarely generates a return on investment in the UK. It generates many views, but often does not lead to a measurable outcome). And I marvelled as I created a lookalike audience in a Display campaign, targeting a similar demographic to purchasers on the Google Display Network – golly oh golly, it actually worked and I generated a low cost-per-sale from interest-based advertising! A brand new profitable stream of income for my client was achieved. For one of my US clients, I introduced Message Extensions – the cool ad extension which most UK-based clients hate the idea of using but which most advertisers will advocate for lead-generation websites. My US-based clients were open to the idea of receiving text-based leads, so I jumped at the chance! And guess what – the clients who I felt would most benefit from them started generating mobile phone text leads, multiple times per day.

All of the things which were always supposed to work in principle, but which never did with a UK audience, suddenly began to work for my US-based ones.

Selling to the UK

Why were my UK audience and, on occasion my UK-based clients, so cynical? And why would their audience consistently not convert on the same search queries and strategies that worked in the US? What has to be done to earn the respect of these difficult people!?!

The short answer is that the UK audience is a difficult sell, unless they have their hand held at every step of the way guaranteeing them a positive experience. Whilst we’re an odd nation who prefer to support the underdog (we don’t like braggers), we’ve also become highly sceptical of new startups. Many UK businesses have already discovered this fact and have opted to divert some of their marketing spend into influence marketing instead, in which the voice of respected bloggers and other publishers endorse a new brand, helping to improve conversion amongst UK doubters. Let’s not forget that the UK is also going through the process of leaving the EU, and there is a lot of uncertainty as to how this will impact business success and personal finances. It’s a tough time to sell to the UK. It’s a tough time for UK citizens as a whole.

When it comes to expanding PPC advertising to target a UK-based audience, I recommend the following approach:

  1. Start with your niche keywords and most successful direct-response campaigns first. Assume that only the users who are actively seeking the specific product or service you are selling will convert.
  2. Ensure that your UK-targeted campaigns are set up as separate PPC campaigns – their performance will likely be far less successful than your US ones, so you’ll want to divert a separate budget to them.
  3. If you’re an e-commerce business, prioritise the shopping campaign as the vast majority of e-commerce conversions will always come from this, and you will typically end up capturing the higher-intent users who are more inclined to click on these adverts.
  4. If your shopping campaign generates a lot of traffic, introduce negative keywords that avoid you spending money on broader search terms. For example, if you sell designer jewellery, add [designer jewellry] as an exact negative keyword, at least to begin with. You’ll only want to target the highly descriptive product-based keywords first, such as “designer ruby pendant necklace with gold chain”. You can expand your targeting later on once your more successful product-based search queries begin to convert.
  5. Avoid funky, fun and creative PPC marketing ideas that aim to circumvent the user’s own purchase funnel – the UK audience are not interested. We typically see through to the end goal of such advertising and we can’t stomach a corney approach.The same goes for those awful PPC funnel landing pages – let the UK consumer shop at their own pace. Most shoppers do not purchase during their first visit (check out this article for more details).
  6. Be very careful using emotional selling unless you’re a charitable organisation. We’re British – we have no emotions (we’re also highly sarcastic without humour, wink wink).
  7. Focus on providing outstanding customer service – offer some kind of moneyback guarantee or a customer service mission statement that you can stick to. If you’re not convinced you can guarantee a customer’s happiness or deliver them exactly what you promised, then make sure you shout about it, everywhere – on your website, in your PPC marketing – everywhere!
  8. Avoid targeting lookalike display audiences based on your remarketing lists, at least to begin with. Even custom audiences are a hard-sell with the UK audience. Instead, consider starting with specific display placements, separated by ad groups that target the placement niche you’re attempting to target. UK shoppers are a much harder sell on the GDN than the US. Always start with the higher-intent, lower funnel users first.
  9. Make sure your postage costs are non-existent or, at the very least, offer free postage when the customer spends a certain amount. It’s even preferable to suck up the cost of free postage by increasing the overall cost of your product. Optimise your site conversion rate by testing different product costs, without shooting yourselves in the foot by impacting your profit margins too much. And, it hopefully goes without saying, carry out competitor research to identify what the average UK cost is before you set your own prices.
  10. Start small by introducing your PPC campaigns that worked well in the US, then slowly expand to find out what works and what does not. The UK audience are savvy and understand how digital marketing works. Clever gimmicks will not work for these people. Instead, ongoing, heavy optimisation to target the niche audience is a must. You can’t let a UK-based PPC campaign go left un-optimized (look, I used a z!)



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