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Hiring & Managing

7 Skills Every PPC Marketer Needs (+6 Nice-to-Haves)

June 18, 2021
Rachel Cromidas

Sure, a PPC expert needs to know their way around Google Ads. But according to our panel of experts, PPC is bigger than any one tool — and any one search engine.

Table of Contents

In pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, it’s common practice to bid on your branded keywords. 

For instance, if you Google stationary bike brand Peloton, Peloton’s homepage is the top organic search result — but above that, searchers find not one but two rows of PPC ads. 

From (mostly) Peloton.

Source: Google search

That might sound redundant, but it makes sense for Peloton to advertise on brand name searches, Incredible Health’s head of growth Garrison Yang told MarketerHire. It’s a useful defensive maneuver, recommended by many PPC agencies and expert PPC professionals. 

But honestly, buying ads on branded keywords is just the tip of the iceberg of what PPC marketers can do.  

These marketers know paid search inside and out. They’ve mastered the Google Ads platform — including Google Adwords, and of course Google Shopping, if they work in e-commerce — and can buy Bing ads, too.

They can also optimize PPC marketing campaigns at a micro and macro level. That means they can tinker with keyword bids and perfect overall account structure, building interlocking PPC campaigns that propel customers through your funnel. 

People searching “Peloton,” for instance, are already pretty low in the funnel. They’re likely in the consideration phase — they’ve heard of the brand already.

So a truly expert PPC specialist for Peloton might combine paid search ads on Peloton’s brand name with a separate campaign on higher-funnel keywords, like “home fitness,” Yang said. 

“That is a sign of someone who understands not just the channel itself but what the channel means to the business and the media mix,” he explained.

If you’re confused right now, it might be because you know PPC marketers by a different name. They’re also known as:

  • Search engine marketers (SEM)
  • Paid search advertisers
  • Paid search marketers
  • Paid digital advertisers
  • Paid digital marketers 
  • Paid media marketers
  • Paid media advertisers
  • Performance marketers 

Whatever you call them, they’re key to most digital marketing teams. 

And especially now, as Apple’s privacy update makes search engines’ first-party data increasingly valuable, it’s important to have an expert leading your PPC programs.

So what specific skill-set should hiring managers look for when they’re scouting PPC experts? We asked three marketing industry veterans to identify the must-have skills for this role.

The Experts

7 mandatory skills for expert PPC specialists

No marketer should be expected to do everything. It’s a trap! Still, to make your PPC program truly pop, these are the skills you need to vet for, according to our experts. 

1. Creative strategy.

Though PPC ads don’t allow as much room for innovative visuals as Facebook ads (or YouTube ads!), a knack for creative strategy is still essential for PPC marketers.

They need to make sure that their ad copy aligns with brand guidelines and coheres with the messaging in other types of online advertising campaigns. (Otherwise, your customers could go on a downright confusing path to purchase.)

An understanding of creative strategy also helps PPC marketers pair ad copy with appropriate landing pages, and tailor their messaging to keyword intent. 

“Understanding where the consumer mindset is when they search for a term is… one of the most important parts of this,” Yang said.

“Understanding where the consumer mindset is when they search for a term is… one of the most important parts of this."

2. Campaign structuring and budget allocation.

This is one of the most important and fundamental parts of PPC work. Once a PPC marketer knows their goals and how to measure them, they need to create and fund paid search ad campaigns.

This involves three sub-skills:

  • Deep knowledge of multi-keyword ad groups (MKAGs). These are groups of ads associated with a group of keywords, and they’re the current best practice in paid search, according to Lally.  (Once-trendy single-keyword ad groups (SKAGs) are now considered inefficient.) Using MKAGs effectively takes “a very focused theme of keywords in each campaign and within each ad group,” Lally explained. “Having more data within an ad group [means]... Google can optimize it better.”
  • A flexible, data-driven approach to budgeting. Though they’re paying per click, expert PPC marketers never lose sight of their core KPI: conversions. 

3. Campaign optimization.

Here, experts rely on A/B testing — at warp speed.

A/B testing ads is relatively cheap and easy so “if you have [a PPC manager] who can move very fast, you will see results,” Yang said.

Lally suggests running six to eight ads simultaneously in order to test different hypotheses about each variable you change, like the headline, ad description. 

You can also use A/B testing to refine your retargeting strategy. Lower in your funnel, it’s usually smart to spend some of your PPC budget retargeting customers who have already shown interest in your brand. 

”You want to get the lowest hanging fruit — somebody who is ready to buy,” Lally said.

"The strategy [with A/B testing] is like compounded interest."

But how should you define the audience you retarget? By people who’ve visited your homepage before? People who’ve visited specific product pages? This is where A/B testing can come in handy.

“The strategy [with A/B testing] is like compounded interest,” Lally said — meaning you’ll pause the ads that perform the worst and then introduce new tests off of the winning ad variations, so your successes build on each other.

4. Campaign attribution. 

“It’s very easy to launch an ad on Google,” says Lally. “What [many] people lack is the foundation. How do we measure ads and use them to scale growth in the account?”

"It's very easy to launch an ad on Google. What people lack is the foundation. How do we measure ads and use them to scale growth in the account?"

Experts have the foundation. They know how to track PPC campaign performance, optimize their campaigns, and attribute revenue back to their work.

They rely on a few key tools for this:

  • Google Ads’ search term report: This tool helps advertisers keep tabs on the search terms triggering their ads.
  • Google Ads’ last-click attribution: This tool credits attributes conversions to the last stage in the customer’s journey, a.k.a. the link they clicked right before purchase.

Lally recommends triangulating between a couple attribution tools, though, since digital advertising platforms tend to overattribute conversions to themselves. 
Other PPC reporting tools that can help include HubSpot and Wordstream’s Google Ads Performance Grader.

5. Competitive analysis.

Studying the PPC strategies of major competitors can help brands hone in on their own value proposition and distinguish their digital marketing channels from the competition. 

It can also help diagnose problems. For example:

If you’re spending more than you’d like to, it might mean you’re focusing your PPC campaigns too much on what Moz terms “fat head” keywords — obvious, high-volume terms. 

These can be prohibitively expensive in hotly-contested niches, so expert PPC marketers use competitor research (mixed with creativity) to track down lower-volume, high-intent keywords to advertise on. They often use tools like Google Analytics, Google Search Console (similar to what SEO experts might use), and even set up pivot tables in excel to help with this analysis.

If performance abruptly tanks, that might mean your competitor has tweaked their strategy, or a hot new competitor has entered the fray. 

True experts can figure out if this is the case quickly, using competitor analysis tools like Spyfu and Google Auction Insights, both favorites of Lally’s.

A less expert PPC marketer might assume a sudden change of fortune is their fault. But overlooking the role your competitors play in your PPC ad performance “can have you blindly chase problems that you don't fully grasp or understand,” Armstrong said.

In other words — wasting time. Expert PPC marketers don’t do that. 

6. Incrementality testing.

Setting up incrementality testing is an important PPC skill. It helps marketers scale up spending — and avoid wasting money. 

It basically means A/B testing your PPC spend. If you spend $60K, do you get better performance than if you spend $50K? $30K? $0?

Turning off PPC spend entirely, even for a test period, might sound crazy. But eBay famously did just that in 2013, turning off all paid search ads for a third of the country. 

Turning off PPC spend entirely, even for a test period, might sound crazy. But eBay famously did just that in 2013, turning off all paid search ads for a third of the country. 

It didn’t lead to any major dip in sales for the online auction site. 

Now, that might be because eBay’s PPC strategy stank. Maybe they bid on too many keywords, or ran bad ad copy, MobileMonkey founder Larry Kim argued  — the results didn’t necessarily indict paid search in general. 

(It seems eBay agreed. They only cut their billion dollar paid search budget by about 10% after the results came in, Steve Tadelis, the test’s architect, told the Freakonomics podcast.)

Still, eBay’s study shows that incrementality testing PPC strategies can lead to major insights, especially for big brands that have already attained high levels of brand awareness.

Expert PPC marketers know how to do it on a smaller scale, too. They might steadily scale up spend on high-performing keywords until ROAS drops, Lally said, noting incremental performance shifts.

Or, Armstrong noted, they might pull back spend on just their lowest-performing keywords. 

“It can be scary at times because you need to drive volume and quality,” Armstrong said of incrementality testing — but an expert knows it can really help you spend your PPC budget judiciously. 

7. Experience with a budget like yours.

You’ll want your brand’s PPC marketer to have as much experience as possible managing a budget like yours, whether it’s under $50K or over $1M. The ideal PPC approach varies based on the budget available, and what stage of growth a company is in.

For instance, with smaller budgets, marketers have less data to analyze, and no need to look at your data on a daily or hourly basis. (With bigger budgets, frequent check-ins are a must.)

With bigger budgets — think over $50K — Yang recommends finding PPC marketers who already have experience buying search for businesses that are slightly larger than yours.

Someone used to smaller budgets can get intimidated when faced with a huge pool of money.

“It can be a psychological blocker,” Armstrong said. “They can just possibly get frozen… Maybe they'll even delay ramping up the spend [on high-performing keywords] because for them, it's a lot of money.”

Someone used to bigger budgets, on the other hand, will have the confidence to handle your PPC advertising in the present and near future.  

“Search is one of those things that scales very proportionally with the business,” Yang said. 

6 nice-to-have PPC expert skills

Our experts identified a handful of other skills that are great to have when it comes to setting and executing a successful PPC strategy.

1. Copywriting.

Our experts agreed that awesome copywriting is an important part of PPC advertising. You’re very limited in what you can show in search engine marketing, so wordsmithing and the order of the words you choose is so important to being successful,” Yang says. 

However, it’s not a top priority. “As important as copywriting is,” Lally said, “the principles around testing are more important.”

"As important as copywriting is, the principles around testing are more important."

2. Experience with shopping networks.

Experience with shopping networks like Google’s own Shopping ads or Amazon advertising, for instance, is important for e-commerce brands that are selling a product, but this skill is not necessary for B2B companies. 

For shopping networks, experts like Lally often identify a brand’s highest value SKUs, and bid on them individually.

3. Experience with agency management.

Experience managing an agency can help a PPC strategist a lot, Lally said, because the best agencies will be very data-oriented. It’s a red flag if you’re working with an agency and the account manager isn’t producing robust reporting and walking you through metrics and the strategy regularly. 

Agencies often set a brand up with weekly or bi-weekly performance phone calls — and expert PPC freelancers should be doing the same for your brand. 

After all, a mix of analytical skills and communication skills is crucial for PPC management. 

4. Experience with display ad networks.

Google's Display Network works to place ads on websites — either sites Google selects based on keywords you choose, or sites you hand pick. 

Since targeting the right audience is key, Lally cautions that experience buying through the Display Network is not always as valuable as experience buying paid search ads. Your brand’s target audience will just be more concentrated on a SERP than a media site. 

5. Landing page optimization.

PPC marketers don’t always manage paid ad landing pages, but if you find one with landing page design chops, that’s a bonus. “There’s a lot of value in making changes [to landing pages] and trying different themes,” Lally said. 

In fact, growth marketer Nik Sharma has found that the right landing page, can nearly cut your customer acquisition cost (CAC) in half. 

(Click through for his thread of landing page examples!)

6. Knowledge of programmatic marketing. 

Programmatic marketing can be an important part of a brand’s growth, but it’s not usually a good place to start when building a PPC strategy. 

“It's not going to drive a lot of easily-measurable or direct results,” Armstrong says. “What it can do is it can help you get in front of a lot of prospective buyers, and… insert brand awareness.”

If you’re a mid-sized brand, though, a PPC marketer who can handle programmatic, too, comes in handy. 

The growing importance of PPC technical skills

If you think it might be time for you to hire a PPC marketer, you’re not alone. In May of 2021, MarketerHire saw a 50% uptick in demand for paid search marketers. 

Source: MarketerHire

As the privacy-first internet makes search engine’s first-party intent data increasingly rare and precious, PPC advertising professionals will be increasingly in demand, too. 

And if you’re looking for a skilled paid search marketer who checks all of the boxes above, MarketerHire can do the vetting for you — and connect you with a candidate this week. Try MarketerHire today

Rachel Cromidas
about the author

Rachel Cromidas is a writer, reporter and editor in Chicago. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune.

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