When a SaaS business is ramping up customer acquisition for the first time, they almost always try Adwords first. And with good reason. Search is still the #1 place where people go to get shit done and Google still dominates the primary intent-based advertising channel on the internet.

But quickly, most SaaS marketers building out a set of pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns will realize that they can’t live on AdWords alone. Why? There simply isn’t enough search volume to grow most businesses on. Most people don’t know that products like yours exist, so how could they possibly be searching for one?

If you’re like most SaaS businesses, you need to generate demand, not just capture it. You need to educate your market that:

  1. It has a problem
  2. Your product is the solution

This is when content marketing comes into play. Webinars, blog posts, drip email courses, and videos are great ways to help customers solve their problems while building awareness for your product.

To execute this strategy, you’ll need to move beyond Adwords and start pursuing the long tail. You’ll want to utilize a broader variety of channels: Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Google Display, and many more. Each one of these channels lets you target visitors by demographic traits: job titles, interests, group membership, etc. Your goal is to identify people who should care about the problem you solve and then get in front of them with an educational, content-based CTA. Educate them on the need, nurture the long-term relationship, and they’ll buy from you when they’re ready.

This is a great strategy, and I can tell you from personal experience that it works really damn well. I’ve managed digital marketing for three SaaS companies over the past 5 years, with ad budgets ranging from $4k to $200k per month. But it’s hard to get the measurement right. You have to look at data from every ad network you use and link it with data in your marketing automation platform, your CRM, and your app.

In fact, in order to spend your money effectively, you’ll need 26 reports, updated regularly, consolidating results from 7 or more platforms. And you need to build the reports yourself. No ad platform can give you the reporting you need, because you’re the only one with all the data.

In this post, I’ll show you how to construct the ultimate dashboard for PPC campaign measurement. I’ll show you how to consolidate the data you need into a single place, what reports you need, and how to act on them.

Stop reading now if you’re not ready to get your hands dirty. This stuff is hard work. But if you want to learn everything you need to measure your PPC funnel and build a scalable marketing machine, let’s get started.

Understanding the Problem

Our Cautionary Tale

Last December, our PPC performance crashed. Our two primary metrics—leads and cost per lead—were down broadly across channels. We caught the problem in our weekly PPC status meeting, and everyone around the table was concerned. I don’t remember the numbers as I write this, but I distinctly remember being concerned enough that I was worried about the future of our fledgling PPC program. The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach left an impression.

We performed a ton of analysis, testing one theory after another. It retrospect, that sounds like we were performing a calm examination of the evidence. But at the time, the process felt more like when you’re running late for the most important meeting of your life and desperately looking for your keys. The clock was ticking as we tried to solve the problem, and as every day went by we were throwing ad dollars down the drain. Eventually, though, we figured it out.

Our A/B testing efforts were still in our infancy back then, and the folks responsible for running tests and the folks responsible for executing PPC campaigns weren’t necessarily as coordinated as they should have been. It turns out that one of our primary PPC landing pages that was used across many campaigns and channels was going through a test. Typically that landing page converted at 20%+, and the variation was converting in the low single digits. That change was enough to blow up the metrics throughout our funnel.

The test had already achieved significance, so we trashed the alternative that had performed so poorly. Immediately, things returned to normal. All was right with the world again.

This experience is what drove me to create the Ultimate PPC Dashboard. Rather than looking for my car keys while I’m in a rush, I decided to track every single metric in our PPC funnel, from top to bottom, so that whenever anything was going particularly poorly (or particularly well!) we would immediately be able to zero in on what was causing the deviation.

Our cautionary tale (yikes!) on PPC performance measurement http://ow.ly/BqtD6

The Complexity Problem: PPC is a Machine with Many Moving Parts

A sudden performance dip can be bewildering simply because there are so many reasons it could be happening. If you list the various parts of your funnel—impression, click, conversion, lead quality, and lead-to-customer conversion—and then list everything that could possibly go wrong with any of them, you’ll see that the list quickly becomes very lengthy. For example, let’s take a look at diagnosing problems with your impressions.

If you haven’t made any direct changes to your campaigns, your number of impressions can change for a bunch of reasons:

  • Changes in your quality score. All major ad networks calculate a form of quality score for their algorithms, whether they document it publicly or not. The biggest determinant is always the engagement rate with the ad.
  • Changes in CPCs, seasonal or otherwise. CPCs, as a rule, trend slowly upwards over time. But time of year, holidays, and other dynamics are always at play and will impact your MoM performance.
  • Changes in available inventory, seasonal or otherwise. During some parts of the year, there simply aren’t as many people on LinkedIn as other times. You’ll find patterns unique to your channels and audience.

Those are just some ideas on diagnosing problems in the very first step of your funnel. As you go further down the funnel, the troubleshooting only gets more complicated. I’ve seen a bad form field validation for telephone number cause a major kink in our funnel. It happens.

If you’re spending $1,000/day on your PPC campaigns, a sudden performance drop can become an emergency quickly. You need to be able monitor performance in real-time to find the source of the problem.

The Ultimate PPC Dashboard

You need a dashboard that will help you monitor your PPC channel performance and quickly identify the cause of any deviations. In order to pinpoint the root cause, you need to start with a broad overview of your funnel and then quickly be able to identify and drill into the areas causing the problem. Here is the process that I use, in this order:

  1. At what stage in the funnel is the deviation occurring? Is it impressions? Clicks? Leads? Look at the raw counts at each funnel stage, starting backwards from number of customers. Trace the problem from the bottom of the funnel to the top.
  2. What specific channel is having a problem? Is Facebook a problem, or are all of your ad channels showing similar performance deviations at the same time? For every aggregated chart, you need one broken down by channel.
  3. What type of deviation are you seeing? There are three core types of problems: raw count, conversion rate, and cost per unit. Knowing which type of problem you’re having will direct your troubleshooting.

We’ve organized our dashboard, all 26 charts of it, to reflect this troubleshooting process (click to enlarge). FYI, numbers have been changed to protect the innocent:

PPC-Dashboard-Full

Using this dashboard and these three questions, you know exactly where to look to diagnose and correct the root cause. You’ve just reduced a complex, unbounded problem down to a very specific problem that can be acted on quickly.

Creating a dashboard structure based on your funnel also has a second important benefit: it helps you stay focused on the big picture. It’s all too easy to get fooled into optimizing your PPC channels for each individual step of the process without keeping an eye on your ultimate goal: new recurring customers.

Check out our 26-chart dashboard for measuring PPC campaign performance http://ow.ly/BqtD6

How We Built This Dashboard

To set up our dashboard, we used RJMetrics to combine the data for each of our PPC ad platforms—including impression counts, click counts, and spend by campaign—with our internal sales and marketing data. We’re an inside sales company, so we found the internal data we needed in our CRM (we use Salesforce) and our marketing automation tool (we use Pardot).

If you have a self-service model, like Squarespace, or have a freemium model, like Hootsuite, you’ll probably be more focused on analyzing data from your transactional database.

Because we used RJMetrics to build this dashboard, every chart on it gets automatically updated automatically. That’s right: I have a completely customized dashboard to measure my entire PPC funnel and it updates automatically, with no work on my part.

How You Can Build Your Own

It’s possible to combine the necessary data and create a dashboard using Excel, and I have personally done this before at prior companies. I’m an Excel geek, and a part of me loved that day I spent once a month updating my funnel spreadsheets. But the busier I got, the more of a headache this became. And my Excel solution was completely inflexible: any changes in the way that I wanted to analyze the data would take far too long to make.

When you’re trying to diagnose problems in real-time, you need your data to be up-to-date, and you need to be able to answer questions fast.

Excel just doesn’t cut it. I’ll never go back. Setting up this dashboard in RJMetrics has given me exactly what I need to feel confident spending real money on advertising. Having used this dashboard to diagnose a number of performance issues over the past 18 months, I wouldn’t do it any other way.

I’m actually working right now to put some test data together in our demo account so that you can play around with this dashboard yourself. When I do, I’ll update this post. For now, if you’d like to build a dashboard like this for your own business, we can absolutely make that happen. Just sign up for a trial to get started.

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  • http://www.getbase.com/ Brian Lastovich

    Enjoyed your post! This just might be the day I move away from my massive Excel doc. Thanks Tristan

  • http://rjmetrics.com/ Tristan Handy

    Glad you liked it!! Thanks a lot 🙂