At BoostCTR, Crowdsourcing Brings a Human Touch to Search Ads

Say you’re a human-resources manager inside a big company and you’re looking for a way to say thanks to an outstanding employee. You go to Google or Bing and you type in the search term “employee recognition certificate.” On the right side of the search result page, there’s the usual column of text ads. The first one says:

Browse Certificate Papers. Create Custom Certificates Using Premium Papers. Hundreds of Styles.

That might be what you want, but it’s not terribly inspiring. But the ad right below it says:

Certificates They Deserve. Imagine Their Faces When You Hand Them Their Personalized Certificate.

Which ad would you be more likely to click on? It’s a no-brainer—the second ad is far more compelling.

What’s interesting, though, is that the first example is a real ad written by a search engine marketing (SEM) professional, while the second was written by a freelancer doing occasional work for BoostCTR, a San Francisco-based ad optimization startup.

It turns out that in the world of SEM, the human element is still pretty important. If your company sells hundreds or thousands of products and you’re creating keyword-targeted ads on Google AdWords or Bing Ads or Facebook, you probably don’t have time to think about each individual ad as a creative challenge. BoostCTR has set out to solve that problem. It’s a Web-based crowdsourcing platform similar in many ways to oDesk, Elance, Amazon Mechanical Turk, or MobileWorks, except that its far-flung workers focus exclusively on generating better search-ad copy, and compete with each other to write the most effective ads.

In measures of click-through rates (CTR) and revenue per impression, ads penned by BoostCTR’s part-time copywriters outperform ads written by in-house marketers by an average of 30 percent, according to David Greenbaum, the startup’s co-founder and CEO. He thinks that’s because outsiders are less immersed in the details of a product’s features and more attuned to the likely audience’s needs.

A November 2012 group picture at BoostCTR's San Francisco office.

“Conveying the benefits over the features and connecting on an emotional level is what makes for a great ad,” Greenbaum says. “Motivation and the impetus to think about things creatively turns out to be more important than deep familiarity with a product.”

More than 200 companies that live or die based on search advertising—including familiar brands like CafePress, 99designs, Bonobos, and Lumosity—use BoostCTR to improve on the performance of their in-house SEM operations. Every time a customer submits an ad that needs improvement, BoostCTR mounts a contest on its Web platform, soliciting ad-copy suggestions from its network of writers. Automated A/B testing algorithms measure which ads perform best, and writers get paid when they win a contest or their ads go live (each one must be approved by the advertiser).

Writing a single ad should take only 3 to 5 minutes, according to Greenbaum, and good copywriters can earn $15 to $25 per hour.

“Say you’re a stay-at-home mom and you have the opportunity to write about a product that you’ve seen on the Home Shopping Network,” says Greenbaum. “I want for them to work in our system for an hour a day, a couple of days a week. It’s an enjoyable way to make some money. And by the way, if you are the Home Shopping Network, that is exactly the type of person you want writing for your product, rather than some fancy agency person who probably isn’t a real HSN shopper.”

Greenbaum co-founded BoostCTR in 2009 with Rob Lenderman and Vince Roche, and the company has collected roughly $3.6 million in venture backing from a group including Javelin Venture Partners, Silicon Valley Bank, Metamorphic Ventures, 500 Startups, Founder Collective, and angel investors.

It’s expanding fast—its team of about 20 people moved into a cavernous office on Sutter Street last fall. But the idea had humble beginnings. Back in 2007, Greenbaum and Lenderman were living in Miami and working for Interval International, a huge operator of time-share vacation properties around the world. As part of Interval’s M&A group, Greenbaum helped oversee the acquisition of ResortQuest, a big hotel chain in Hawaii (it now goes by the name Aston Hotels).

The first thing Greenbaum noticed after the purchase, he says, was that “their online marketing efforts were absymal. They hadn’t optimized their campaigns in any way, and they were only taking advantage of a fraction of the opportunities open to them.” He talked over the problem with Lenderman, who had experience doing SEM for, and the two realized that they needed to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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