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All You Need to Know About Online Advertising (Done Simply)

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All You Need to Know About Online Advertising (Done Simply)

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Online advertising is paying for exposure or traffic on the internet. It really is that simple. Even an ad blocker won’t prevent you from seeing online ads all the time.

No other form of marketing evolves and changes as much as online advertising. We constantly have new platforms, ad formats, targeting options, bidding techniques, and automations. It’s difficult to keep up with the trends.

The basics aren’t rocket science, though. Get the essential knowledge right, and you’ll be prepared to tackle any online advertising news that comes your way.

In this simple guide, you’ll learn the following:

Ready to get off on the right foot on your online advertising journey?

What are the main benefits of online advertising?

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All the benefits of online advertising can make up a lengthy list. But there are three main benefits that justify sending a big chunk of your marketing budget to Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others.

1. Online advertising channels can cover every stage of the marketing funnel

A marketing funnel is a model that depicts how people become customers—from first learning about the brand to making the purchase. It’s also related to the concept of the customer journey. Here’s how it works in a nutshell:

Funnel with four sections. From top to bottom (Awareness, Interest, Consideration, Conversion)

The beauty of online advertising is it can help you achieve any objective that you have as a marketer. Its use cases cover the whole funnel—from increasing brand awareness at the top to influencing purchase decisions at the bottom. You can even do all of this within one platform like Google Ads.

2. You can target potential customers really well

You don’t even need to be in marketing to know about the granularity with which you can target people on the internet. Examples include showing banners on relevant websites, YouTube ads based on the watch history, and reminders about abandoned carts.

For an example of targeting options, take a look at our four most promoted pages in Google’s paid search results:

When people click through to those pages, they’re likely to sign up for a free Ahrefs Webmaster Tools account or even for our complete toolset. That’s because they’re already aware of the problems they need to solve and are looking for a solution. And that’s what we provide.

3. You can measure it easily

Most online advertising platforms provide a tracking pixel—a piece of code that connects the ad click with what the user does on your website. It keeps you in the loop about important metrics, such as the return on your ad spend.

On its own, marketing data analytics is a complex field. However, the technologies behind online advertising channels make tracking and measuring your marketing campaigns easily accessible.

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Here’s what such reporting looks like in Google Ads:

Line graph at top. At bottom, table with ads and corresponding data such as ad type, clicks, CTR, etc

What is the role of online advertising in marketing?

You can’t just blindly throw money into Google Ads and expect to take over the market. Regardless of your skill level, your results will be vastly diminished if you’re not guided by a proper marketing strategy.

Here’s a simplified marketing strategy checklist to assess whether you’re ready:

That’s quite a lot of things that have nothing to do with online advertising, right? That’s because online advertising represents just a piece of the promotion part in the famous four Ps of marketing, which form your marketing tactics. And tactics are just a third of the overall marketing:

Pie chart showing online advertising only makes up a small part of marketing

Online advertising is simply a communication medium. It provides tools to target people in all stages of the marketing funnel. But in the end, it’s just a minor part of marketing.

Keep this section in mind as a key takeaway. Today’s marketing suffers from too much attention being paid to tactics, especially the promotion part. Always look at the bigger picture and align your advertising efforts with your marketing strategy based on proper market research.

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And now, you’re ready to dive into the nitty-gritty of online advertising.

What are the key principles of online advertising?

There’s a lot happening behind the scenes of showing your ads to the right audience. Creating the ad itself as an end product is usually the easier part. The key principles lie in setting up your ad account and planning your advertising budget.

Let’s first get the money side of things out of the way. This makes it easier to understand the ad account management part.

Buying the ads

Advertising consists of buying exposure to potential buyers. In the online space, it’s most often in the form of an ad view (impression) or a click to your website. This is the basis for the two most common bidding methods you’ll encounter:

  • CPC (cost per click) – This is where the whole discipline of PPC (pay-per-click) marketing stems from.
  • CPM (cost per mille or cost per thousand) – This is most often used for cost-per-thousand impressions. But it’s also applicable elsewhere, e.g., $30 CPM for podcast sponsorships where the variable stands for (projected) listens or downloads.

Page to set bid. Shows optimization options and text field to add CPC bid

So what’s the bidding about? Technically, any advertising space is an auction.

With online advertising platforms, these bids on clicks or impressions are entered into an auction system that decides which ads will be shown where and for how much. While the bidding price plays a significant role here, it’s not the only factor the ad systems consider when choosing auction winners.

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Setting up the ads

This subsection could easily be a book on its own for each advertising platform. While going into details here doesn’t make sense, there are two essential aspects of setting up the ads that are universally applicable.

The first aspect is the overall hierarchy of your ad account. Every ad platform has a management system that should make creating, changing, or updating ads easy and quick to do.

Whenever you want to create an ad, you can’t just do it right away. Every ad needs to be in its ad group, and the ad group must be part of a campaign. Such a hierarchy allows advertisers to manage the whole ad account efficiently.

Here are examples of what you can set up in Google Ads:

  • Campaign level – Campaign objectives, campaign types, ad networks, audiences, budget, and bidding
  • Ad group level – Targeting options like keywords, websites, and interests
  • Ad level – Ad headlines, descriptions, and URLs

The second aspect is about pairing campaign objectives with suitable campaign types and ad formats. As mentioned earlier, you could drive the whole marketing funnel with online ads. A lot of ad platforms only show you possible campaign types based on the objective you choose, such as Google Ads here:

Selection of campaign types

While this prevents you from creating a completely nonsense campaign, some campaign types and ad formats can help you achieve your objectives better than others. You should know about the best use cases for major ad formats.

Let’s go through this right away.

Main online advertising channels

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There are three main online advertising channels: search engines, websites in ad networks, and social media. While these deliver the majority of online advertising, it’s only fair that I at least mention the smaller channels as well:

  • Sponsorships
  • Influencer marketing
  • In-app mobile advertising
  • Smaller platform-based ad systems like Quora, Reddit, or Brave Ads

With this out of the way, let’s get into search, display, and social media ads.

Search ads

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, let’s have a look at some examples.

These top four results are search ads:

Google SERP for "wordpress hosting"

These ads make it easy for websites to be more visible at the most crucial part of the customer journey—making a purchase decision. That’s because as an advertiser, you can estimate how close a searcher is to making a purchase based on what they search for. There’s a big difference between people looking up “what is wordpress hosting” and “cheap wordpress hosting.”

If the user input (search query) matches what advertisers set up (keywords), a search ad will be displayed. These keywords have three match types that let advertisers dictate how closely their keywords should match the search queries. Think about it as controlling how narrow or broad the targeting in search ads should be.

Before setting any search ads up, you should do keyword research. That will provide you with all the data and information you need: what people search for, how often (search volume) they search for it, and how much you’re expected to bid (avg. CPC).

You can get limited data in Google Keywords Planner. But your best bet is to go for a third-party SEO/PPC keyword tool like Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer. Just type in a few (seed) keywords that capture the nature of your business and product offering and take it from there:

List of keywords with corresponding data such as volume, CPC, etc

Once you’re done with the basics and setting up the search ads, then a lot of your work revolves around refining your keyword lists and adjusting bids. You’ll most likely start with Google Ads. But don’t forget about Bing, DuckDuckGo, or local search engines if applicable.

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Display ads

Many websites monetize their traffic by providing space to display ads:

Example of webpage with dedicated space for ads

You can picture these ads as an online version of billboards or LED screens. They can contain static and interactive images or even short videos. The main difference is display ads are one click away from the promoted website. On the other hand, billboards have much higher friction.

For this reason, display ads are great for increasing brand awareness and consideration among your target audience. They can also work to drive conversions when you target visitors of your website who showed interest in your products (retargeting).

I’ll give you an overview of how the biggest ad platform for display ads—Google Display Network (GDN)—works. In Google Ads, you can either target people (audiences, demographics) or content (keywords, topics, placements) with your display ads.

The easiest way to launch your display campaign is to use the predefined affinity categories as audience targeting. Here’s an example of those:

List of affinity categories

Sounds good so far, right? Well, unless your target market is really broad, it’s likely a waste of your ad budget. That’s because Google isn’t really that good at profiling its users. Here are a few interests that Google associates with me:

List of interests

You can find yours by logging in to your Google account > Data and privacy > Ad settings.

I haven’t been to half of those places and have no interest in most of the things listed. I probably just searched for or clicked on something at some point that caused Google to put me into related affinity audiences. Because of that, it shows me display ads that I’m not even remotely interested in.

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A great targeting option that’s easy to set up is to build your own custom intent or affinity segments.

These segments are created based on a set of searched-for keywords, visited websites, or used apps. You can basically tell Google to show your ads to people who searched for certain things or visited websites related to your business.

Social media ads

The term “social media ads” encompasses a lot of different ad platforms and formats. For most people, this is likely what comes to mind when you say social media ad:

Braun's Insta post of its new shaver

That’s an example of an image ad (in this case, in a carousel format). But there are many video ads as well. There are even video-only platforms like Tik Tok. What about YouTube? That could also be considered social media, right?

There’s no point in listing all of it here. You get it. Social media ads compete with the versatility of Google Ads, as they can easily drive all stages of the marketing funnel too. Videos work best for top-of-the-funnel, while conversions will most likely be made from clicking on image ads.

Account structures and bidding work more or less the same across the board. What I’ve shown you so far in Google Ads is applicable to Facebook Business Manager, Twitter Ads, and other platforms as well.

That said, I’ll leave you with four important tips that will increase your advertising efficiency on social media and beyond:

  1. Make your ads worth the distraction – People go to social media to check their feeds. You can’t make your ads fit what they’re thinking about. That’s a huge difference compared to search ads and well-targeted display ads.
  2. Target reasonably sized audiences – If you set up targeting that shows a huge reach potential, try to remove the broadest audiences. Interests like “football” or “technology” include almost everyone. You won’t reach the truly engaged audience that way.
  3. Favor the more precise targeting options – Use data from your pixels that allows you to retarget your website visitors and also create whole audiences based on them.
  4. Beware of ad fatigue – If you are too narrow with your targeting, make sure that you don’t spam the audience with your ads all day long. Allocate a reasonable budget and watch your Ad Frequency metric that reflects potential ad fatigue.

Final thoughts

You’re now equipped with the proper knowledge to successfully kick your online advertising journey off. Doing is the best way to learn. Start small, make mistakes, burn some pennies, and keep learning.

To deepen your knowledge of online advertising, I recommend you also check my article on PPC marketing for beginners. Focus on one ad platform. And once you feel confident that you know your way around it, start scaling your campaigns up and give other platforms a shot too.

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Any questions? Feel free to ping me on Twitter.



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How upskilling your paid advertising skills will tackle economic downturns

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How upskilling your paid advertising skills will tackle economic downturns

30-second summary:

  • Marketing budgets are often the first to be slashed in a downturn – upskilling your existing team with digital marketing techniques can provide huge efficiencies and minimize the impact of cuts
  • Creating an upskilling program does not need to be expensive or time-consuming if a well-thought-out strategy is adopted and results are constantly measured
  • Nurturing your own in-house talent pool also increases business resilience, improves marketing innovation and creativity, and reduces reliance on third-party operators
  • Choosing the right skills for your team to acquire depends both on your immediate goals and long-term business strategy – done right you can steal a march on your competitors
  • Sarah Gilchriest, Global COO of Circus Street, discusses the key skills brands need to cultivate to stay competitive during an economic downturn

We’re entering what is likely to be a pretty tough global recession. As consumer sentiment worsens, brands will increasingly look at ways they can cut costs to protect their bottom line. Unfortunately, we all know that marketing is usually one of the first budgets to be slashed.

It is seemingly much easier to stop a campaign or give an agency notice than it is to sack a developer or reduce infrastructure costs. However, more often than not, cutting marketing is a false economy that worsens the impact of a downturn by slowing a company’s growth. So, is there a way for brands to instead maximize their digital marketing output while also freezing or reducing costs?

The answer may be found in upskilling.

Training while cutting costs?

Now, your first reaction may be that training programs are expensive luxuries that make little sense if your goal is to cut costs. There are a few things to unpack here –

  1. Size and scope of training matter. You can make an outsized impact by training one or two individuals who then share their knowledge with their wider team. The right strategy (which I’ll discuss further below) can lead to a highly targeted program that gives the most critical skills to those who will be best placed to use them immediately.
  2. Next, there are a lot of freely available supporting resources that can significantly reduce costs and help to embed learning.
  3. Finally, let’s put costs in perspective. The ROI on a well-executed training scheme pays for itself and the initial outlay pales in comparison to most other business functions. Put simply, you get a lot of bang for your buck. 

Why paid advertising skills?

Paid advertising makes a lot of sense to focus on for a number of reasons. Generally, compared to other marketing fields, paid advertising is characterized by the sheer diversity of skills and techniques needed to fully execute a campaign. It is incredibly fast-moving and often requires you to leverage a number of different tech platforms. Consequently, many brands outsource this functionality to a network of agencies and freelancers. Those that don’t usually rely on one or two individual ‘power users’ or worse, skills are haphazardly spread among a range of departments leading to bottlenecks and single points of failure.

As such, digital advertising is usually the prime area where efficiencies, greater innovation, and marketing effectiveness can occur via upskilling. It is where your business can do much more for less. 

Identifying the right skills

Getting the right skill mix is where the rubber meets the road. A mixture of creativity, data analysis, platform knowledge, development techniques, and marketing expertise are all needed. To get started the best approach is to fully understand what capability your team has in-house. The crucial element is to remember that a lot of ability might be hidden because it is not used on a day-to-day basis. You would be surprised at how quickly a business ‘forgets’ about the previous experiences of team members after they have been hired.

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Auditing team skills should expand beyond the marketing department

You don’t know what gems are lurking in other areas of your business until you start to look. This is also the perfect opportunity to identify both the potential of your employees to acquire new skills and also their individual aspirations. It is much easier to upskill someone who has a professional and personal investment in learning that particular expertise. The audit itself does not need to be complex – a simple matrix that enables people to categorize their proficiency and outline the areas where they would like to develop will suffice.

When you know what you have to work with, then it’ll become much easier to define the best way forward. Deciding the best skill mix comes down to first working out how to fulfill your most immediate needs. For example, taking a costly service in-house, plugging a weakness – where a team member’s departure would severely hamper your ability to function, or obvious gaps in ability that prevent you from undertaking certain digital advertising activities.

Build on the compatibility between your employee’s aspirations and your commercial objectives

This is then overlaid by areas where your marketing output can most obviously be improved and your future aspirations in line with your commercial objectives. For example, if in the future you want to more heavily target users on particular social media platforms or ‘exotic’ platforms like IoT devices and digital boards. Perhaps you can see the financial benefits of adopting headless CMS tech and would like to put in place the skills needed to make that transition after the recession. Maybe you want your team to have the insight to tell you whether the Metaverse has any potential for your business.

This may sound complex but once you get started the hierarchy of skills you need more often than not becomes very obvious. Remember, one of upskilling’s great strengths is its flexibility – if your needs change or you feel you have chosen the wrong skills – it’s very easy to change track.

Getting started in a cost-efficient way

How you train your team is very much up to individual preferences – everyone learns in different ways. Speaking to your employees and specialists will enable you to build a tailored teaching structure. It can be a combination of in-house learning, online tutorials, accredited programs, or book learning. You do not have to go all in on a full program straight away. Piloting can remove a lot of the risk. Start small – one team or a handful of individuals from across your company – and continually assess the impact.

A mistake to avoid

A common mistake businesses make is they wait too long to get their team to use their new knowledge. This can hold up the process and damage ROI. The best way to embed new skills is to apply them. Ensure that your team has an opportunity to practice their newfound expertise on real initiatives. Then keep a close eye on your business metrics – including team and customer feedback – to determine the impact. Unlike many other departments, digital marketing can have very clear outputs. This will let you know quite quickly if it is working. From there, you can decide on how to roll out your training scheme. 

Marketing doesn’t end with the marketers

As I’ve mentioned, diversifying the skillset of your team builds resilience and promotes more innovation. The reason is simple, if you only have marketing skills in your marketing department, you are naturally limiting the number of people who can provide useful insights that fuel innovation. You reduce oversight and feedback loops, and your marketing output will suffer from a lack of outside perspectives. 

By making your teams multidisciplinary and cross-functional you can spread useful skills throughout your business. Customer service teams can learn the fundamentals of digital marketing, marketers know how to do the basic dev and data work to enable their day-to-day, and your data teams can think like marketers if they need to.

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Preparing for the worst doesn’t mean losing capabilities

If the worst does happen and you do need to make cuts to your team, having key skills shared across your business means that the damage to core functions will be limited.

To finish – I should highlight that much of what I’ve discussed applies equally to business owners as it does to individual freelancers. A downturn can be a daunting prospect if you are a sole trader. Upskilling can be one of the best ways to increase your value to clients now and future-proof your business.

If you have seen business drop off, the time you now have available could be best dedicated to more training. This may sound obvious, but a mistake many people make in their careers is failing to adapt to how demand for skills can quickly change or technology can come along that makes them obsolete. Adding more skill strings to you and your company’s bow is never a bad thing.


Sarah Gilchriest is the Global COO of Circus Street.

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