How to setup ads successfully for early stage startups and founders.

Scott McLeod
Mar 18, 2015 · 7 min read

Turning your idea into a real product or business takes real people as users or customers. The goal of this article is to help you validate (or grow) your business by reliably sending relevant visitors to signup for your product or service. I want to help you do this by evaluating acquisition channels, setting up your first ad campaigns and experimenting with your landing page and ad copy.

I'm expecting you to be an entrepreneur or product owner who has an existing landing page, a target persona/customer and at least $600–800 in advertising budget. If you don't have these two then this article may be more theory than execution for you but learnings nonetheless.

Landing page or Product setup

Make sure that you have a strong landing page for converting target customers before sending lots of traffic. This means you should have direct and clear copy that will match your ads, a complimenting design, direct and actionable CTA and necessary analytics for measuring. I'd suggest checking out a previous post I wrote on how to setup a landing page experiment in great detail; *2020 Update I compiled the top landing page builders.

I'd also put some good thought into what happens when people sign up. You don't want to be sending lots of traffic to something that cannot keep people engaged or activated. I often use the analogy of pouring water (traffic) into a bucket (your product) to capture value. You suddenly begin to lose value you’ve captured if you have holes in the bucket (your product).

Make sure you follow up with signups or have suitable onboarding for your product. If your product is more mature your leaks are most likely retention or referral based activities (or lack of them).

Effective Tracking and Measuring

To make sense of any paid advertising you need to be tracking your efforts against a metric such as signups. For every single ad you create you will want a specific and unique URL that carries UTM parameters.

MixPanel Funnel

Having unique UTM parameters helps track down what ad and channel is sending your best performing user. It can be very easy to waste money if you aren't tracking what ads are driving what actions on your site. Though, if every ad you have has a unique url it can begin to get very difficult to track them.

This is why I created a simple to use UTM Advertising Dashboard (Tweet to access) that helps create and track Ads URLs and UTM Parameters. Its the result of setting up and running many campaigns manually. There are lots of expensive paid solutions for this but would not suggest using them at first.

You can also manually create these links using the URL Builder that Google provides. For metrics tracking I suggest you have MixPanel & Google Analytics installed, in my previous landing page setup post I cover this in greater detail.

Testing Different Channels

Getting started can be tricky as there are lots of possible places to advertise your but putting your best foot forward is important. I'll first start AdWords for 4–5 days before Facebook, Twitter. I do this as you can begin to test ad copy with customers who are searching for a solution. I'll then use these learnings for future channels. This definitely does not work for every niche, I'll often skip AdWords if I find the keywords to be saturated and expensive or if I'm targeting a persona more than a problem.

Thankfully the first time you set up an AdWords account they walk you through a good setup process. For the less savvy they even launched AdWords Express which makes the process even more simple.

You can also expect an advertising rep to reach out to you before and during your campaign. In the past these reps are hit or miss on their helpfulness but if these are your first campaigns take all the help you can get.

Start with the Keyword Planner Tool to search for keywords and phrases related to your product and service. Think about what problems your target customers have and how would they be searching for solutions.

Some early criteria to follow..

  • Search Network only (Avoid Display & Partners)
  • Avoid High Competition keywords at first
  • Leverage Keyword Planner tool to find keywords from ad groups
  • Don't just use every Ad Group you’re suggested. Dig into each one and find the keywords that are most relevant.
  • Try 3–4 ad variations, determine a variable to keep consistent

Often a great channel depending on your product and service, I’ve found the best success here with look-a-like audiences based on signups I already have on my landing page, and retargeting using AdRoll or Facebooks Conversion Pixel. If you don't have any users or visits don't sweat it, Facebook has some great targeting settings that take some time to investigate.

As you get to creating your campaign but your best foot forward by targeting the ad at your target personas.

Combine all of the audience targetting Facebook provides you to get as close as you can.

Keep your eye on the “Potential Reach” Facebook estimates as well as their Specific / Broad rating as you don't want to get too specific you’ve eliminated possible customers, but not too broad you're advertising to irrelevant people.

  • Get your audience targeting as specific as you can without limiting reach
  • Create one campaign for each persona you have
  • Use the best 3–4 from stock search and upload 2 or 3 with your value prop designed into the ads.
  • Use “Show Advanced Options” when creating an ad to input the News Feed Link Description. This can be a chance to add more about your solutions features and or benefits.
  • ReTargeting & Look-A-Like audiences are effective with other channels are working well
  • Average CTR is usually around .6% but I aim for around depending on target size 1–3%

Depending on the product and niche I've had some great successes using Twitter advertising. The trick here is to stand out as Twitter has no shortage of noise and distractions, I’ll spend the biggest chunk of my time designing ads here using a value proposition that matches my landing page.

To get started I usually leverage Twitters basic targeting similar to my Facebook approach but here is based on keywords. Avoid most of the single keywords that Twitter suggests as I will often hone down on problem related tweets or people who follow complimenting or competitor products.

  • Use website cards and design eye catching creatives
  • Try 2 campaigns, one based on Interests / Followers and the other based on Keywords
  • Aim for 1–3% ctr, usually start out around .2

General Acquisition Channel Tips

  • Where is your target? Determine Desktop Vs. Mobile targeting (most of the times both places doesn't make sense)
  • Cast a wide net and narrow your targeting down.
  • Target all of the customer personas you think need your product and remove those that don't convert.
  • Test variations of ads, but limit the number of variables.
  • Always be applying learnings and optimizing your campaign
  • Determine the success of channels by product metrics or conversions.
  • Try Facebook, AdWords, Twitter then move to test other channels such as BuySellAds, LinkedIn, StumbleUpon etc.
  • Always be capturing leads, use something like Privy or HelloBar

Optimizing campaigns

I usually try to collect 10,000 impressions or $100 on a campaign before I can really determine whether the CPC or conversions are poor. As I approach this number I'll trim out poor performing ads, keywords and targeting.

  • Use UTM parameters see what channel / ad performs best in MixPanel
  • Trim out poor performing ads and channels
  • Take learnings from best performing ads to create a second set of variations.
  • Use the previous best performing ad + channel as your baseline to compare any new variations.

The key is to continue experimenting with different combinations of copy both in ad and on page. I usually expect to take 2–3 iterations on a channel before I find a good reason to scale.

Access my UTM Advertising Dashboard Which is a custom google spreadsheet that I use to track advertising urls. Tweet to access!

Want some help with this stuff?

I help founders and startups accomplish their growth goals. One of the areas I can help with is setting up, and optimizing paid sales and marketing channels. Including Facebook Ads, AdWords, LinkedIn Ads, Twitter Ads, what ever is unique to your business and goals. I can help with a one time audit, strategy, training or execution.

Checkout my testimonials on LinkedIn Send me an E-Mail: or send me a Tweet @realscottmcleod

Building A Startup

A collection of articles that take a lean and agile…

Scott McLeod

Written by

Growth Consultant for Founders, Startups & Fortune 500’s. Also an artist and founder of many things.

Building A Startup

A collection of articles that take a lean and agile approach to building a startup. Topics range the life cycle of a startup from start to finish and end.

Scott McLeod

Written by

Growth Consultant for Founders, Startups & Fortune 500’s. Also an artist and founder of many things.

Building A Startup

A collection of articles that take a lean and agile approach to building a startup. Topics range the life cycle of a startup from start to finish and end.

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