When ‘Message Matching’ Backfires:
Don’t Follow Blindly

Johnathan Dane
Johnathan Dane

Let’s talk a little bit about message matching, a topic that has been debated time and time again.
Someone types a search term into Google.
They’re looking for something specific. They have something particular in mind.
So, they expect to see certain things when the SERP loads. And then they’ll expect to see those things pop up again when they click on each result.
‘Message matching’ aligns all of these expectations. It organizes all of the potential variables (from a search term to an ad to the page design) to make sure that people don’t get confused, flustered, or derailed.
You should obviously pay attention to message matching then. Except…for when you shouldn’t.
Because if you’re not careful, keeping too close of an eye on message matching might backfire.
Here’s why, and how to avoid making the same mistakes.

Why Message Match Matters (Most of the Time)

In 2012, Bryan Eisenberg wrote about ad continuity.
He referenced research by Dr. Ed Chi in 2001, who showed that people behave more like animals than we care to admit.
Animals will follow a ‘scent’ in the wild in order to navigate and find their way.
Online, humans do the same thing. Dr. Chi said we use a ‘hub-and-spoke’ method when searching, for instance. We start in the middle and follow a scent until we hit a dead end or road block. Once that trail “weakens” a bit, we go back to the middle (read: Google).
Thus “conversion scent” was born.
Since then, the concept has expanded into message matching.
It (broadly) describes how we, as good little marketers, should make sure that someone’s search will receive an appropriate ad that ‘matches’ the landing page. In design, messaging, keywords, overall aesthetic, etc.
That way, we keep the ‘conversion scent’ strong. There’s no deviation. Nothing to throw those wild animals — I mean, customers — off track.
One reason this concept is so important?
Because customers are already completely overwhelmed and distracted. They’re bombarded by over 5,000 messages a day while trying to simultaneously browse multiple tabs at a time. It’s no wonder that our attention spans are less than a gold…wait, what were we talking about again?

It’s easy to get distracted with all the ads.

It’s easy to get distracted with all the ads. – image source

Conversion scent simplifies. It makes their life easier, because it subconsciously keeps them on track without getting distracted by another shiny thing.
This isn’t just for their benefit, though. It’s also for our own. Because we’re selfish. ?
While Google’s Quality Score isn’t the end-all, be-all PPC metric, it is designed to reward good message matching.
The alignment of searchers to ads to landing pages has been shown to correlate with your CPC. Larry Kim from WordStream first proved this by showing that a single point difference in your Quality Score can swing costs by 16%.
See the impact of quality score here.

See the impact of quality score here. – image source

Facebook’s Relevance Score (another ‘micro metric’ that you need to keep in context) works similarly.
This time, AdEspresso stepped up to the plate and showed how a change in Relevance score can impact your potential click-through rate and CPC.
See an example here.

See an example here. – image source

So, message matching is generally good for:
  1. Your customer’s ‘conversion scent’ (and therefore, your bottom line)
  2. The effective CPC you pay in AdWords
  3. The same micro metrics in Facebook

The result, typically, is more conversions for less.
People like it. Ad platforms like it. And, therefore, your bosses and clients will like it, too.
Most of the time…
But not always–because in certain circumstances, message can (and will) backfire…If you’re not careful…If you’re not on the lookout or prepared.
Here’s when that happens (and how to protect yourself).

Where Message Matching Goes Wrong

There’s always a few exceptions to the rule.
That holds true with message matching.
The danger is tunnel vision.
You can become so focused on making sure messages match (exactly) that you lose sight of the bigger goals and factors. Pay attention to the added context around what’s happening and why things may or may not be a good idea in the first place.
Otherwise, the result is that you fall for some of these common, brain dead mistakes.
For example…

Mistake #1: Campaign + Audience Fit

You’ve done it perfectly.
You’ve thought through every possible searching scenario. You know exactly all of the keywords for which someone’s looking. SKAGs are on point. Landing pages align perfectly.
Only one problem.
This campaign isn’t right for the audience. This means even the best, most accurate ‘messages match’ in the world can’t save you now.
Here’s how it plays out in reality.
Clicks start coming in. Everything looks good. Except conversions aren’t taking off like you thought.
Because you were so (over) focused on message match, that’s the first place you address. So, you start keyword stuffing MOAR into your ads and landing page headlines.
Only for results to get worse.
When in reality, you should have been paying attention to the offer and messaging, and whether or not that was appropriate for this searcher’s funnel stage. You were shooting for a macro-conversion (lead gen) instead of the more appropriate micro one (eBook download).
And this would have clued you into a potential ‘temperature’ problem all along.

Mistake #2: Temperature Bait-and Switch

A visitor’s ‘temperature’ dictates everything in a campaign.
Should you use a long or short landing page? I dunno — ask the HiPPO.
Just kidding. It goes back to the visitor’s temp.

Where's your visitor’s temp at?

Where’s your visitor’s temp at?

Brand new, ice cold visitor from a display ad? They might need a little more persuading (and copy). They’ve never been to your site and are the least likely to hand over their credit card immediately.
Retargeted audiences will fall somewhere in the middle, yellow-ish part. There still might be a little snow on the ground–because they’re becoming brand aware, but not quite solution-aware just yet. You need to transition this low-level interest into something a little more concrete (like some user data).
Pro Tip: Don’t ever eat yellow snow.
The last group is where the money is. They’re ready and willing. So, you’re probably fine simply cutting to the chase with a lukewarm RLSA audience member who’s already added a product to their cart on a previous visit.
In other words, context matters more so than message matching.

Mistake #3: Misdiagnosis

Message matching tunnel vision causes you to miss otherwise obvious things that are missing. It’s a convenient scapegoat; one that’s easy to place the blame.
But message matching isn’t the reason visitors are leaving your landing page in droves. The real reason is that your landing page sucks, the copy is bad, or it just might need more work.
Maybe you need to add social proof. Videos almost always work. And a phone number wouldn’t hurt either.
Most likely, you need all three, maybe even more.
Whatever the case, message matching often becomes like a tractor beacon when things go wrong. When in reality, it should almost never be…
…because the strategies below will keep everything in check.

How to Keep Message Match from Backfiring

Message match is important. You can’t neglect it.
But you also don’t want it taking priority while pushing arguably more important elements to the back seat.
Here are five tips to help make sure that doesn’t happen.

Tip #1: Never Lose Sight of Visitor Intent

User intent dictates everything. Ev-ery-thing.
That starts with how they’re finding you.
Meaning: the keywords they’ve typed in or even the channel they’re using.
For example, retargeting cuts both ways. It can be used for blog visitors who are problem-aware (“My PPC ROI is too low.”). Instead of sending them an immediate Free Proposal offer, we want to include a little foreplay to get the juices flowing.

Here’s an example of how we do it.

Here’s an example of how we do it.

We pre-heat the oven. Don’t baste just yet.
But if someone’s been to your site X times in the last month, have already downloaded those case studies, have visited your Product and Pricing pages just yesterday, or has searched using words like “PPC services pricing,” we can escalate what’s being shown to them.
Like we do here.

Like we do here.


Tip #2: Visitor Intent Indicates Funnel Stage (Which Dictates Offer)

There’s one thing that has the biggest influence over conversions.
It’s not button color. And as we’ve seen, it’s also not message match.
Instead, it’s what we just spoke about in last tip: the offer.
And that offer depends on exactly where someone’s at inside your funnel.

Yes, this funnel. Do you have it memorized yet?

Yes, this funnel. Do you have it memorized yet?

The ones at the top might be looking for content that solves their problem. The ones in the middle, a tool or guide that shows them what’s possible. The bottom is ready for a phone call.
For example, Uber has one big problem: marketplace dynamics. They not only have to attract riders, but also recruit drivers as well. Too many on one side or the other, in a particular location, and things quickly grind to a halt.
So, it’s tempting to be aggressive, to come on too strong.
You’re trying to reach brand new people with display ads, but this high-threat offer is a mismatch.
Huh, this isn’t quite right.

Huh, this isn’t quite right.

These top of the funnel people are exploring options still. They’re not yet ready to commit or sign up. So instead, we ‘lowered’ the threat-level by changing the offer to be more appropriate to someone in this stage.
That’s more like it.

That’s more like it.

Funnel stage, visitor intent, and your offer are like the Holy Trinity of PPC conversions. Focus on aligning those three things, first, before the ad-level elements that make up message match.

Tip #3: Retain ‘Conversion Scent’

The Nielsen Norman Group proved over a decade ago that people don’t read online. Instead, they scan.
These findings have been backed up over years, with some estimates putting that reading figure as low as only 20% of a web page.
Not 20% of the total, but just a few sections of a page (like the top left corner) that get the bulk of attention.

See top left corner.

See top left corner. – image source

That means the majority of your page isn’t getting read, not yet anyway.
‘Conversion scent’ is an excellent choice of words, then, because people aren’t actively reading your landing page line-by-line, making sure you used the keyword in both the page title and subhead.
It’s more subconscious. It’s like a feeling or a, well, smell. They can sense something’s not quite right, even if they can’t put a finger on exactly what that missing element is.
Retaining scent then deals more with aesthetics. It’s the general look and feel that people first pick up on. Like when your PPC ad is colorful and cartoonish (because some young, hip agency created it), but the landing page is dull and covered in stock photos (because you created it).
And it feels something like this.

And it feels something like this. – image source

For example, take a look at the aesthetic of this ad:
I know, pretty, huh.

I know, pretty, huh.

And now compare it to the one in this landing page:
Again, this brand is really on point. :wink:

Again, this brand is really on point. 😉

You don’t even have to read either one. You just know they’re related because the colors, textured background, font consistency, and the most adorable manilla folder in the entire world (I’m biased, because we created the little guy).
In other words, the ‘scent’ lines up. It matches a visitor’s expectations perfectly. This means their conversion momentum will now carry through to actually read the offer (without getting derailed first).

Tip #4: Now Match Keywords, Personality, and Tone

One day, Oli Gardner clicked on 300 paid ads to record their message match (or lack thereof).
I think we can all agree that sounds like pretty much the worst day ever.
But that pain was eventually rewarded with this shining example:

Well, it’s not KlientBoost, but let’s give it a shot.

Well, it’s not KlientBoost, but let’s give it a shot. – image source

Cheap small business account. Making dollars great again. And little clip art looking dude. Check.
Now, let’s see where it led people:
Not exactly beautiful. But otherwise technically sound.

Not exactly beautiful. But otherwise technically sound.  – image source

The same value prop is repeated in the headline. Subhead is also repeated. And the clip art-y guy makes a reappearance.
There’s a ton of other stuff on that page, stuff that’s important for a visitor to check out before they end up converting.
But your first goal is simply to keep their attention when they transition from an ad (from somewhere else) to your website. You carry that scent through, and repeat key elements like the keyword being used, the personality of the page, and messaging tone.
Ok, fine. How exactly are you supposed to do this across multiple campaigns across different channels?
Work smart, not hard.

Tip #5:  Dynamic Text Replacement

Dynamic text replacement can do the heavy lifting for your message matching efforts, which will free you up to focus on the visitor intent, funnel stage, and the offer people are seeing.
Back in the old days, you’d have to create new ads for each campaign. And then create brand new landing pages for each one, too. Think about the time that required. Not to mention, the number of people from designers and developers to copywriters in addition to your advertisers.
Thankfully, those days are over. Now you can start by dynamically replacing ad text based on criteria like location.

For example, same ad here for the Cost Mesa location.

For example, same ad here for the Cost Mesa location.

That you also see here in the Newport Beach one.

That you also see here in the Newport Beach one.

And then you can also use the same exact approach on your landing pages, too. So, you only have to create a single custom page, and then use dynamic text on those pages to automatically swap out search terms.
Pretty cool, huh?

Pretty cool, huh? – image source

You get instant message matching without having to manually line up each and every piece as well as risk getting sidetracked when your laser-like focus on message match backfires.

Wrap Up on Avoiding Message Matching Mistakes

Message matching matters.
It continues your ‘conversion scent’ to make sure that people won’t get derailed after clicking on your ad. The individual factors that make up message match are also used to determine Quality or Relevance scores. So, you can expect a nice little bump when things align properly.
However, message match also has a darkside. There are unintended consequences that pop up when it becomes over prioritized.
It’s easy to get bogged down in trying to replicate every little detail. Instead of making sure that you have the right offer going to the right person who’s in the right stage of your funnel.
Pay attention to the overall aesthetics. Continue the ‘scent’ from ad to page. And then let dynamic text replacement do the hard, time consuming work.
Because you’ve got bigger things to worry about (and obsess over).