A year since receiving a Google Ad Grant, Liz Walker and Frances Richens reflect on the highs and lows of Watford Palace Theatre’s campaigns.

Screenshot of a AdWords advert

The fact that charities can apply to Google for up to $10,000 a month in AdWords advertising is not as well known in the arts as perhaps it should be. Distinctly Digital, which manages Google AdWords campaigns for several charities, approached Watford Palace Theatre in 2012, and has been running its campaigns for the past year. Between 2012 and 2013 page views on the website rose by 33%, and this certainly has had something to do with the 70,000 clicks on AdWords adverts.

The Google Ad Grants programme aims to give free advertising to selected charitable organisations that share Google's values and beliefs in key areas such as the arts, public health and youth advocacy. Grants can be used to buy the text adverts that appear above and to the right-hand side of search results. It does not unfortunately include the contextual kind of advertising that appears on other relevant websites. Another limitation is that the maximum bid is restricted, which effects where on the page your adverts appear, not forgetting the programme’s strict eligibility criteria.

There is nothing to lose by trying out different keywords – the theatre has yet to spend its full monthly allowance

The grant can be applied for online; the information required includes details of charity status, activities and website. Review of the application can take up to four months, but is typically less if you are able to work closely with Google to support the process. The next step is to carry out research to select the most appropriate keywords to target, to focus the campaigns on appropriate demographical and geographical targeting, and to get the advert copy just right. Google AdWords has a 'Tools' section to help with this. The theatre identified four key areas of focus: brand awareness, theatre, film and community participation work, so the account was structured with four distinct campaigns to maximise conversions.

Active account management is needed to achieve the best results. Typically, ads are monitored and adjusted on a weekly basis to reflect current listings and to boost performance (adding negative keywords and tweaking copy). Creative copy writing and comprehensive keyword research can lower the cost per click, while bid management is monitored closely to ensure spend is kept to a minimum and that adverts appear in high positions.

With a greater knowledge of what a production’s key selling points may be – a director or starring actor – the theatre feeds into these campaigns regularly. There is nothing to lose by trying out different keywords – the theatre has yet to spend its full monthly allowance.

What we have found in the last year is that the most effective campaigns are those promoting work the theatre does that is not unique: films that are also showing at other local cinemas, youth theatre activities and the pantomime. While we get a lot of clicks on the advert that appears when users search ‘Watford Palace Theatre’, arguably they would have found the site anyway, but it's great to see people reaching the site as a result of searching for ‘drama workshops’ or ‘Christmas pantomimes’.

AdWords can work very well for unique work as well, if there is a key selling point. For Daytona in September, there were more click-throughs from searches for ‘Maureen Lipman’ than for the name of the play. And there can be some curve balls: for a play called ‘Jumpers for Goalposts’, the second most effective keyword term was ‘jumpers for goals 4’, which we suspect was the result of people searching for a popular online game. But you never know, perhaps they were also interested in the play!

With the right set-up you can track the customer journey from clicking on an advert through to purchasing a ticket. The theatre has been held back in setting this up by the fact that it uses a third-party ticketing agent, but finding a way around this is a priority in 2014.

Working with an agent has suited the theatre, as its marketing department has limited time and resources. However, following the initial application, set-up and the inevitable learning curve, management of the campaigns should take little time and effort for a very rewarding boost in website hits.

Liz Walker is Marketing Manager at Distinctly Digital, and Frances Richens is Audience Development Officer (digital engagement) at Watford Palace Theatre.

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A photo of Frances Richens