At BoostCTR, Crowdsourcing Brings a Human Touch to Search Ads

4/16/13Follow @wroush

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rewrite the ad copy for almost every group of search keywords that the chain was bidding on.

Lenderman “had the really smart idea of setting up a game where everyone in the company, from the administrative assistants on up to the VP of our group, would write an ad. The first thing we noticed was that it was really fun—everyone was talking smack about how their ad was better,” says Greenbaum. More importantly, about two weeks into the game, Lenderman’s data showed that the ads Interval’s staff had dreamed up substantially outperformed ResortQuest’s existing ads.

Greenbaum says the lesson he and Lenderman learned from the exercise was that “if you take people who are motivated and interested and aware of what a product is, and have them match wits against professional marketers, the ordinary people can write better ads.” At that point, Greenbaum says, “A bell went off in our heads, and we said, ‘Hey, there is a really cool, powerful dynamic that we’ve hit on here.’”

To fast forward through a lot of company history, Greenbaum and Lenderman incorporated BoostCTR, recruited Roche as a third, technical co-founder, moved the startup to New York, started building a network of copywriters, attracted the attention of ex-Googler Satya Patel and other angel investors, moved again to San Francisco, and eventually won $1.6 million in seed funding from Javelin and other backers.

At first, according to Greenbaum, the company pitched its services mostly to small and medium-sized businesses, thinking that it would be better to work the kinks out of its platform with less demanding customers. But as the startup won introductions to a few larger customers, it became clear that big companies were getting a larger performance boost from the crowdsourced ad copy than small ones. So in 2012, the company switched its focus to the enterprise market.

Greenbaum’s theory about why big companies benefit more has two parts. First, as companies get bigger and do more search-based advertising, they usually don’t scale up their marketing departments accordingly. Even a giant retailer or online catalog company might have only half a dozen people managing campaigns across hundreds of thousands of products, keywords, and ads, he says. These people simply don’t have time to think up appealing ads for every single product, so they end up using lots of generic, templatized ad copy, along the lines of “Buy ABC at XYZ retailer today. Get yours now!”

Second, Greenbaum says, full-time SEM jobs tend to be filled by spreadsheet jockeys and other people with a quantitative, analytical bent. These types of thinkers tend to fixate on a product’s features, rather than trying to imagine how it might benefit its users. In other words, they aren’t very good at applied psychology. BoostCTR’s freelance copywriters, on the other hand, don’t need to apply anything—they’re consumers, meaning they’re often the very same people for whom the ads and the products are intended.

But they’re consumers with a proven ability to write effective ads—and to adjust their approach based on data from BoostCTR testing platform. “They get very quick feedback based on how much better or worse their idea is, relative to the baseline ad and relative to other writers, which is pretty unique,” Greenbaum says.

In fact, Greenbaum thinks this is the key ingredient that differentiates BoostCTR from other crowdsourcing platforms and makes it possible for non-professionals to generate effective ads. “It started off with Mechanical Turk, which was generic and had low-skill participants,” he says. “From there you had Elance and oDesk, which had higher skill workers and more specific work flows. Then you have 99Designs, which is even more verticalized. The evolution we are driving is, we are the first company to put a performance feedback loop on a flexible labor market.”

Right now BoostCTR optimizes ad campaigns for Google, Bing, and Facebook, but eventually the company hopes to be able to produce better ads for more platforms, including Twitter and Linkedin. And since the operators of performance-based ad platforms make money when their advertisers make money, they have a vested interest in seeing BoostCTR succeed. “We are going to have tighter and tighter relationships with each of the ad platforms, and the ultimate objective is to have them offer us to their customers as a service,” says Greenbaum.

If its network writers can keep the whole cycle going, BoostCTR may just be in the market for a few recognition certificates of its own.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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