I am a communication professional, with a bent toward marketing because of the bottom line results it drives.

I understand advertising.

I understand the value and benefits of it. I even work with my team to recommend it to clients in integrated programs.

But I’m not an advertising expert.

That’s why I was so interested to read, “How to Test Your Advertising Quickly, Cheaply, and Effectively,” on the Harvard Business Review blog.

The blog post discusses how to use Google AdWords to test your messaging before you go to your customers and prospects with it.

While a huge advocate of the many free Google tools available, I’m not a Google AdWords fan, unless it’s tied specifically to search engine marketing and landing pages that create a call-to-action to generate qualified leads.

So you can imagine my skepticism while reading.

It turns out the author uses three very distinct, and clear, examples of how well this can work. The examples follow.

1. The 4-Hour Work Week vs. Broadband and White Sand
In 2006, Timothy Ferriss and his publisher were searching for a title for his book about productivity, outsourcing, and mini-retirements. Ferriss used AdWords to test several titles and subtitles, and admitted that the winners (The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich) were not his first choices. Yet in hindsight it’s hard to imagine Broadband and White Sandgenerating the same buzz.

(Sorry John Falchetto. It turns out there WAS a strategy to the name of the book.)

2. The AdWords secret of The Secret
The publishing phenomenon The Secret began as a humble AdWords campaign with a $500 per month spending limit. Dan Hollings, online marketing director for The Secret, used AdWords to identify hot-button keywords and test landing page themes until he hit upon the winner: a series of curiosity-provoking trailers based on the human need to solve riddles. The phenomenal sales of the DVD and book ($100 million last time I checked) and subsequent spin-offs testify to global relevance of Dan’s AdWords test results.

3. Mars, Inc. invests pennies to earn millions
In 2009 Vitruvian’s Joel McDonald was hired to manage a $1000/month AdWords account for a division of Mars, Incorporated. Keep in mind that Mars’ advertising budget for 2009 was estimated by Advertising Age at $1.6 billion. Using AdWords to boost sales was like having Larry Page make a few extra bucks by tutoring math on the side. But the investment paid off handsomely once Joel harvested their AdWords data and had them apply it to their advertising in “unmeasurable” media.

Joel ran keyword tests to discover the most searched-for ingredients in this product line. Through ad testing, he found “free shipping” generated nearly twice the sales of the original “30% off” offer (specifics have been changed for confidentiality reasons.)

Within about a month of reporting his AdWords tests, Joel saw a virtually identical product description, price, and offer on Mars’ national TV commercials. Now a miniscule AdWords investment was paying huge dividends in other media. Mars no longer had to depend on the creative impulses of expensive Madison Avenue ad writers. They just applied common sense to AdWords data and cloned tiny successes on a massive scale.

Now I imagine you, like me, can see the applications for your own business or for your clients. I caution you, however, to not try this willy nilly because it’ll be a waste of time and money.

Rather, find yourself a search engine marketing expert (different from search engine optimization) and, at the very least, have them help you create a strategy.

Or learn it yourself. There are plenty of blog posts and tools from Google that teach you how to do this. Or, at the very least, read “Always Be Testing.” That’ll teach you what you need to know.

This first ran as my weekly column for Crain’s Chicago Business.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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