Google AdWords as a writing tool

Ever have trouble thinking up character names for your fiction?

Gareth L Powell takes the quick route of simply opening his spam email folder and looking at the pre-randomised names in the “From” field, but Robin Sloan (who we mentioned in passing when talking about new publishing business models) went into a little more in depth: he ran a bunch of Google AdWords campaigns to find the name people were most interested in reading about.

Here’s what I did:

  • Created a campaign attached to a bundle of search terms: mystery, detective story, sherlock holmes, noir, and more like those.
  • Came up with a whole set of names, basically wide variations on a theme. One was my original pick, but I liked all of them. Then, I created an ad for each one, all with the same body text but each with a different name swapped in for the headline.
  • Allocated a small budget ($40, to be exact) and kicked off the campaign. And wow there are a lot of people searching for stuff on Google. Over the span of 24 hours, my ads made about 100,000 impressions.

Sounds a bit like a very convoluted form of displacement activity, no? Well, Sloan’s aware of that, but it’s part of his overall writing philosophy:

… okay, I’ll be honest. This was mostly just an excuse to try a new tool. Any nerd will tell you that tools can provide their own intrinsic rewards. There’s an aspect of exploration to it, too: you’re pressing out into new tool-territory, learning about what you can and can’t do.

This little AdWords test is a first step. Mechanical Turk might be next. I mean, imagine — this is the sci-fi extrapolation — imagine highlighting a block of text, choosing a menu item called Test the way you’d choose Spellcheck today, and when you do, a little timer appears next to it. Five minutes later, ding — the timer goes off and you have the results right there, floating over the text. Aggregated feedback from an anonymous swarm of readers: “I stumbled here,” “this variation works better,” “this line rings false.”

That might sound naive — it’s definitely oversimplified — but I think there might be something useful lurking in this particular tool-territory.

Crowd-sourced micro-fragment beta-reading… for some reason, my brain wants to rebel against the idea (because it doesn’t fit into the pre-established set of writer behaviours, I guess), but that’s probably as good a sign as any that it might actually work. [via GalleyCat]

One could be cynical and assume that Sloan performed the AdWords experiment as much for the potential publicity as for practical purposes, but if that’s the case, hey – it’s worked, hasn’t it? Writers have never really had the same opportunity as visual artists or musicians to experiment publically with methodologies up until now… maybe this sort of “performance writing” will fill that PR void we were talking about before? Nothing gets a link passed around as effectively as novelty.

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