Macmillan Can Learn a Lot From Cancer Research’s Use of PPC

Lorna Rose Gill Posted by Lorna Rose Gill

image showing people at a cancer research uk run

Google’s Ad Grants for charities can help you build a strong campaign, but what’s the point if you’re not maximising your opportunities for conversion?

If they want to raise the funds, charities need to make a difference – whether that’s by providing pastoral care to those recovering from a tragedy, saving endangered animals, or funding research that could cure serious illnesses.

These organisations must make sure they are spending their limited money wisely when it comes to marketing, and especially sponsored search.

It’s well known that a key reason people donate to charity is because they feel a personal connection with the cause, according to the Guardian, which is why it’s vital that charities in certain sectors make sure they promote their aims and values above all else.

I’m going to look at how three of the country’s biggest cancer charities – Cancer Research, Macmillan, and Children With Cancer – are using PPC to boost their visibility in search engines, helping them raise the funds they need for their ongoing research into this debilitating illness.

Overall Performance

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From this data, we can see that, in spite of the charity’s fairly strong hold on the market for the cancer-related keywords we monitored for this analysis up until September, Macmillan had some serious competition on its hands when both Children With Cancer and Cancer Research stepped in.

This completely ruined Macmillan’s hold on the market until it managed to bounce back briefly between November and February.

But what caused this shift? In October, Cancer Research launched a partnership with Channel 4 called Stand Up to Cancer, which had a massive advertising campaign behind it.

This led the charity to boost its efforts across a host of different platforms that included PPC, and as a result, it managed to overtake its competitors between September and October.

Macmillan also holds its flagship annual World’s Biggest Coffee Morning event at the end of September, so is likely to shift spend and effort towards other keywords or events.

Starting in November, Cancer Research began to lay a little low across the keywords I investigated for a couple of months until its next big campaign started in March for lung cancer, which ran into April. Its biggest peak, though, occurred in May, when the popular Race For Life fun runs started taking place around the country.

This use of individual campaigns to get ahead is a great one – the strategy tends to get excellent results despite relatively little spend, and importantly, it managed to get the charity great traction across the whole market.

Children With Cancer also boosted its campaign in the last month – the only peak besides the one in Autumn of 2014. The data seems to show that although Children With Cancer is spending its PPC budget wisely over those two periods, it would probably do better if it spread out its spending, rather than hitting those two months so hard.

Spread of Keywords

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Looking into the keyword overlap, it becomes a little clearer why Children With Cancer is lagging behind its competitors. It is using noticeably fewer keywords than Cancer Research and Macmillan, although this is hardly a surprise when you consider how niche this target market is.

Although all three competitors are cancer charities, they fight for different causes.

Cancer Research UK sponsors research, Macmillan helps people who are currently fighting cancer and Children With Cancer is taking care of the youngest sufferers and their families. It is natural that the three charities have an overlap but are strong on individual keywords too.

On the other hand, not many of Children With Cancer’s keywords overlap with those of its competitors. Looking back at the overall market share, the charity may do well to look into the keywords Cancer Research and Macmillan are using and try to get a better hold on the market.

Ad Copy

I also took a look at the ad copy for the best performing keywords – cancer, bowel cancer, cervical cancer, skin cancer, prostate cancer uk, and ovarian cancer – to see how the three competitors were using the message to promote their causes.


Although Children With Cancer’s ad managed to get the most clicks for the keyword cancer, it doesn’t seem to be showing ads targeting any other keyword. It’s likely the ad copy would attract those seeking to donate to a cancer charity, and the wording reinforces this sentiment.

The display url also suggests the user will be heading straight to the donation page, meaning it’s relevant to what the potential donor wants to do. However, Children With Cancer does also offer help and information to the families of those suffering with cancer, although our research did not highlight ads advertising such themes.


Cancer Research dominated every other keyword, gaining the most clicks on all ads it served against every single keyword. Its strategy is well thought-out, targeting the different keywords with relevant display urls, landing pages, and copy, but like all strategies, still has room for improvement when it comes to maximising ROI.

This, coupled with its campaign-centric strategy, ensured it always gained a steady flow of clicks, with peaks at the most important donation times throughout the year.


Macmillan is using dynamic keyword insertion for many of its ads rather than managing all copy manually. This means its ads are pretty generic and less tailored to different audiences, much like those of Cancer Research.

Additionally, across the keywords I explored, Macmillan doesn’t have different landing pages or display urls, with everything taking viewers through to the homepage.

There’s nothing wrong with using dynamic keyword insertion, but it shouldn’t be used for every single ad. Macmillan should remember how important it is to vary the landing pages in order to make them more relevant to the keyword.

Like Cancer Research, Macmillan is also appealing to those looking for general information about cancer, rather than specifically to donors.

Although it’s getting some traction, Macmillan’s ads are not the most clicked for any keyword. That explains why the charity hasn’t managed to take on Cancer Research and, at certain points, fell behind Children With Cancer as well.

Macmillan Can Turn it Around

Although Macmillan and Children With Cancer are trailing far behind Cancer Research, all is not lost.

If Macmillan used Adthena’s intelligence for search tool, it would be able to see how charities like Cancer Research are spending their budget and change its strategy to be more effective.

Those changes could entail redirecting its audience to more relevant landing pages, tailoring the ad copy to more accurately reflect the keywords it’s bidding on, or using a combination of dynamic keyword insertion and manual ad copy.

On the other end of the spectrum, Children With Cancer’s copy is obviously strong, judging by its performance on the generic keyword cancer, but it could widen its reach, using more niche keywords to attract clicks in the same way Cancer Research is.

Even with a limited budget, there’s a lot to be said for spending wisely and effectively, dramatically boosting the number of clicks and, by extension, the all-important donations charities need to keep doing their great work.

(Main image credit: Tim Regan/flickr)

No Adthena client data was used in this report.

About the author

Lorna Rose Gill
Lorna Rose Gill
Lorna is responsible for acquisition marketing at Adthena, communicating their award-winning product and generating demand. She has developed her career in fast-paced, start-up environments, including two tech track 100 companies. She is curious and passionate and likes to find stories in data and technology.