June 06, 2006
How To

What Works With Online Creative + Blunders to Avoid: Exclusive Interview With Ad Expert Phil Sawyer

SUMMARY: Do you think you really captured a visitor’s attention with that online ad? Is the headline too small? Is there a dominant image? Did you brand your name early enough to be remembered?

Find out what really works in our exclusive interview with ad expert Phil Sawyer, who studied the behavior of thousands of Web visitors participating in a special survey of ads from 16 top marketers.

Plus, a look at the good ads and the ones that bombed.

"So many advertisers think they have the freedom to build the story, teasing out an image, then moving to the next teasing image, then at the end saying, 'Here's our offer.' That's the most egregious and common error that I've seen in online advertising," says Phil Sawyer, Senior VP of the Starch Communications division of The GfK Group.

Sawyer, who compiled his studies of the effectiveness of print ads in "Ten Principles of Effective Print Advertising," conducted similar studies online. Although similar to the print findings, what he discovered about reactions to online ads are quite different.

I. Methodology

Sawyer's team randomly intercepted visitors to CNET's home page and CNET's review pages. Pop-ups asked users to participate and directed them to a mock site. During the visit, they were randomly exposed to three ads in a normal content environment.

When finished, they were directed to a survey via a link, shown the same ads and asked questions. The ads included MPUs (IAB standard, 300x250), skyscrapers (160x600) and leaderboards (728x90).

Companies whose ads were studied included AT&T Cingular, Fujitsu, HP, NewEgg, Nokia, Olympus, PalmOne, Panasonic, Sony, Sony Ericsson, Toshiba and Vonage. Sawyer team’s measured:

- noted: % of viewers who remember seeing the ad
- associated: % of viewers who said they knew who the advertiser was after seeing the ad
- likeability: % who said they liked the ad “very much” or “somewhat”
- one of the best: % who rated the ad as one of the best they saw
- ad strength: average of all the scores
- the average across all comparable ads was 100

Note: CNET users are predominantly male and average 37.5 years old with an average income of $79,300.

II. 3 Major Findings

o Finding #1: Get to the point

One major theme Sawyer heard repeatedly: "I don't have time to wait for the name of the advertiser to pop up. I'm busy doing other things."

In other words, don’t beat around the bush.


a. Branding comes first

You have about three seconds to catch a viewer's interest, so don't attempt subtlety. The brand should be the first thing a person sees. In this area, static ads have an advantage over animation because they are not oriented in time. They "tell the story" right up front.

In animated ads, those that display the brand in the first frame and keep it in view have the greatest chance of establishing clear brand association. For example, an ad for Toshiba’s Satellite A60 laptop got a great associated score (111) because it immediately branded itself in two places.

In contrast, Olympus’ Verve digital camera ad began with a moving image but didn’t say it was from Olympus until the end of the ad, thus confusing viewers. Hence, its low scores in ad strength (78); noted (85); associated (76); and as one of the best (60).

Another tactic to remember is to play up your benefits (*not* features). It's a marketing basic, but many advertisers still confuse the two, placing too much emphasis on descriptions of the company and/or product rather than on what practical results the product will deliver.

In animated ads, make sure the benefits come first. For an ad touting Vonage’s digital phone service, the name was branded and the benefits were listed first –- that you can keep your number, among others. Because of that, the ad registered well as noted (117).

An ad by NewEgg confused a good number of people because they didn’t know the company. However, techies understood the benefits, and the ad rated as one of the best (120). Lesson here: Make sure you know your audience so you get the biggest bang for your buck.

b. Images must be powerful and "pop"

With static ads, the eye must have a compelling focal point. Even in "frenetic" ads (such as in the computer gaming industry) where images abound, one image must dominate.

It doesn't have to be in the center of the ad. "You can have a beautiful picture of a sunset and all the most beautiful colors are off to the left, and that can be the focal point," Sawyer says.

Successful ads tend to be designed with simplicity with colors that "seduce you," such as red, blue and green. Other tips:

--Avoid monochromatic colors

--Provide contrast between foreground and background

--Black backgrounds that give a kind of three-dimensional effect are effective

One ad that used a black background extremely well was Sony Ericsson, which included a simple, straightforward message to make its ad pop for the P910a cell phone. The ad scored highest in Sawyer’s study for ad strength (139) and one of the best (220).

--In some cases, the focal point can be a brief headline

-- Images should "move" toward the viewer, whether in static or interactive ads

In a Sony VAIO computer ad featuring “Spiderman,” the action and words were coming toward the reader. It also reinforced Sony’s strong red color -- “people know it’s Sony.” The ad performed well in Sawyer’s survey, garnering an ad strength score (130) and in one of the best ads (160). Its likeability level (108) was one of the highest in the survey.

In contrast, an ad for Fujitsu’s LifeBook S6000 laptop chose to have the computer back away from the viewer. Whenever the action moved to the background, the ad performed worse, Sawyer says. In Fujitsu’s case, it rated among the lowest as one of the best (60) and ad strength (84).

Ads with gentle and soft motion, when it's in keeping in line with what you want to sell them, prompt viewers to say, "It caught my attention and once it did, I wanted to watch it because it was so attractive."

There's no rule about how much motion is too much. Some successful animated ads loop so that they continue to move, while others go through the motions once. The key is to make the motion purposeful and simple.

"The ones who use motion successfully are the ones who do it softly," says Sawyer, mentioning an ad that had one car zooming from left to right, another from right to left, things going up and down. Don’t do it. "It drives people nuts.”

Most animated ads tend to run 15 seconds or less.

--Attention levels drop when images are askew or slanted

For AT&T Cingular FamilyTalk’s ad, two symbols were used, then lots of information in a slanted image. A definite no-no, as the ad registered lowest among all the rated ads for ad strength (77) and as one of the best (20).

c. Follow the flow

With car ads, viewers tend to look at the middle of the car, then to the front of the car. If the car is facing to the right, then copy will be seen better if it’s on the right. If the car faces the left, copy on that side is more visible.

In both static and animated ads, the eye should be drawn toward the important information.

Nokia’s 6620 Video Phone ad succeeded at flow. A woman on one side of the screen tosses a Frisbee to her dog on the other side, but a cat leaps into the middle of the frame and snags the Frisbee, where the offer then appears. With a high noted score (127) and one of the best (180), it rated among the best ones surveyed.

d. Click-to-learn-more works

When an ad offers benefits first, and does it well, people appreciate the chance to click to learn more information, whether it’s a white paper download or more information on a product.

o Finding #2. Ads communicate on rational *and* emotional levels

The rational part of a viewer notices benefits. But, “if you grab someone's heart, that's where breakthroughs in advertising come." It’s one of the most difficult things to do.

The best ads combine reason and emotion. For example, an ad for PalmOne’s Treo smartphone shows a man at an airport working on his Treo while others wait in line around him.

This worked because people connect with what it's like to wait, bored, in line at airports, Sawyer says. They sympathize with the people on an emotional level. At the same time, they see the rational benefit of a Treo: If they had one while waiting, they could get work done, too. The ad performed well in ad strength (114) and noted (127).

o Finding #3. Advertisers must leverage the unique strengths of each ad format

None of the three ad formats studied offers automatic success simply because of the use of that format. Rather, an advertiser must use each format to its best advantage. For example:

--Skyscrapers work well "if you have pleasing vertical motion" or something that builds up.

For example, a skyscraper ad for Vonage featured conflicting movement: one person walked down while another walked up. Those following the person walking down left when the person walked off the screen. The ad performed well (160) as one of the best, although its strength was just above the average (108).

--MPUs do well with video because they're shaped like a television screen. They also work with "a big beautiful picture.”

For HP, a black screen with the words “scratch pad” was immediately wiped off to reveal the offer: to save $391 on a Tablet PC. Ad strength came in high (136) and as one of the best (200)

--Leaderboards work well for text (as long as there's not too much of it) because we read from left to right.

The movement for a leaderboard ad for Panasonic went from left to right and into the copy. It branded well (120) but failed as one of the best (60).

III. Similarities, Differences With Other Media

When it comes to static ads, the above tactics and findings hold true for print as well as for online, says Sawyer. With each medium, advertisers have a limited amount of time to catch the eye. However, that time is even shorter online.

"Everything changes when you add motion.” And, motion ads online are very different from television. On TV, you can be intrusive. Online, when people are reading an article or are similarly engaged, they don't want to be disturbed and the dramatic situations that work on TV don't work as well.

Useful links related to this article:

Download of Phil Sawyer’s “Web Advertising … What Works?” presentation for Automotive News:

Ten Principles of Effective Print Advertising:

CNET Networks, Starch's online partner for the ad studies:

Starch Communications:

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