December 05, 2007
How To

Sherpa 101: Online Display Ads, Part II - Copywriting, Design Tips & Ad Networks + How to Counter ‘Banner Blindness’

SUMMARY: Let’s face it: When consumers surf the Web, most suffer from “banner blindness” and ignore most online display ads. Whatever a marketer can do to counter that boosts an ad’s impact.

Here are the top tips for designing your ad and placing it on the right pages in this second part of our Special Report on online display ads. Plus, a look at ad networks and ad targeting.
A well-known limitation of online display ads, known originally as banner ads, is that Web surfers ignore them -- even with colorful images, video and other features. The phenomenon, “banner blindness,” has much to do with the ad’s low clickthrough rate and lower costs.

Still, the ads claim more than 20% of the market, and their lower costs and the emergence of advertising networks are boosting that share. The best way to get your ad noticed still is to create an eye-catching design while placing it on a carefully targeted set of websites. And the process of boosting your ad’s response rate starts with setting an objective for it based on solid research.

Gathering the right information is the hardest part of the process, says Alan Mihelchic, Creative Director, Creating an ad is arguably the easiest part. But before you set a creative team to work, you have to know everything about your ad’s objectives, its target audience and where it should run.

Gathering Information
Here are some of the best ways to gather information:

-> Step #1. Ask questions

Many questions must be answered before creating a successful online ad. The most important question: “What is the ad’s objective?” Every aspect of an ad’s design is affected by its objective.

For example, an ad that sells a product is different from an ad that builds a brand. A product-selling ad will need an image of the product and a strong call to action. A brand-building ad will need basic ingredients like the company’s colors, name and logo.

Other questions:
- What type of ad will you use?
- What are its dimensions?
- What images do you need, if any?
- Will the ad’s look and feel have to match a marketing campaign, Web page or brand?
- What message will the ad convey?
- What’s the call to action?
- What’s the benefit to users?
- What’s the target audience?
- Are you using an ad network?

Another important question: How will the ad be limited? Most publishers and ad networks have strict guidelines for ads. Contact the publishers you’re interested in to learn the allowed dimensions, file sizes and features. It could save you a lot of wasted time.

-> Step #2. Map out the user experience

It’s important to look at the user experience from start to finish to make sure it has a smooth flow, and to make sure you’re not missing any elements. So developing a banner ad sometimes involves more than creating the ad itself.

- You may need a landing page for a reader to click through to and ecommerce architecture.
- You may need a streaming video.

“If you actually capture someone’s attention, you invite participation, and they click. Don’t be so shortsighted that you’re not thinking about the next steps…make sure that the creative presentation and the experience is relevant” from start to finish, says Michael Sullivan, SVP Media Services and Marketing, Aptimus.

Ad Design Tips

-> Tip #1. Grab attention, invoke action

When it comes to display advertising, the old AIDA (attention, interest, desire, action) marketing principle holds true. Strike a balance between visual and textual elements to attract the users’ attention and invoke a response, says Michael Fleischner, Marketing Director, Peterson’s, an educational resource company.

“When you talk about display advertising, it needs to be visual and to the degree that it includes motion. More often than not, you’re going to improve clickthrough rates. To move someone through that decision process, you really need to grab their attention. And we’ve just seen better results with visuals, but there needs to be some kind of call to action, which is ‘buy now,’ ‘act now,’ ‘get more info,’ as part of that overall contextual ad,” says Fleischner.

There are three design elements that usability expert Jakob Nielsen says are most effective at attracting attention:
o Plain text
o Faces
o Cleavage and other “private” body parts

As for calls to action, “with one particular placement, we added a button in red that said ‘get free info’ and that had a dramatic lift in results,” says Fleischner.

-> Tip #2. Be clear

Web visitors should immediately know what your ad offers. The benefit should be obvious.

“Within the lead generation category, [the ad should have] a very specific offer with a very specific benefit,” Sullivan says. “If [the ad] is more brand oriented … [try] an invitation to start a dialogue, download a game, experience a part of the brand. With the promise to click to a landing page, there has to be a greater hook, and the hook should be very obvious.”

-> Tip #3. Don’t lie

We’ve all seen the ads: “You’re the winner! Click here to claim your prize!” If you don’t want your business to be considered a scam, don’t claim benefits that are too good to be true.

“I’m thinking in this case about companies that use promos and offers and the promise of things that will come easy and be free to get a consumer’s attention only to pull them through difficult processes and lots of small print,” says Sullivan.

-> Tip #4. Blend with the site when possible

Brooks McFeely, President, MidnightTrader, has a display ad strategy that consistently delivers a 3% to 5% clickthrough rate and a similar conversion rate.

“The banner ads that tend to work best and really, in my experience, the only kind that truly work from a return on investment standpoint are the ones that fit in with the site in which they are placed. [They] almost look like part of the offer of the website,” says McFeely.

“If you’ve got a bunch of navigation links on the left, and you can buy a text link to go underneath a navigation link that’s similar in look -- that’s pretty effective,” says McFeely

This strategy is working great for McFeely, but be careful. Not every publisher will be willing to disguise an ad as content, and not every user will be happy discovering that the link is an ad.

Placement on the Page
A display ad can be placed anywhere on a website -- it’s just a matter of coding. Publishers rarely have a wherever-you-want policy, however. They usually limit their ads to certain sections of a website.

Common areas:
o Very top of the page
o Right side of a page
o Left side of a page
o Middle of the page between sections of content

Where’s the best spot? Anywhere above the fold. Exact positioning above the fold doesn’t significantly affect the response rate.

Ad Networks vs. Individual Publishers
When you’re deciding where to run your ad, there are two primary options: ad networks and individual publishers. Here are some pros and cons for both:

-> Ad Networks
If you want to run your ads on lots of sites, then use an ad network.
Advertisers pay the network -- on a CPC, CPM or CPA basis -- and the network gives a portion of that revenue to every site that hosts the ad.

The networks vary greatly in their reach, pricing, metrics and contextual targeting ability. Some offer detailed demographics for audiences; others organize their networks by topic. Most accept bids from marketers on keywords that determine where their ads will be placed.

The number of ad networks has exploded in recent years. Here’s a partial list:

- United States:
24/7 Real Media:
Affiliate Fuel:
Audience Marketplace:
Azoogle Ads:
Casale Media:
Collective Media:
CPX Interactive:
enCircle Media:
Premium Network Inc.:
Pulse 360:
Remix Media:
Specfic Media:
Traffic Marketplace:
Travel Ad Network:
Tribal Fusion:
Undertone Networks:

- International:
ad pepper media:
Mooter Media:
SinoTech Media Ltd.:

The down side to an ad network is the lack of control for the marketer. If, for example, you were in the loan business and bid on the keyword “bond,” you may find yourself on a James Bond website as well as a financial website.

A recent New York Times article reported that several candidates for president saw their ads placed on sites that hold contrasting views on certain issues or undesirable content. It happens, and it’s a waste of advertising dollars or worse.

-> Individual publishers
If you want to micro-target your audience, then individual publishers are the way to go.

Working directly with publishers gives you the advantage of more easily negotiating price and placement. You know exactly where your ad is appearing, so you won’t have to worry about advertising next to irrelevant or undesirable content. Individual publishers usually have detailed demographics on their target audience, too.

The principal disadvantage of approaching an individual publisher, however, is losing the centralized nature of an ad network. You can go to one place to upload your ad and monitor its performance across thousands of sites. That’s not possible with individual publishers.

Targeting Your Ad
Wherever you run your ad, you want to be able to target your audience as sharply as possible, otherwise your response rate will suffer immensely.

“If you’re advertising new cars on a baby products website and you know nothing about the audience, you’re not going to have a high clickthrough rate,” Fleischner says. “If that ad is served contextually, you know, maybe that ad for new car is served on a page that has content that someone would be reading who would be interested in a new car. OK. Now it’s contextually relevant. As a result, we’re going to increase clickthrough rate.”

Depending on the ability of the ad network you’re on, or the willingness of the publisher, you might be able to target your ads on a very high level.

“If you’re selling car tires, you’d probably -- rather than just going on an automotive website -- you probably want to go on the section that is dealing with tires,” says McFeely.

“You don’t necessarily have to pay more, sometimes you pay a lot less to go with the more targeted because it may not be a niche that other advertisers are seeking, so it can work to your advantage that way,” says McFeely.

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples of online display ad sizes:

Sherpa 101: Online Display Ads - Types, Sizes, Rates & Metrics:

IAB: Ad Revenue Reports:

IAB: ad unit guidelines:

Google AdWords - sample ad sizes and placement:
tml - 7 Secrets for Increasing Banner Ad Clickthrough Rate:

Yahoo!’s SmartAds:

Nielsen//NetRatings: most popular ad sizes:

Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox: banner blindness: old and new findings:


Peterson’s: The most comprehensive and heavily traveled education resource on the Internet


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