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Banner ads: Best Creative Practices

Published: March 31, 2017

Author: Adrienne Abrams

As part of a design team, I like to think that people spend hours ogling our beautiful display ads, however, I know the reality – sadly, they are just an interruption to our life online. It is therefore our job to ensure the work stands out on the page. Gone are the days of blinking, flashing lights (hopefully) to grab a user’s attention. You should be drawn to the ads because they are speaking to you (not literally); they should resonate with the user.
Banner best practices should not be considered a holy grail but rather guiding principles for design. While you have to start somewhere, it’s imperative to have a strategy – one that you can refine over time. The best practices below are a place to start, but before embarking on design, you should always consider your audience. Be clear on your creative roll-out and testing strategy:

  • What are your campaign goals, and how are you measuring them?
  • Consider your audience – is this prospecting or remarketing?
  • Has the user abandoned a product? Has she visited a page? What’s her funnel stage?
  • Is there an offer that’s applicable?
  • Where are your ads being run? Be clear on specs. 

These are just a few items to consider before you start designing.
With a strategy in hand, you are now ready to start your design process. Below are guidelines for static banners. (We will tackle animated ones another day.)
Copy should be clear and concise. While the inclination is to ‘fit it all in’, with banners, less is more. Your real estate is very limited, especially on smaller sizes. You want a message that is very clear and resonates with the user. A headline paired with a short subhead or just a strong headline typically fills the need. Remember, you have the user’s attention for a couple of seconds at best, so make the copy meaningful and easy to read.

If you require a disclaimer or legal copy, you may want to cut the subhead so the ad isn’t too cluttered.  
Create an actionable CTA (call to action). The CTA should be the most prominent component of the ad. We still want that click. Through attribution, we know that a banner can play many roles in the conversion cycle and that most companies rightfully value the the view-through conversion, but you still want the banner to elicit an actionable result. Realistically your user may not click through today, but this piece is instrumental in the overall process – so having a memorable CTA is key.

    • Things like Sign Up Now, Learn More, Try It for Free, and Shop Now work well. The CTA should directly correspond to the landing page. So, if the banner is leading you to place a where you download a whitepaper, try “download” in the CTA. While having something sexy and provocative in the CTA may get the click, it will lead to an abandon if you don’t set the proper expectation.
    • Conversely, something lackluster or vague will not motivate the user to do anything.

Consistency across channels is key. Because a user typically needs multiple touches before he converts, it’s imperative that you build your brand awareness. You need the consumer to remember you. Because so many of us ‘live’ online, not only is it critical that your ads stand out but also that what you are saying in an email or in a display banner complements your site experience. This doesn’t mean the message has to be exactly the same; we know that users consumer differently by channel, by device, etc. However, the look and feel must be consistent.

Don’t forget your logo! Sometimes in the pursuit of a cool, memorable concept, the creative is missing a key element – your logo! If the user clicks on your ad through to the landing page, you might be okay, but it’s likely your user is just viewing your ad. Without a logo on it, it’s unlikely anyone will remember who you are. Brand equity is key.
It’s critical to use imagery properly. While we have seen brands use whimsical or topical images (e.g. kittens) in their banners to draw in users, it’s not a tactic I’d promote. It’s paramount to use imagery that somehow applies to your messaging and to your brand. Think about your audience demographic, geography, brand voice, etc., when choosing the right images. And don’t be afraid of stock photography.

    • Yes, some can be pretty obvious and have that real ‘stock-y’ feeling (e.g. The Vince Vaughn photo shoot – by iStock by Getty Images).

We’ve had a lot of luck with imagery from Stocksy. Overall, the photos feel real – they actually look like real people, in real situations – not models posing for the camera.

    • There are also some subtle tricks that you can employ, e.g. having the model’s eyes looking in the direction of the CTA. The goal is to draw the user to the most important part of the ad – so something as simple as a look, a hand gesture, or body orientation can all help. If you don’t have a person in the ad, you can also try using lines or shapes to guide the eye towards that CTA.

I almost feel silly stating the obvious, but it’s worth repeating – ensure you stay on brand and adhere to brand guidelines. This means both in style (fonts, colors, images) and in message (tone of voice, CTA). Staying true to your brand is another way to ensure consistency across channels. You never want to sacrifice your brand for a creative concept (even if it’s really cool). Your marketing is just an extension of your site, your brand, your store, etc.
At the end of the day, your display banners are just a piece of the puzzle – one of the hopefully many complementary marketing efforts you are running across your program. Having the right creative can really help boost your brand, build brand affinity, drive repeat customers, and get the sale.

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