Why Your Visual Advertising is Failing: Display Advertising 101



Why Your Visual Advertising is Failing: Display Advertising 101

Display advertising 101: does display advertising work? If you’re going by the number of clicks, the answer is a deafening no. In fact, the average click-through rate for display ads across all formats and placements is downright abysmal, just 0.06 percent, reports HubSpot.

A January 2014 study found that Millennials (18- to 34-year-olds) were far more likely to tune out display ads on social media sites and search engines than they were to ignore traditional TV, radio and print ads, according to eMarketer.



Worse, half of all clicks on mobile ads are accidental, reports GoldSpot Media. At the same time, display ad spend is expected to surpass search ad spend in 2016. So, what gives?

In today’s digital age, the Internet is awash with a sea of visual advertisements, vying for a moment of our fleeting attention. Many unfortunately don’t hit the mark.

Think back to the early days, around 2005, where garish and flashy banner ads were rampant, almost violently demanding our attention with their audacious “Buy Me Now” slogans in jarring colors.

We’d like to believe we’ve grown past that stage. However, even today, amidst a plethora of sophisticated designs, some visual ads still miss their mark.


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The real champions in this domain are the ads that masterfully combine aesthetics and functionality. These paragons of advertising skillfully blend a minimalistic yet professional design, with an impactful message, backed by sharp analytics.

This potent mix allows them to not only capture attention but also engage meaningfully, tailoring their approach based on the distinct objectives of a business and the preferences of its target audience.

Could it be we’re actually over thinking display ads? The ABC’s of the perfect visual ad are not rocket science. Here’s how to get back to basics and fix your visual advertising problems. display advertising

Display Advertising 101

Here are the strategies that we will highlight:



  • Keep It Simple: Use brand elements to build trust and drive clicks.
  • Create a Sense of Urgency: Make your ads compelling without sounding spammy.
  • Focus on One Offer: Test for the most effective message using A/B testing.
  • Design Specifically for Retargeting: Understand user needs and design ads that cater to them.
  • Utilize Interactive and Engaging Formats: Implement ads that invite user interaction, like interactive banners or rich media, to increase engagement and time spent with your brand.
  • Incorporate Storytelling: Use narrative techniques in your ads to create memorable stories that resonate emotionally with your audience, leading to better brand recall.
  • Prioritize Ad Placement and Context: Place your ads in contexts relevant to your product and audience for increased relevance and engagement.
  • Test and Optimize Ad Elements Regularly: Continuously experiment with and refine various elements of your ads, like headlines and CTAs, through A/B testing to improve performance.

1. Keep It Simple

Bannersnack’s collection of the best examples of display advertising all feature simple designs that harness the power of brand elements (like logo and colors) to build trust with viewers and drive clicks.

Great ads speak to users. The harness the power of empathy to understand the target audience, what makes them tick, and what elements they respond to.

The Apple Music ads are the perfect example of simple design that harnesses brand recognition and trust with a clear call-to-action message.

Apple has already created plenty of buzz around Apple Music. There’s no need to explain how the service works. Here, a simple “Available Now” CTA works best to drive conversions.



2. Create a Sense of Urgency

Today’s savvy Millennials are used to display ad retargeting with multiple offers. To drive click-throughs, you need to create a sense of urgency with your ads without sounding like spam.

Adobe’s display ads for Creative Suite are the perfect examples. The ads use compelling visuals to draw on what Adobe is already best known for – amazing photographs via Photoshop – and then add simple CTAs with limited time offers.

The blue “Join Now” or “Get Started” buttons visually contrast with the darker backgrounds, subtly drawing attention to the CTA without being in your face about it.

display advertising 101



3. Focus on One Offer at a Time, A/B Test for the Most Effective Message

Businesses like Amazon and eBay offer a host of services and products. But their ads are completely streamlined. They never cram too much information into one display ad.

But just because you’re making one offer at a time doesn’t mean that you can’t have multiple ad iterations.

Check out what Amazon Prime did with the company’s Prime Video display ads. While the text is the same in each of these four ads, they vary design elements (background color, CTA button color) for A/B testing.

Changing too many elements between ads can make it difficult to determine which element truly is responsible for the boost (or fall) in clicks.



By focusing on one offer at a time and only varying background color and button color, Amazon is better able to determine which subtle design difference have the biggest impact on click through rates.

4. Design Ads Specifically for Retargeting

Users who are retargeted are 70 percent more likely to convert, reports Digital Information World. To maximize the effectiveness of your retargeting ads, align design with strategy: what does the user need to convert?

For Asana, this meant building greater awareness around the app’s benefits, reports Bannersnack. For Marin Software, their goal is a bit different: rather than promoting benefits, they promote reports with information that’s relevant and timely for their audience. For Moz, the strategy is even simpler: try Moz Pro for free.

All three of these strategies have been effective because the companies understood what prospective users needed to see to convert. Don’t assume what works for Company A will also work for your business. Learn what moves the needle for your users and align your ad messages accordingly.



Let’s summarize the retargeting strategies of these companies for a clearer comparison:

CompanyRetargeting StrategyPrimary Goal
AsanaBuilding greater awareness around the app’s benefitsHighlight benefits
Marin SoftwarePromoting reports with relevant and timely informationDeliver timely information
MozOffering Moz Pro for freeDrive trial sign-ups

More Great Display Advertising 101 Ideas

5. Utilize Interactive and Engaging Formats

Embrace newer ad formats like interactive banners or rich media ads that invite user interaction. These can range from simple hover effects to mini-games or quizzes embedded within the ad. Interactive ads have the potential to significantly increase engagement and time spent with the ad, leading to higher brand recall and conversion rates.

6. Incorporate Storytelling

Craft a narrative within your visual ads. Storytelling can captivate an audience, making your ad memorable. This could be a mini-story showcasing your product in action or a sequential ad campaign that tells a story over a series of ads. Stories can evoke emotional responses, which are a strong driver for consumer action.

7. Prioritize Ad Placement and Context

The placement of your ad matters as much as its design. Display ads should appear in contexts that make sense for your brand and resonate with your target audience. For example, placing a sports equipment ad on a fitness or sports news website. Contextual alignment enhances the relevance of the ad to the viewer and increases the likelihood of engagement.



8. Test and Optimize Ad Elements Regularly

Regularly test different elements of your ads, such as headlines, images, call-to-action buttons, and color schemes. Use A/B testing to identify which variations perform the best. Continuously optimizing these elements based on performance data can lead to incremental improvements in your ad’s effectiveness.

display advertising

Display Advertising 101: Key Takeaways

The true measure of an ad’s success lies in its ability to resonate with its viewers. For display ads, the balance between an appealing design and a strategic brand message is crucial.

It’s essential to delve deep and understand the motivations that prompt users to interact with an ad. Is it an immediate sense of urgency nudging them to avail a limited-time offer?



Or perhaps it’s a genuine curiosity, an eagerness to discover more about an innovative product or a novel service?

Sometimes, the secret to crafting a successful ad campaign doesn’t lie in complexity but in revisiting the basics.

By understanding the fundamental triggers that engage users and aligning these insights with a brand’s core strategy and goals, marketers can truly optimize and amplify the influence of their display ads in the vast digital landscape.



Displeased Photo via Shutterstock


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Brian Hughes Brian is a seasoned digital marketing expert who loves to write about subjects that help small businesses grow their brands and increase their rankings online. He accomplishes this through his agency Integrity Marketing & Consulting, which he founded in 2011.

3 Reactions
  1. My advice: don’t let the image distract from the CTA (unless it’s a branding campaign, then it shouldn’t distract from the branding). The point is to get people to click, not think “That’s a cool picture.”

  2. It also helps to study the aesthetic of the recent ads that are working. This way, you’ll know how to position your ad.

  3. Thanks for mentioning my blog post on Bannersnack. I also believe that when you create a visual ad you need to keep focus on simplicity but also never forget for who you design the ad – your audience.
    Great job with the article Brian:)

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