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Optimizing Display Ad Creative for CTR & Conversion

Most display advertising is still purchased on a CPM basis – you are buying a certain number of impressions. For that reason the higher percentage of clicks you get on your ad impressions the more cost effective your buying becomes. So ad creative is often the lynchpin to ROI. But it is very hard to get clicks. Display ads have to be more compelling then the content they’ve come to view.

If you are successful taking a viewer and turning them into a clicker the landing page should then message to the visitors expressed interest in the ad creative. This creates a flow. The two moments of recognition (the ad & landing) have incredible influence over conversion. There are no better, more important or more valuable three seconds in marketing. But it all starts with the ad.

1) Getting Noticed: Display’s standardization and placement conventions are exactly what have made CTR drop through the years. Users have literally been programmed to ignore the ad. The fact that even to this day most landing pages suck and redirects provided horrible UX hasn’t helped get more people clicking. If Search has to overcome the Golden Triangle of user eye-tracking, Display has to overcome the Golden Shower.


There are basically four strategies to getting noticed. In order of my preference based on performance:

  • Blending: The idea here is to make the ads look like content. This is done not to deceive but due the fact that as mentioned people have built a scanning awareness to block out display conventions. In the early days of Search the fact that the ads looked like the results was a key factor in their performance (while that still exists today to some regard the increased relevance of the ads override that now). We’ve seen this practice work in print for years and it currently works online with flogs. This is just proof of concept. I’m not advocating spoofing but your ads stand a better chance of being noticed and your messages read if they look like content and not ads.
  • Motion: My rule (that I stole a few years ago from RIA guru Bill Scott) for all rich media including banners is to only use it if it solves a content delivery problem thus creating a better user experience. Rich media for the sake of rich media is a huge waste of budget. I have no understanding for why Flash is used so often.  Animated GIFs can sometimes be useful in getting your ad noticed but use it in a way that doesn’t detract from the messaging or the looping breaks the content into messaging that is difficult to make sense of.
  • Color: Keep in mind the majority of sites your ad will run on have white backgrounds. Again, as mentioned, using bold colors can people to ignore you as much as it can get people to notice you. But big blocks of black and red can attract attention. As in print advertising, reverse coloring (black background with white text) usually does worse in comparison to standard dark on light in most tests.
  • Images: Images can really help and really hurt so it’s important to be very careful. Our brains process images much more quickly then text, though often the meaning behind an image is not as clear to us as copy. We all have a natural tendency to look at images of faces especially when they are looking at you. Images of the actual product are often helpful. We also all know that Celebrity Endorsers can be very helpful and it doesn’t necessarily have to be illegal

2) Content Hierarchy: Scanning habits make it important to keep your content in a format and font that is easily scanned. This means have clear headlines, supporting bullet points and calls to action. I often find that “brand” creative types think these practices will not work but again but it’s clear from print that this can be massaged in a way that doesn’t have to make headline >> copy >> call to action uniquely direct response.

3) Messaging: Foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds but it is a key component in creating flow and converting clicks. For this reason it’s important that the ads mirror the landing page in messaging and look and feel. Recognition and reinforcement are very important strategies for all facets of conversion optimization for the simple reason they breed confidence. One of the interesting things I’ve witnessed over the years is the role confidence plays in conversion. This might be best exemplified again by flogs or farticles that prey upon localization, brand borrowing and newspaper style layouts to create confidence. Again, I’m not advocating that your creative been made to fool users however it’s clear that the strategies employed here can be leveraged in more elegant and proper ways to improve results.

Many people don’t understand the impact ads have on conversion. In many tests, including multivariate tests across elements of both the ads and landing pages, the ad elements have the highest factor of influence on conversion. It is after all the first impression. Make a good one.


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Why would anyone be interested in clicks?

Clicks are a direct response mechanism that have a place in SEM. Display is an indirect response medium. Case in point, per emarketer, 60% of those who don't click a banner will later perform an action as a result of the ad. Behavior modification should be your baseline, not a click. In driving CTR you are not only optimizing towards a minority, but pooling a group of LESS qualified visitors. If you don't believe me, then tell me with a straight face that Branded/Direct Traffic aren't your best converters 90% of the time.

I agree that the ad IS the crux of campaign failure or success. But the method of measurement and lack of KPI integrating can be the Achilles heel.

Dredman -

There is of course a large and growing performance based display world out there. In fact it's the largest piece of display by many reputable accounts including the IAB. So I'm not sure what to make of your comment as a whole.

Your point about cross media attribution is well taken but do you really believe 60% of people are influenced by a display ad? Bollocks! 99% of people don't even notice the ad (see eye tracking above).

Respect the click!


Scroll about halfway down for that stat source (charts):

It's actually more impressive the way they present it. Only 2% report not seeing ads altogether. Banner blindness is the biggest cop out since Bill Clinton declared that the definition of 'sex' is vague. I'm savvy to the performance push, and I sorta think it will be fadtastic. I've heard from a local competitor that entire teams are being staffed to account for performance growth. Every performance based client I've ever had eventually learns that CPA deals make agencies rich. Good marketing practices eventually supersede gimmicky billing structures. Clients that select their marketing partners for that reason alone are in for a ride.

P.S., I challenge that your eye-tracking reports weren't conducted using one-eyed subjects.

Keep up the posts on display; good stuff.

Nice discussion…”Banner blindness is the biggest cop out since Bill Clinton declared that the definition of 'sex' is vague.” Now that was hilarious. Listen, this is a great discussion because at the end of the day, the consumer (advertisers) needs to understand the benefits of both CPC vs. CPM. Yes, there’s a large growing performance based display world out there. But is that model right for every business? I don’t think it’s a one-size fits all situation. Most affiliate marketers (i.e. con artists) use display advertising for the direct response action. They want the click, and they want the opt-in. Most affiliate marketers don’t really care about branding. But on the flip side, legit businesses that are in it for the long haul and not the quick buck should use display for the indirect response medium that it is (I agree with Dredman there). As a designer and a brand enthusiast, I think branding is the most important thing at the end of the day... but not solely for the purpose of clicks, but more so for long-term brand awareness of your product/service.

Great discussion! Keep it up.


I suspect that your observations on blending and color are what drive a lot of the performance lift for multivariate creative optimization services that change the background color of the ad. But I think there is the opportunity to increase efficiency by setting up a rules system where ad background color corresponds to page background color, instead of running test impressions to determine best background color per site on a campaign by campaign basis.

Great point on content hierarchy. One common error is creating ads that only deliver a coherent message when users watch all 15 seconds of animation, despite the fact that ads are rarely visible for that long.

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