unsplash ads on street image

What Are Display Ads? The Complete Guide

In this spotlight article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about display ads. Whether your goal is brand building or generating leads, it’s all here.

You’ll learn how to create engaging and eye-catching ad creative, target the right audience and wrap it together in a funnel that generates results. Before we get into that, let’s define what display ads are and how they contribute to your growth and digital marketing objectives.

What is Display Advertising?

Display advertising is a method of attracting the audience of a website, social media platform or other digital mediums to take a specific action. These are often made up of text-based, image or video advertisements that encourage the user to click-through to a landing page and take action (e.g. make a purchase).

Most display and online advertising campaigns are charged on a cost per click (CPC) basis. That is to say, every time the user on a search engine clicks on your ad, you’ll get charged an amount based on your overall bidding strategy.

They can also be used for retargeting campaigns. This is where ads are served to users who have already visited a specific website. The aim is to “retarget” them and encourage them to return to the website to take the same action (or an action at a different stage of the funnel).

With that in mind, let’s explore what makes a great display ad campaign and how to put together compelling ad creative to attract your ideal audience.

Are There Other Forms of Display Ads?

The short answer is yes! Your display campaigns can come in several shapes and sizes, which include the following:

  1. Banner Ads: One of the oldest and traditional forms of advertising, banner ads usually appear at the top of websites in a “banner” format. Here’s an example from Amazon Prime:pasted image 0 13
  2. Interstitial Ads: These ads appear as web pages that are served to users before they are directed to the original page they requested. In the example below, you can see how this appears before accessing a web page or app on a mobile device:pasted image 0 3
  3. Rich Media: These ads include interactive elements, such as video, audio and clickable elements. The example below shows an ad from DemandGen that includes an opt-in form right within the ad itself:pasted image 0 8
  4. Video Ads: The YouTube advertising platform, as well as social networks like Instagram and Facebook, have opened a whole new avenue for marketers. Video ads allow you to reach your audience and connect with them on a personal level, and are well worth investing in.

What Are The Benefits and Downsides to Display Advertising?

As is the case with all marketing activities, display campaigns can come with their own pros and cons. Before we get into some actionable and in-depth advice on how to apply display ads to your business, let’s look at their benefits and downsides.

First, the pros:

  1. Diversity: Display ads come in many shapes and sizes. And as you’ve seen above, they can be presented in a number of formats, too. This means you can choose a style and advertising format that will help you achieve your goals.
  2. Reach: Thanks for the Google Display Network (GDN), you can access millions of sites straight from your Google Ads account.
  3. Targeting: Because of GDN’s extensive reach, you can also target the right audience by placing your ads on the right websites. This includes demographic and geo-targeting, along with specific interests of your target audience.
  4. Measurable: Clicks, impressions and conversions can all be tracked from Google Ads, as well as Google Analytics for more granular performance and engagement tracking.

This all sounds great, but what about the cons? There are some downsides to display ads, including:

  1. Banner Blindness: Because of the prolific nature of display ads, many users have come to ignore them completely. This means a lower click-through rate. However, this can be circumvented using remarketing and rich media ads. You’ll learn all about remarketing later in this guide.
  2. Ad Blockers: Along with this, ad blocker technology has risen in popularity over the last few years. Many brands and media outlets have tried to circumvent this, however, by giving users the option of allowing ads or purchasing a subscription:pasted image 0 15

Despite these small downsides, display advertising still works – especially when you do it right.

Here, we’ll run through several techniques and tips to ensure you get the most out of your ad efforts while generating a positive (and lucrative) ROI.

1. Display Ad Strategy & the Sales Funnel

Like all digital marketing strategies, display advertising starts with goal setting. Display ads are no different, but this time the benefits are slightly different.

According to Display Benchmarks Tool, the average CTR of display ads across all formats and placements is 0.06%. However, Retargeter set up a retargeting campaign that generated an ROI of 486%.

Therefore, your strategy will ultimately depend on your goals. Some possible display ad goals include:

  • Building brand and top-of-mind awareness
  • Generating leads by offering a lead magnet
  • Attracting abandoned users/customers through retargeting
  • Nurturing leads through the buying process

According to Techwyse, display ads are most effective when serving three specific purposes:

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In other words, display ads should be used to build or maintain brand awareness, and foster loyalty.

Remember, the average CTR for display ads is 0.06%. As with all marketing channels, it’s worth testing – especially if you’re building out a robust search engine marketing strategy. But it’s important to look at the data.

Another thing to consider is how your display ads will work in tandem with your SEM funnel and PPC campaigns. For example, you might find that targeting users who don’t take action after visiting a PPC landing page can increase the overall ROI of that campaign.

Your goals are the first part of a well-documented strategy. Ensure you’re defining why you’re running ads, what you hope to achieve, and the metrics you’re measuring (which you’ll learn more about later).

2. Get Your Display Network Targeting Right

This is the part that can make or break your campaign. Without the right targeting, you risk serving your ads to people who simply don’t care about what you have to offer.

The number of targeting options available can be daunting. While the process works in a similar manner to the search network, display targeting goes far beyond keywords.

Let’s explore the different targeting options across the display network and how each of them work:

  1. Keyword Targeting: Google will serve your ads alongside content on websites that contain any target keywords you define.
  2. Demographic Targeting: Allows you to target an audience based on a website or audience’s basic demographic profile.
  3. Placement Targeting: This allows you to choose which website(s) your display ads appear on. For example, if you’re targeting a fashion audience, you can have your ads display on specific websites such as Vogue, Elle and Grazia.
  4. Topic Targeting: Allows users to target a group of websites that fit within a certain topic.
  5. Interest Targeting: Google has access to several data-points on its users, which allows you to serve display ads based on what users are entering into the search engine. These are then segmented into two further categories:
  1. In-Market: These are relevant to products and services, and are usually aimed at those expressing an interest in purchasing.
  2. Affinity: Analyzes overall topics and interests to build the identity of a specific user.
  • Audience Targeting: Allows you to target users who have already visited your website (remarketing).

There may be times when you don’t want your ads to appear on certain websites or websites that address certain topics. These are known as display targeting exclusions, which allow you to exclude your display ads from certain keywords, topics, placements and demographics. These act in a similar manner to negative keywords, in that you are defining which content not to target.

Then there are site category exclusions. Typically, these are used to ensure your ads do not appear on websites containing themes such as mature content, gambling, error pages etc.

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Ultimately, you must get your targeting right if you want to see any results from your display ad efforts. By serving ads on irrelevant websites, you’re going to experience a low CTR and wasted budget.

3. Creating Awesome Ad Creative

With your targeting set, it’s time to attract your perfect audience and get them to click – which is where creating effective and compelling ad creative comes in. Here are four tips to follow when planning and designing your creative display ad assets. No matter your design skills, they’ll help guide you when setting out to attract (or retarget) traffic.

Ad Creative Tip #1: Use the Right Language

Much like SEM, display advertising allows you to target specific customer segments. This means you should speak to each of those groups independently, not as if they were one and the same.

For example, someone running an online shoe store may think that the majority of their customers buy for style. But upon closer inspection (and talking to your customers on an individual basis), it turns out many of them buy for comfort.

Therefore, this store can identify the demographic and psychographic profile of these buyers to serve ads especially for them.

In the example below, Hilton is addressing those looking for a weekend deal, focusing on price point (and thus convenience) over luxury:

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Ensure you’re matching the language to the audience you’re looking to attract. Avoid buzzwords and be clear.

Ad Creative Tip #2: Use Catchy Copy

While display ads are inherently visual formats, it’s still important to get the ad copy right. Here are a few things to keep in mind when crafting your copy:

  • Establish urgency: Use words such as “now” and “need” in order to compel people to act (click) quickly.
  • Make them curious: Ask questions and elicit an air of mystery by using phrases such as “beware,” “announcing” and “before it’s too late.”
  • Use numbers and symbols: Numbers are easy to understand, which is key when grabbing attention. Use stats and include numbers when providing social proof to encourage people to click.
  • Be bold: As important as the words you use is how you present them. Use bold lettering and typography that stands out. But make sure it’s clear to read.

In the example below, Hornitos incite curiosity using copy wrapped in sharp, on-brand typography:

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Ad Creative Tip #3: Clutter-Free Imagery

The imagery you use should be simple, clutter-free and on-brand. If you’re using photos, make sure it encapsulates what your brand is about.

Illustrations can be great visual devices to get your message across. Here, Dropbox uses a simple and light illustration that successfully grabs attention:

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Ad Creative Tip #4: Compelling Call-to-Action

Just like your landing pages, PPC ads and any marketing assets: you need a call-to-action. This can be used in the copy, or you can do what Dropbox did above and recreate a button-like shape to grab attention. The reason this works is that, as internet users, we’ve been conditioned to recognize this shape as a button. Therefore, we’re trained to click on it once we see it.

You should also use benefit- or action-driven copy inside your call-to-action. In the example below, Facebook uses a simple “Get Started” button that perfectly describes what the user must do next:

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4. Effective Landing Pages

You’ve got an attractive and eye-catching display ad that compels the user to take action. Great! Now it’s time to convert that traffic into customers and leads.

Landing pages are the lifeblood of any marketing campaign, especially PPC ads. And display ads are no different. First, let’s cover some landing page best practices:

  1. Your landing page should have one purpose (and one message)
  2. Illustrate how your product, service or offer is used in context
  3. Include social proof in the form of testimonials or company logos
  4. Keep it short but sweet, include only necessary information
  5. Remove the navigation bar to avoid the user clicking away
  6. Make your call-to-action visible above the fold
  7. Test how video affects conversion rates
  8. When using lead forms, ask for only the necessary information

You’ve likely heard many of these best practices before. But when it comes to display ads, there are a few other things to take into account.

First of all, the message of the ad must match the copy on your landing page. This should include headlines and calls-to-action. In the example below, Choice Hotels offer 20% off booking through their website:

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And here’s the landing page that Powered By Search created for them:

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As you can see, the journey from the ad is continued on the landing page. The copy and visual cues (e.g. call-to-action color) are all congruent. The same goes for the design of your landing page. For example, this ad from KlientBoost offers a case study of how they helped Autopilot increase conversions:

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And here’s the landing page it leads to:

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As you can see, the overall design – from the color scheme to illustration assets – match the ad perfectly. There’s no guessing what you need to do next, you were already primed for that action when you clicked on the ad.

That’s why matching ad to the landing page is important. A disjointed experience confuses your audience, which hurts conversions as a result. Remember the example from Choice Hotels above? This is how it looked before Powered By Search worked their magic on it:

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The 20% discount offer is nowhere to be found. Will you get it when you select a hotel or do you need to type in a code? It’s unclear. Make the journey from your ad to landing page a succinct one.

5. Measuring Your Display Ads

So, you’ve set up your display ad campaigns. You’re starting to see results and collect data. It’s time to measure those results with the right metrics.

Here are four key metrics you should measure at all stages of the display ad funnel. These will allow you to improve your targeting, optimize ad creative and increase your conversions.

1. Impressions

Whenever an ad appears on a website, that counts as an impression. An impression, therefore, is the amount of times an ad has been “served” to a user on a website or placement.

This metric helps quantify the number of times your ad appears on any given website, and allows you to measure performance against click-through rate (CTR), which we’ll cover next.

If your total number of impressions grows, it means your ads are reaching a wider audience. However, if the other metrics don’t grow with it, this means there’s a leak somewhere in your funnel. That could be a targeting issue, uncompelling ad messaging, or even a poorly converting landing page.

The biggest advantage to a high number of impressions is brand awareness. The more people who see your ad, the more your brand is reinforced. But don’t neglect other engagement metrics.

2. Reach

Where impressions measures the number of times an ad is served, reach shows you how many people actually saw it. In other words, the unique number of views on your display ad.

By monitoring and optimizing reach, you ensure you’re not wasting money by showing ads to the same people. While it can help with top-of-mind awareness, you also risk showing the wrong people your ads more than once. So make sure you have your targeting optimized to avoid ad fatigue.

3. Click-through Rate

Simply put, click-through rate is the number of people who click on your ad. It’s calculated by the ratio of impressions to clicks. For example, if your ad receives 1,000 impressions and you generate 18 clicks, that’s a click-through rate of 1.8%.

This metric helps you measure the effectiveness of your ads. But you should also take into consideration the intent behind why someone clicked. At the end of the day, it’s all about conversions.

If your click-through rate seems low, then you may want to test new ad creative. Experiment with different colours and ad copy to grab attention and A/B test to see if that new version increases clicks.

4. Conversion Rate

Often considered the true-north of display advertising, conversion rate is the number of people who click-through to your landing page and then take a desired action (opt-in, download app, make a purchase etc.)

A low conversion rate could mean one of two things:

  1. You’re generating low-quality traffic
  2. Your landing page isn’t optimized

If it’s the former, then go back to your targeting settings and get more granular. Run an audit to see which websites, demographics and audiences are taking action and which websites and placements are performing poorly.

If you believe your targeting is right, run A/B tests on your landing pages. See what a change in the headline, call-to-action and even the entire offer have on your conversion rates.

6. Re-Capture Lost Business Opportunities with Remarketing

Remarketing (or retargeting) is a method of serving ads to users who have already visited your website. This (fairly) recent technology is huge, as it allows you to serve relevant ads to users based on the content they viewed on your website.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say you run an e-commerce site, and a user browsed several products under a single category. With this data, you know that they’re somewhat interested in one (or all) of these products.

With remarketing, you can serve ads specific to these interests across the Google Display Network. How does it work? Thanks to the power of javascript and cookies.

Let’s run through a quick beginners guide to remarketing with Google Ads. While your remarketing ads will be run from the Google Ads platform, you’ll need to create your audiences in Google Analytics. To do this, head to your Admin area and, under “Property,” select Audience Definitions > Audiences:

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In the next section, make sure you enable remarketing and select the relevant Google Analytics view under “Audience destinations.” Once done, you’ll be able to create new audiences:

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Click the “+New Audience” button. Here, you can create audiences based on attributes such as the pages they visited:

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Once you’ve created the audience, you’ll be able to access it and serve ads to these users in Google Ads:

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Here are three practical tips to bear in mind when running remarketing campaigns:

  1. Start with your highest performing pages and products: Depending on the number of pages or products you have, remarketing may quickly become overwhelming. Therefore, start with your highest performing pages and best-selling products.
  2. Serve existing customers: Your existing customers are easier to convert than new prospects. They already have established trust with your brand, so use remarketing as an opportunity to cross-sell and upsell your products and services to them.
  3. Experiment with new elements: Don’t run ads just to set-and-forget them. Experiment with new copy, imagery and calls-to-action to improve results. Test only one element at a time to make sure you know what’s affecting a change in results.

The key to remarketing is getting the most out of the audience and assets you already have access to. Look at your analytics and identify your top performing products and pages. Serve your users with that content in order to generate more conversions.

Wrapping It Up

While many marketers believe display ads are dead, they can still be an effective method to reaching your goals. Indeed, when coupled with other marketing initiatives, it can even boost the performance of those activities.

Like all paid marketing efforts, it’s about getting the targeting right. Without the right traffic and audience, even the most compelling ad creative and landing pages will fall flat.

Image Credits:

Feature image: Unsplash / Anthony Tuil

All screenshots by the author, July 2019

Image 1: via Bannersnack

Image 2: via Instapage

Image 3: via MobileAds

Image 4: via Vice

Image 4: via Techwyse

Image 5: via Google

Image 6: via Hilton

Image 7: via BannerSnack blog

Image 8: via Dropbox for Business

Image 9: via Facebook Audience Network

Image 10-11, 11: via Powered by Search

Image 12-13: via KlientBoost

Image 14-15: via Google Analytics

Image 16: via Search Engine Journal

Tom Whatley

Tom Whatley

Tom Whatley is the founder of Grizzle, a content marketing agency that helps B2B, SaaS and tech companies generate more traffic and leads through high-value content and distribution.

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