The Crawl, Walk, Run of Digital Creative

  |  March 12, 2012   |  Comments

Invest effort in creative optimization to achieve the highest performance from your campaign.

There is no doubt that the past several years have seen significant changes and advancements in online advertising. The creative ad unit, however, has fallen behind, still looking a lot like it did back in 1994 when the first banner for AT&T's "You Will" campaign appeared on HotWired (Figure 1).


                            Figure 1 - AT&T banner that appeared on HotWire in 1994

In the display media landscape, less than 5 percent of companies specialize in creative optimization, according to LUMA Partners LLC. Yet creative is often the area where the most potential for improvement exists, and where a relatively small investment can yield enormous returns.

Why is the disregard of creative optimization this pervasive? I believe that digital marketers today have become so comfortable in the safe cocoon of Excel spreadsheets that they have largely or completely left what they perceive to be the scary, intuitive creative to others. Both search and display marketers consider the creative a deliverable (a banner to traffic or a URL to link to), not an element with which they should be involved.

We as digital marketers should reconsider this orientation to creative and concern ourselves with the entire user experience. This means participating in creative conversations and seeking ad units and landing pages that push the audience through the consideration cycle. We should approach creative optimization with a test-and-learn attitude, create creative test plans for each of our campaigns, and follow through on them with the same diligence that we apply to other optimization efforts. In the end, we come back to our comfort zone: creative does become objectively measured, and we can drive better and better click-through and conversion for ourselves and our clients.

Creative in Search

The user experience for search begins with the ad copy and even the URL (which we'll call the first creative) and follows through to the search landing page (the second creative). In this case, the first creative must convince users that the landing page will speak directly to their expressed need or search terms. The search landing page has a lot of work to do (more than the display landing page in that it has two audiences - the search engine and the site visitor). It must contain appropriate keywords and support a high quality score, and must provide relevant content based on the search event while driving conversion.

When you are managing search campaigns, you should consider creating specific search landing pages for your most critical ad groups, and perhaps most of your ad groups. If you are guilty of driving a great deal of search traffic to your home page, I'd encourage you to create a test plan and find out if you can wring more conversion from your campaigns by creating specific, conversion-oriented landing pages. It should also be noted that in addition to more conversion, this effort can result in greater spend efficiency in your campaign, by improving quality score.

Creative in Display

The user experience for display begins with the display ad unit (the first creative) and follows through to the display landing page (the second creative). The role of the display creative is to set an expectation with the user and draw the click; the role of the display landing page is to expound on the value propositions and drive the conversion event.

When you are planning campaigns, there is a huge opportunity to build a plan for creative testing and optimization. Simple A/B tests for messaging, calls to action, and imagery are things that we know we should do, but they often fall to the wayside in everyday practice. Setting the expectation, internally or with the client, that there will be multiple display ad creative and landing page iterations rightly demonstrates a full view of optimization.

Where to Start

Step 1: Learn to crawl. It is important to understand that display creative must follow some basic rules; rules that have changed very little since that first banner. You can't go wrong by following the IAB's guidelines for creative development. If you don't conform to these standards, publishers may reject your ads, causing campaign delays or wasted media dollars.

Next, understand the role the first creative has with the second. Studies have shown that if individuals click an ad and do not feel that they have arrived on the site they were expecting, the conversion rate will be much lower. Even worse, many of these clickers will simply abandon your site. Make sure there is consistency in both the message and appearance.

Step 2: Begin to walk. If the size of your campaigns allows the budget, look beyond blanket messaging and understand that each placement on your media plan not only looks different but also speaks to an audience that has a unique intent from the other placements. Take the time to study your placements and develop a first creative that is appropriate for the environment.

If it is a named site buy, take the opportunity to ensure that the first creative will stand out. If it is a behavioral buy where the placements can vary, then ensure the message is offering an appropriate behavior for that audience.

Step 3: Run with it. The term "dynamic creative" is thrown around a lot but often misunderstood. The goal is to present a message that is most relevant to the individual seeing it. Dynamic creative is really multivariate testing. By combining elements of the creative together on an impression-by-impression basis, machine learning allows the best combination of the elements to be served in the ad depending on the individual viewing it. Click-through rates for dynamic creative are significantly higher (Tumri has case studies showing dynamic creative achieving 900 percent increases in click-through rates over static ads). At the same time, costs per action can be significantly decreased.

A number of companies (Tumri, PointRoll, Teracent, and others) provide the infrastructure to do this across a number of buys, and will facilitate very granular optimization using your own creative templates. These companies generally charge on a cost-per-thousand basis. Some are taking it further, coupling search retargeting data with dynamic creative to actually populate the ad unit with the exact search term that the visitor typed into Google. Chango provides such a service, and it includes dynamic creative in its fees.

The Benefits Will Be Significant

Knowing what to test and change can be hard at first, but there are some great resources to help you train your thinking, my favorite being The site shows real A/B tests and asks you to judge the performance (see Figure 3).


                                            Figure 3. Tests from


Chances are that you've poured hours and hours of optimization effort into the media side of your buy. Each bit of effort in the same area will have less and less impact. Only by investing effort in creative optimization will you achieve the highest performance from your campaign. Savvy digital marketers will include creative test planning and implementation in all search and display campaigns, as it is clear that thoughtful creative optimization can make top-line differences exceeding anything secondary optimization efforts focused on the media buy can achieve.


A. The image of the older man drove 28 percent more form submissions.
B. "Go to Payment Options" drove 87.5 percent more click-throughs.

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Sarah Lockwood

Sarah Lockwood leads creative services at Booyah Online Advertising, a full-service agency that specializes in all things digital. Sarah provides creative strategy and manages the annual creative production of thousands of innovative ad units for desktop, tablet, video, and mobile campaigns for direct response and branding initiatives. Clients include DISH Network, Blockbuster, and Vail Resorts. She joined Booyah after a decade as a principal with Creation Chamber, Inc., and Xylem CCI, where she was responsible for the digital strategy and management of large scale web design and development initiatives for clients nationwide.

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