8 Ways to Make Banners More Powerful and Effective

At least a few times each year, there’s an article in the ad trades sounding the death knell (again) for the display banner, the Rodney Dangerfield of the digital marketing world.

And some of the evidence is pretty damning:

  • According to a recent comScore report, 31 percent of banners served are not even viewable.
  • Of those banners that are in view, a Nielsen eye-tracking study shows that 92 percent are simply not noticed.
  • A recent study by OnScroll in the U.K. estimates that a whopping $11.7 billion was wasted on display ads in 2012 alone.

But to paraphrase Mark Twain, “Reports of the ad banner’s death have been greatly exaggerated.” I think it’s worth noting that many folks who take up this call often follow it with, “But I have something new to sell you.”

If managed properly, digital display can be a powerful and competitive medium that can drive awareness, site traffic, and conversions. Here are eight effective ways to make sure that your media dollars aren’t wasted when buying banners:

  1. Buy a cookie, not a network. Let’s start with the obvious: RTB. Real-time bidding is the technology that probably saved the efficacy of the banner. Bidding for customer cookies is vastly more efficient than buying across a site or even a network of sites. And the proof is in the pudding – witness the flood of ad dollars pouring into RTB: eMarketer forecasts 73 percent growth in spending this year and double-digit growth in spending through 2017.
  2. Buy by action, not by thousand. If it is true that 92 percent of banners are simply not noticed, then that’s a pretty damning statistic if you’re buying CPM (cost per thousand). But who does that? So if you’re buying at CPC (cost per click), then you may actually be getting good exposure because your ad is receiving millions of impressions even if only a small percent are clicked. Everyone agrees that paid search is great, but usually there’s not enough of it to buy. We consistently see SEM (search engine marketing) spike when a banner buy is in market. Clearly banners have a demonstrable effect on awareness even if they don’t generate an immediate click. This could be why Google is trying to sell new ad units, because they ultimately create larger inventories for SEM. The move to make is to pay for CPA (cost per action). If marketers are able to make that shift to buying the action rather than the click, it pushes aside much of the negative evidence of banner decline. You literally get what you pay for – qualified actions on your site.
  3. Always be optimizing. You can’t expect poor little banners to do all the heavy lifting. Coordinating the messages from banner to landing page is mandatory. Your call-to-action on the banner must lead people to a similar spot on your landing page. But testing each step and building multivariate pages to test the effectiveness of the site purchase funnel means that the money you spend in media is most effectively used. You don’t want to shoot a fire hose against a brick wall. The best money spent on media is spent on constant optimization and analytics tracking of the site conversion pages. Test the page versions and tune the site so you keep as many people as possible.
  4. Display the right message to the right customer. What purpose is the display advertising serving within the greater campaign? When are you reaching folks on their journey? Understanding how display fits into the larger campaign and making sure that there’s seamlessness between channels is key to maximizing your campaign dollars. There are many technologies designed to put a specific message in front of a customer, but not in a creepy way. Use all the detail you can extract to be more precise about the customer value proposition and the call-to-action to make it easier for people to engage with your brand.
  5. Put time on your side. Real-time bidding isn’t magic, it’s math. A so-called “pixel” is “dropped” on key conversion pages of a site and that information is conveyed to an algorithm (actually probably many different algorithms that work to better understand your audience and how to find more people like the ones who visited your site). It always takes some time for the algorithm to learn enough about the audience and become efficient at finding the right cookies to bid on. So instead of waiting for the campaign to begin, drop the pixel well in advance of the media buy and have it sit there gathering data about all the folks who pass through. In this way you’re already tuned up by the time the media runs.
  6. Don’t leave it to the algorithm to manage your money. If you’re buying RTB from a trading desk, they’re not just using math to bid on your cookies, they’re actually buying from a host of different vendors who are competing for the best results. This is good. Ask to see a list of those companies. You don’t need to micromanage the trading desk, but you may be able to tap into some overlooked intelligence. RTB vendors have lots and lots of data and they often have unique segmentation that can provide you with an interesting snapshot of your actual audience. See if you can get some of this info for free if you focus more dollars on the vendor. You may glean some insights that affect the larger campaign, online and off-.
  7. Track apples-to-apples with CPA. It’s often difficult to understand the CPA across different channels but it’s worth trying. Try to understand the different costs between, let’s say, direct mail and display, even though the information may be a guesstimate. Banners may look expensive next to email or search, but they may look cheap compared to direct mail. If there are anomalies and certain channels are outperforming, then by all means, shift the dollars to what’s working. And having all the analytics together certainly makes next year’s planning a lot easier.
  8. Make display an experiment. Banners should be used like a science experiment. They can be quickly created, and, by building several versions that test various elements, you can use the banner to learn if certain messages attract attention or attract certain types of audiences. While the information can make the banner buy more efficient, it can also be looked at as user testing that may inform the broader campaign. Here’s another concept on testing: make an agreement to set a certain portion of the campaign aside to experiment, whether it’s 1 percent or 5 percent. Know that you will actively have some dollars to try new things in online display or mobile or social. These learnings can give you an edge or associate your brand with something new.

Image on home page via Shutterstock.

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A QR code which leads to the URL for the ClickZ article about QR codes. Meta.