Everything Matters in Display Ad Campaigns

Frequently you see articles that tout a single tactic for making display ad campaigns successful, with the fervor you might expect from an 1800s ad for Dr. Green’s Nerve Tonic: “Unequalled as a medicine! Unparalleled as a blood purifier! Unrivaled as a nerve tonic!”

Except in our world of display advertising, it’s: Make your campaigns successful with great creative! Use video! Behavioral targeting has proven lift! No, scratch that, contextual targeting drives proven lift! Don’t forget geo! Retargeting is the best tactic!

The truth is that everything matters. And it matters to varying degrees depending on the campaign. This can be great news or bad news depending on how you look at it. If you’re a vendor selling only one of these types of solutions, chances are that selfishness and the confirmation bias will cloud your thinking and limit your ability to understand the true “laws of physics” of online marketing. This in turn limits your ability to deliver great results to your customers.

However, it’s great news if you’re an advertiser, media buyer, or vendor who takes a “marketing scientist” approach to display advertising, understanding that each campaign is an opportunity to both leverage patterns and rules learned from previous campaigns, and also to learn new exceptions to some of those rules and patterns.

    The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

    — Shakespeare

Generally, the degree to which multiple factors influence the success of a display advertising campaign is under-appreciated. Just looking at campaigns run on my firm’s network, we’ve seen all of the following factors account for more than a 3x difference in campaign performance when comparing the best value of the factor versus the worst: geography, time of day, creative, site, music tastes, shopping behavior, and many more.

For example, one campaign for a national advertiser generated a 7x better conversion rate in the southeast U.S. versus New England. A social network gets a 16x higher conversion rate in certain hours. A major Web destination gets a 6.5x higher response rate from their best creative versus their worst. A hotel campaign saw 15x better response rate using behavioral targeting versus geo targeting. The same campaign saw an extra 1.9x boost using retargeting — which the client didn’t want to do exclusively, because the goal was also to drive new users to the client’s Web site and brand.

Interestingly, what works is often quite different from what the client or agency thought would work. There are always surprises — from a static GIF creative outperforming an expensive Flash ad, to a fashion brand discovering its online store campaigns actually perform better in cities that lack a physical store. Overall, it hasn’t quite registered with a lot of display advertising professionals that you can test all of these things incredibly efficiently online, and you can adapt very easily. Therefore, it’s rarely a win to do a lot of planning based on guesswork and intuition.

For Successful Display Campaigns, Obey This One Simple Rule

In many ways, all human commercial endeavors seem to settle into a lowest common denominator of hype from vendors hawking their wares, plus an underlying reality that’s a little less exciting but easy to recognize as the truth. Take weight loss ads, for example, with the before and after pictures showing the remarkable progress of an individual who took the pills being pitched: on a good day, the fine print will confess that the results came from using the product plus a sensible diet and exercise.

It’s really no different in display advertising. There are many factors that all play a part in making a campaign successful. The good news is that for a campaign that has historically suffered from inattention along some of the factors mentioned above, there’s likely a fantastic opportunity for boosting success by experimenting with different ideas or working with an ad network or other partner that can observe these kinds of patterns and put them to work in your campaigns.

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