Surprise! Badly Written Banner Ads Yield Bad Results

Banner bashing: It’s hip; it’s now; it’s the rallying cry of pundits, ad-agency clients, and traditional copywriters who have always had their suspicions about the efficacy of Web advertising and now believe they have the facts to back up their bluster.

“Banners don’t work!” yelp the bashers. “They’re a waste of money, and they don’t generate results! Internet advertising — bad! Internet dissing — fun!”

But despite all the we-told-you-so histrionics, one has to question whether the issue isn’t banner ads as a flawed configuration but, rather, banner ads with flawed messaging.

Back when banners began dancing across Web pages in the mid-1990s, it was common for click-through rates to be in the double digits, regardless of the banner’s message. As the novelty of banners lessened and their presence exploded, click-through rates tumbled. It should have been apparent that the creation of clickworthy banners required more ingenuity than simply tossing a wiggling logo and a “Click here!” button into a 486 x 60 frame.

Recently approved IAB(Interactive Advertising Bureau) formats for bigger, louder, and more eye-catching ads are a partial solution to the challenge of low user response. But once the novelty of their production gimmicks has worn off, these new formats won’t invite sustainable clicks unless their inherent messages are skillfully composed. It’s an e-advertising example of the “Waterworld” phenomenon: mega production + middling story = micro box office (or, in the case of banners, miniscule click-throughs).

So how can a Web copywriter improve the messaging of his banners to make them more consistently clickable? Here are some simple yet effective suggestions:

Lead with a question.Want to write better banners? Looking to ramp up your click-through rate? See how engaging this technique can be in getting users’ attention?

Create a lyrical rhythm.Well-written banners follow a catchy word flow from frame to frame. The number of syllables chosen to convey the message is deliberate, like haiku. The pacing of the words is energetic, like a roadside Burma-Shave ad. And the idea builds to a payoff, like a well-told joke. (Frame 1 is the setup, frame 2 the fill-in, and frame 3 the punch line.)

Keep it single and simple.The more ideas you force your banner to communicate, the more muddled it will be. Choose one easily digestible point, and drive it home with as few words as possible.

Show, don’t tell.If an image can get your idea across instead of words, use it. Your message will be communicated quickly, easily, and memorably.

Write visually.Banners offer infinite choices of entertaining visual techniques that can enhance and sell your message (e.g., words and images shrinking, dissolving, stretching, morphing, zooming in, crawling, etc.). Keep these tricks in mind as you compose your text, and include them as suggestions for your design partner.

Offer an offer.When it comes to calls to action, offers rule. Free downloads, free demos, free white papers, free info kits, free shipping — pretty much anything free (or other incentives, such as percentage- or dollar-off savings) will get the user clicking faster and more consistently than an uninspiring and ambiguous “Click here!” button.

Justify the click.If your banner isn’t offer-driven, continue its message by making the call to action specific to what the user would receive if the banner were clicked (e.g., “Click for more info!” or “Click to see it in action!” or “Click to get started!”)

Brand with benefits.Creating a banner with vague messaging and cool vibes may seem like a novel way to build brand awareness, but it won’t generate many clicks. Instead, enumerate the many benefits (e.g., saving money, improving productivity, losing weight, etc.) that the brand promises.

Nix the tricks.Banners using cute come-ons (“Catch the monkey and win $20!”) to boost site traffic are fun to write, but they can only work once. You also run the risk of alienating scads of users who will never visit your client’s site again.

Test as the user.Once your ideas have been completed, imagine the mindset of a user who’s viewing a page where your banner will appear. Reread each of your ideas and ask yourself: Is this banner’s message communicated credibly, simply, and irresistibly enough to compel a user to leave the site that she is in and click to my client’s site?

Considering the newness of the Internet as a messaging vehicle, it’s understandable that the craft of banner-ad writing is still a work in progress. But when they’re wittily, artfully, and precisely composed, banners can be a powerful and extremely effective component in a company’s advertising and brand-building arsenal — regardless of how boisterously the bashers may bleat to the contrary.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.