How to Make Bad Banner Ads Better

In Display Advertising, There Are Three Common Causes of Negative Results. Here's What You Need to Know to Get It Right

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Lindsay Leon-Atkins
Lindsay Leon-Atkins
We spend a lot of time talking about online campaigns that successfully build brands. Does display work? Yes. Do we have lots of data proving its ability to raise awareness and increase sales? Yep. Do we have plenty of case studies where display knocked it out of the park for our clients? Sure thing!

But every now and then someone asks to see a case study of poor results. Are there bad display campaigns? Fair question. Even though no client wants to make a case study of something that didn't work, the truth is that there are a lot of bad banner campaigns. And, I mean a lot.

There are two kinds of bad banners. The first simply fail to get noticed. People who are exposed to the ad are no more aware of the brand or likely to purchase the brand than those who were not exposed. This, of course, is not a particularly good return on marketing investment. But things could be worse.

The really bad ads can actually hurt brands. I went back to our data for the last three years, spanning 2,500 display campaigns, and looked specifically at the worst 20% in terms of changing consumer attitudes. Those campaigns actually decreased brand opinion and intent to purchase by an average of four out of every 100 consumers (-4.2pts). That is worse than being ignored; that is negative ROI.

What went wrong? Well, in many ways these bad campaigns are similar to that one friend we all have who just isn't funny, at all. He might have gotten a few laughs back in grade school, but not since. And it doesn't stop him from trying. His jokes aren't funny, he tells the same three over and over again, and he always picks the most inappropriate audience.

In display advertising, the most common cause of negative results is some combination of ineffective creative, annoyingly high frequency, and poor targeting. Often it is all three.

Let's start with the creative. Of course there is no magic formula for creative success, but we do know that the best banner ads are eye-catching, well-branded, and concise. They don't try to do too much, but instead do one thing very well and make a clear connection to the brand. As copy-testing for digital ads becomes more common, advertisers will get better at choosing the best ads to run prior to launching their campaigns. At the very least, they will be better able to identify the off-putting ads and cut them before they are seen.

Digital-media planners know that even with good ads, the right frequency level is important. The internet is cluttered, so it might take a few attempts to get noticed, but nobody is going to be pleased with the brand that covers up their content with an expanding ad three times in the same hour. Combine high frequency with bad creative and people can get annoyed quickly.

The right ad at the right frequency doesn't do much good if it is shown to the wrong people. Display can be extremely well targeted, but it can also badly miss the mark. Simply forget to make sure your campaign is U.S. targeted and you could waste half of your impressions on people living in countries where the product isn't even available for purchase. Show a bad ad to the wrong people too many times, and it can begin to erode a brand.

How do brands get it right consistently? Those who do tend to test, learn, re-apply and test again to find the best combination of creative and media. A complete analysis of the best and worst campaigns in our database can be viewed here. Getting it right is worth the effort: the top 20% of display campaigns increase intent to purchase by an average of +7.4pts.

Lindsay Leon-Atkins is a client consultant at Dynamic Logic.
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