It's Not the Size, It's How You Use It

Putting the Creativity Back Into Online Display Advertising

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Want real creativity? Rolling out a new format isn't going to cut it. I think we can all agree that the web is cluttered, and we advertisers are partly to blame. We've always said that no one goes online to look at ads, so we need to make them as engaging and respectful to the user experience as possible. It's with that in mind that ad formats like Project Devil are being introduced. It's a start, but while a bigger ad format may change the game for some, it is a small band-aid on a bigger problem. What we need is a resurgence of creative.

For those of you who are subway riders, remember the first time you saw a subway wrap? It made a big impression: Everywhere you looked on the train, a single campaign and brand image captured your undivided attention. After a while, though, it was just, "Purple pill, whatever." When's the last time you saw a wrap that actually did something that couldn't have been achieved through a single spot? Monopolizing real estate for brute-force messaging has turned out to be a pretty uncreative way to get noticed.

Now consider online ads. Amid all the hype -- and, yes, real innovation -- around data and targeting, the industry has fallen victim to complacency about creative, as if algorithms alone were enough to win hearts and minds. But what's the use of better targeting if your arrow has no point? Without good creative, all the science in the world isn't going to get us anywhere.

Redefine Creative for Digital Advertising
But what does "good creative" actually mean? How can we be respectful to the experience of users predisposed -- and conditioned by past experience -- to see ads as an annoying intrusion? Cleaning up the page is a good start. Adopting larger formats that allow for a richer experience has a lot of potential, too. But what do we actually do within that format -- and beyond that medium? How do we create advertising experiences that reflect the way consumers live online today: social, mobile, participatory, fun, cross-platform -- and smart?

Good creative reaches beyond a single platform -- or the subset of that platform where a particular format is available -- to engage with audiences wherever they are (home, mobile, out-of -home), whatever they're doing (browsing, video, social, shopping), on whatever device they're using (mobile, tablet, laptop). As the digital landscape evolves from a small number of circumscribed touchpoints to a more fluid experience across devices, locations, and activities, campaigns must shift their focus from platforms and formats to people: finding the right audience wherever it may be, and delivering creative that audiences will respond to.

Engage Consumers with Dynamic, Interactive Creative
Here's what people don't like: being yelled at. Here's what they prefer: Interactive experiences. Innovative and fun calls to action. Entertaining video and other unique content. Coupons that are relevant to their current activity or location. Fundamentally, an invitation into an ongoing brand relationship that both fits their current context and experience, and actually adds value to one or both.

Here's the kind of thing I'm talking about:

  • Use data in concert with creative; for example, use music preference data from Pandora to create a more targeted mobile ad that provides additional value to the user such as a download from a new artist based on their preferences.
  • Dynamically generate creative based on the user's current situation -- like the New Balance ad that shows runners exactly the right gear for the day's weather conditions or their location, along with interactive tips on where to run.
  • Create smart circulars that combine personalization and optimization with store information to show people offers, prices, and products tailored to their own location and preferences, and enable them to create an actionable shopping list directly from the ad.
  • Deliver more engaging pre-roll video that facilitates interaction, not just passive viewing that drives users to another activity such as texting or browsing other content for 30 seconds. With PointRoll, you can even dynamically generate in-stream video based on data variables to create more relevance.
  • Run in-banner video ads with content directly related to the content of the pages where they're being served. Ford's Drive One campaign did this -- and delivered interaction rates that exceeded benchmarks by 74%.

Another great example from Ford: the Mustang Customizer campaign, designed to re-create the culture of customization that 's always been part of the brand. Accessible through expandable ad units as well as a microsite, an app lets users customize their dream Mustang, then posts their creation to a gallery. Want to talk about engagement? More than 1.3 million Mustangs have been customized and 250,000-plus have been posted to the gallery.

Measure, Optimize, Repeat
Science still plays as big a role as art, of course, and not just for targeting. It's essential to measure engagement to make sure we're giving people what they want -- and to count the misses as well as the hits so we don't annoy even more people than we please.

As campaigns span platforms, so must our approach to marrying creativity with analytics. Ad format size isn't an end in itself—constant technological and creative innovation is key for giving us new ways to keep ad features fresh and interesting.

Make an Impression
At the end of the day, this is a time of tremendous opportunity for advertisers to not just deliver an impression but make an impression on audiences across all touch points. We've never had so many ways to understand and target audiences, so many ways to reach them, and so many ways to channel our creative energy from mobile and tablet to social to out-of -home -- and, yes, new display ad formats like Project Devil. What we do with this opportunity is up to us -- and the creativity we bring to the table.

Rob Gatto is CEO of Pointroll, a provider of tools for digital advertising owned by Gannett. Prior to Pointroll, he spent eight years at ShopLocal, building that business from just a few clients to more than 100 today. Earlier in his career, Gatto held various sales executive positions at Hyperion Solutions, the leader in financial analytics software and SPSS, the leading provider of predictive analytics and data mining software.
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