Why Most Digital Ads Still Fail to Work

Creative Efforts Often Don't Suit Digital, Neglect Research

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SPhilip W. Sawyer
Philip W. Sawyer

In 2005, CNET undertook a series of landmark online-advertising-effectiveness studies with Starch Communications to identify the best approaches to online advertising. CNET made the research public, offering presentations throughout the country and on its website.

How effective is digital advertising today? As lead analyst for those studies, I'll be blunt: Many digital advertisers make the same mistakes that the least effective advertisers made five years ago. The medium isn't to blame. The problems are due to creative efforts that do not suit the medium and the refusal to employ research tools that can identify creative problems and how to fix them.

Here are seven mistakes that, research tells us, afflict so many digital ads today.

1. They are too complex.
To digital advertisers: Most people aren't as interested in your products and services as you are; avoid the details. To interest them, attract their eye with uncluttered visual displays and concise, to-the-point headlines and body copy. In short: Keep it simple.

2. They take too long to get to the point.
Yes, the viewer is watching a screen. But they're not at the movies -- they're not waiting for the credits to roll and the good stuff to start. Effective internet advertisers register their brands, post their messages quickly and avoid the long build-up with teaser words and images, which irritate and, worse, alienate the audience.

3. They are ambiguous.
Americans don't go to advertising to raise questions. They want answers. When internet ads generate thoughts that begin, "I wonder what..." or "Why are they..." or "What the hell...," they've missed their opportunity. Some digital advertisers believe that ambiguity arouses curiosity and product interest, but the research indicates that advertising effectiveness and uncertainty are usually mutually exclusive.

4. They are visually bland -- or, worse, ugly.
The research demonstrates that the eye is drawn to sharp, clear, colorful pictures; yet many digital advertisers offer muted, abstract photography or a visual cacophony of verbiage and images. With photographs, present one clear focal-point to entice the eye; employ strong, primary colors; and, if possible, heighten contrast by using black for the background.

5. They use Flash for the sake of Flash -- not for a clear purpose.
Static ads often perform better than flash ads. Why? The online world is divided into two kinds of advertisers: the quick and the dead. Effective static ads don't have the luxury to distract the visitor with Flash; rather, they're forced to rely on simple images to attract the eye and on simply-stated messages for the mind, exactly what most online travelers are looking for.

6. They are often difficult, if not impossible, to read.
Some digital advertisers unwisely borrow from some of the most egregious print ads, which were created by people who are not aware that uniformity of font size and style, not VaRIabIlitY, is the key to legibility. The most effective digital ads use one font style, in one size, well spaced and in lower case. (All-caps copy demands too much effort.)

7. They are bereft of benefit statements.
The vast majority of advertisers in all media are more comfortable listing features not benefits. The importance of this point cannot be overstated: There is one primary question that drives purchase interest in any product in any medium, and it is, "What's in it for me?" Clearly and concisely answer that question, and you'll win their hearts and minds.

One last point: The internet traveler usually has a clear purpose: to read e-mail, to get medical information, to book a flight to Bermuda ... Time moves quickly for people on a mission. Distract them without a quick payoff, and you're likely to irritate them -- rarely a goal of any advertising campaign.

Digital advertising isn't working very well, but don't blame the medium. The fault lies in the creative. Exploit the research possibilities available to you -- especially web analytics -- and you can create powerful advertising that can turn your business around.

Philip W. Sawyer is an advertising effectiveness consultant for Conversion Associates, a digital analytics company located in Allston, Mass. The company's goal is to lead in the innovation, development and production of software applications to make digital analytics easier and have more of an impact on business decision-making.
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