PMG Digital Made for Humans

How to Create Killer Banner Ads

9 MINUTE READ | August 10, 2017

How to Create Killer Banner Ads

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Maddie Joeris

Maddie Joeris has written this article. More details coming soon.

Display banners play an important role in brand awareness and direct response advertising, yet they often get minimal design attention and are the very last thing to be developed at the end of the creative process. Much has been written on the death of the display banner, and with the rise of ad blocking and the ever-growing number of devices and screen sizes, it can seem overwhelming. The truth is, when done right, display ads can play a key role in driving brand demand, traffic, and conversions.

Banner layout can be divided into a hierarchy of basic elements. When planning your layout, it is important to consider the way your customers will read information. Viewers naturally read from left to right, and top to bottom. Structuring your information with this in mind will help organize your information. Every layout will be unique and designed in relation to the elements you will be using. There is no universal rule for layout, but there are a few key best practices to guide you. There are four main elements to consider in a banner layout:

  1. Brand logo

  2. Headline

  3. Photo or illustration

  4. Call-to-action (CTA)

The logo is the first key element and functions best when placed at the top. Placing the logo at the top allows your brand to register immediately with the viewer. Their eye is next drawn to the center. This is where your main messaging should be. What this message will depend on your goals. Are you trying to sell a product? Use a product beauty shot. A line of products? Product assortments or lifestyle photography work great. Conceptual or general brand messaging? Try a prominent headline with powerful copy. Compelling and well-planned messaging here is key because this is where you win over your potential customer. It is important to keep your message clear and straightforward while maintaining strong aesthetics. Near the bottom should be a CTA that encourages the viewer to take the next step. CTA’s will be discussed more indepthly further down in this post.

While this is a great starting point for banner layout, it is important to remember that each ad set is unique. It is best to approach each set with fresh eyes and to account for the unique look, feel, and messaging. Alternative layout variations may work more strongly with one campaign or brand than another. However, following the above guides to layout are a great way to get started with banner ads.

Copy is one of the most important elements of a display ad and can impact engagement by two or three times. Display ads operate much like highway billboards. You have roughly 2-3 seconds to get your audience’s attention, so keep it simple. The headline should always align with the goal of the ad. If you are selling a product, the message should speak to a key product benefit or brand promise. If the goal is new brand positioning, you may need a provocative headline that speaks to the underlying brand philosophy. The headline should also connect directly to the accompanying photography and artwork. For example, a headline promoting a travel destination would be paired with a photograph of that destination.

As with headline copy writing, simplicity is best for typography. The more complex the typography, the more difficult it is to read and convey your message in the half second someone glances at the banner. Avoid extremely-thin stroke weights, small type, and very low-contrast type and background colors. Digital screens vary, and so does the pixel distortion and screen contrast. Something that looks great on your retina display won’t necessarily translate well to another screen.

While the brand design guidelines should indicate what you can or can’t use for fonts, keep in mind legibility and clarity as you make typography choices. Your message should be clear and legible at a glance. The general rule of thumb is to use sans serif for bold headlines and serif fonts for smaller subheads and body copy. Serifs help differentiate similar characters and generally make the font easier to read, especially in longer segments.

Space is precious in a display advertisement, so every pixel is critical to helping the ad achieve its goal. As with your headline, align your photography with campaign goals and understanding of your audience.If your banner ad is promoting a white paper or something similar, photography may not be needed. A clear understanding of the value of the product you are selling and your audience will help determine which will be most effective. For example, through testing, we often find that product beauty shots often tend to resonate best with men, whereas products shot on model tend to perform better for women. As you select imagery, be sure the product shot or the lifestyle image chosen for your banners clearly communicates the right message.

Product beauty shots showcase the product in its best light, with a singular focus on product beauty and features. Lifestyle images show the product in action and tell the story of how a product fits in with your customer’s lives. They may show the product itself in a story or in context. If you choose to use lifestyle imagery, choose compositions that maintain clarity, and avoid those that will make your ad feel too busy or overcrowded. The product you are selling should be very clearly displayed as the main focus of the image. Often the choice between product and lifestyle is unclear, so we create one banner set with each and run an A/B test.

These Shinola banners help to illustrate the impact of product imagery vs. lifestyle imagery

Also, keep in mind that photos must work well in every web banner size you will be using. Some images work very well on a 300×600 banner, but don’t work when cropped for a horizontal 728×90. Planning ahead will help you to avoid running into trouble later when creating smaller banner sizes.

The final element is the call to action. Whether it’s learning more, reading an article, or making a purchase, be clear and specific about what you want your audience to do: “Shop Now,” “Shop Men’s,” “Join Now.” Readers will naturally scan from top to bottom, so place your CTA near the bottom or to the right. CTAs are discussed more indepthly further down in this post.

The CTA should evoke a sense of urgency from your audience. The messaging can change depending on what you’re selling and what action you want the audience to take, whether that is to shop, buy, download, or subscribe. For example, the CTA could be more urgent such as “Buy Now,” or it can have a softer approach such as “Shop Gifts.” Determining whether to go with on harder or softer tone will depend on the voice of the brand and what stage of the purchase funnel the viewer is in. It’s also common for banners to feature products targeting by gender. CTAs that are more specific to a certain audience such as “Shop Men’s” or “Shop Women’s” create a more personalized and targeted experience, and thus typically have stronger performance.

The Beats by Dre banner (left) uses a more direct call to action of “Buy Now” where the banner (right) more passively asks the viewer to “Learn More.”

When designing the CTA, it should be clearly identifiable on the banner, and it should stand out in the hierarchy among the other elements. Making your CTA a button will make it more clickable and enticing. A text only CTA may not clearly show that the banner links to another page, nor will it draw as much attention. A button-style CTA also translates better into smaller, mobile sizes and is considered to be more tap-able. For a mobile banner’s CTA, use this Rule of Thumb: The CTA button should be approximately the size of a thumb print. This will make it easier for users to interact with your banner.

Animation can provide a simple way to differentiate your creative and stand out on a page. While animation is a longer topic than the scope of this article, our approach can be summarized in a few key best practices:

  • Keeping it short and sweet to avoid losing a viewer’s attention before you ever get to speak to them.

  • Simple animations such as build-in of elements tend to perform best.

  • Display the brand (logo) should be showcased within the first 3 seconds

  • Keeping the logo and CTA it present throughout the sequence. This allows a user who is just quickly scrolling by to still register the impact of branding.

  • Don’t assume the audience will sit through the entire sequence. It should work at any given moment.

  • Test your animations vs. static versions. Animation is a wonderful tool, but it’s not guaranteed to deliver better performance.

With careful use of animation, user engagement has the potential to see some significant increases.

To measure the performance of display banners, running tests can help decide what creative resonates the most with your audience and gives cues on what to consider for future banner sets. Testing two elements against one another can give a clear indication of what type of creative works best. For a true test, isolate the element you wish to compare, such as comparing two photographs, headlines, or CTA languages. Anything other than the element being tested should remain the same across both designs to allow for the most informative results.

Some examples of A/B tests for photography or CTA’s include:

  • Text Only vs. Image

  • Product Only Image vs. Lifestyle Image

  • Shop now vs. Shop Men’s

  • Learn More vs. Download Now

We also recommend testing different headlines to understand which one drives the most engagement and resonates. All of these A/B tests depend on what works best for your brand and what learning you wish to acquire. A/B testing is a great way to see what exactly a brand’s target audience is responding to so that it may be used in a future banner set.

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The digital landscape is constantly growing and driving better-informed advertising decisions. Although the context and ecosystem will continue to change, the basic need for brands to connect with audiences remains. As display advertising evolves, it will become increasingly important to prioritize design and copy for new devices, formats, and placements.

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