Many small businesses are using search engine advertising but are sometimes reluctant to try Internet display advertising, particularly because some creative design work is required. Other businesses like to zero in on specific keywords with search engine advertising. However, I emphasize the key to advertising success is testing and experimenting, and if your Internet advertising is just limited to search engines, you are testing narrowly.

Display advertising on the Internet can be very narrowly and carefully targeted. It can be very effective even for tiny, local businesses. Click-through rates for Internet display advertising have been falling and are quite low, typically less than 0.05 percent. But even though the cost is typically very low, these ads can still be profitable, even if you are using them to generate sales and not just reinforce a branding strategy.

Display Internet advertising is typically bought on a cost-per-impression basis, or more specifically, on a cost per thousand impressions, CPM (from the Roman term for thousands). Sometimes it is sold on a cost-per-click basis or even a cost-per-sale basis.

Some people think of Internet display advertising as being more for “branding” than for driving sales or perhaps for specific purposes, such as event promotion. But I believe that concept is changing—I have certainly seen it drive sales. Although most small businesses may want to try search engine advertising first, they should probably test Internet display advertising, too.

With Internet display advertising, you can target your ads not only for specific websites, but also for a specific page of a specific website.

30 Tips You Can Use

  1. Keep ad design simple, but make it snappy. Make colors pop while still being attractive. If you use an image, just use one.
  2. Large headlines are fine, but don’t make your ad so crowded it looks unprofessional. So-called “white space” can be powerful, too.
  3. Have plenty of contrast between your background and the type in headlines.
  4. Avoid all caps.
  5. Avoid reversing letters out of a background (for example, white letters popping out of a black background).
  6. Have a powerful, attention-getting headline.
  7. Keep text minimal; the fewer words, the better. Think more in terms of a billboard than a magazine ad.
  8. Keep the overall design attractive, including the selection of typeface and placement of the text. I think people are more likely to click on and feel favorably disposed to attractive ads and the companies that create them.
  9. Have a specific call to action. But note that in some cases—for example, if your ad is designed to start setting the stage for a large purchase—the “call to action” may be clicking to “learn more,” not necessarily to get an immediate purchase.
  10. Generally, your goal when someone clicks on your banner display ad is to move the prospect to your landing page, not to get a commitment to buy. You will sell more if you try to sell from the landing page, not from the banner. If users feel they are even tentatively committing to a sale, or even likely to be hit with a hard-sell sales pitch, they won’t click through.
  11. Consider the context in which your display ad will be seen when thinking about the headlines, copy, and ad design that will catch your prospects’ attention and motivate them to action.
  12. Take the ad to your client’s mind-set first, not immediately to your product. Instead of a headline “Discounted travel vacations!” consider instead “You could be on a sandy beach tomorrow . . .”
  13. Use standard-size banners, so if they begin to work, you can use the same banners on as many different websites or advertising networks as possible.
  14. Avoid paying premium for odd-size, larger, or capture-the-front-page ads. Instead, attract attention for your ads and make them effective through your creative efforts, not just by spending more to get a larger size.
  15. You may want to consider testing some animation in your ads, but do so sparingly. Remember, your audience is not as excited about your ad as you are and they may be struck the wrong way by an overly animated ad.
  16. Rich Media is increasingly popular because it works. Rich Media generally uses Flash, but it may use other technology to include video, audio, and images, which are often interactive as well.
  17. Don’t use pop-up ads—everyone finds them bothersome.
  18. Unlike with search engine display ads, the target audience you want to reach is not assuming that your banner ad is of particular interest to them. So you want to make it clear who the audience for the ad is. Focus hard on your best audience—the audience most likely to respond—even if you risk losing some more marginal prospects.
  19. Try a juicy offer, ideally even offering something for free. Or perhaps try an irresistible question. Remember, it is very hard to get clicks. As with any advertising, don’t focus on the features of your products or services; instead, focus on the benefits to the customer. So instead of “Our hybrid gas/electric engine obtains highway gas mileage of 53 mpg,” consider “Cut your trips to the gas station in half!”
  20. Don’t just buy ads on the front pages of websites. You may get more browsers, fewer buyers. On pages further inside the website you may be able to better zero in on your best target audience.
  21. Advertising online or any other way is expensive, so try to zero in only on your best target audience, the audience that might have the highest propensity to respond to your offer today.
  22. Give a lot of thought to your landing page. Even more so than with search engine advertising, people clicking through will be at a wide range of places in the buying process. Your landing page should address them all at least to some degree. This is a good reason to consider offering different alternatives to people at different stages in the buying process.
  23. Maybe some prospects want to click through to another page for more information, maybe some just want to be added to your weekly newsletter, maybe some would like to speak with a live customer service person, and maybe some are completely ready to place their order. So consider having not just alternative web pages to send people to, but non–web page alternative destinations as well.
  24. Consider having some of the graphic effects from your banner ad in your web page as well, to create some visual connection. Don’t suddenly dive completely into a hard-sell approach. Keep thinking: What would keep you on the page if you were a prospect, a prospect that with one click could be anywhere else on the Internet?
  25. Consider images. A lot of advertisers believe that a human face that people can relate to will improve results. But keep it simple; don’t try to show a crowd. One person may be ideal.
  26. Test frequency. Unlike with search engine advertising, frequency may help ad performance. Some people think five impressions is a good number to aim for. I suspect the ideal number is very different depending on factors such as the product, the offer, the headline, the context, and more.
  27. Try to measure completed sales and not just click-throughs. I’d rather measure completed sales approximately, rather than click-throughs exactly. And to improve your campaigns and landing pages, you really want to track even more, including site engagement, such as how long the prospects spend on each page, which route they take through the site, and whether they generate any inquiries.
  28. Test, and remember this isn’t like an outside billboard where you need to run the same ad for a month. You can change it every day if you don’t like the results. But unlike search engine advertising, you need to put thought into the design and not just the copy. Don’t bother to test a bad-looking or weakly designed ad.
  29. If you are running moderate or larger size campaigns, consider combining Internet display and search engine advertising. Broad-based studies have shown that combining both can be particularly effective. This is because while many people will respond directly by clicking on an Internet display ad, a smaller but still significant portion of people will be motivated by Internet display ads to do a search for a related result. But this synergistic effect is not going to be meaningful unless you have significant scale. So it might work best if you buy a lot of the related search words and a lot of display ads on a particular topic at one particular point in time.
  30. Consider video Internet ads. Video ads are more costly to place and more expensive and time-consuming to produce. But the results are typically dramatically higher than Internet display ads. Response rates approaching 2 percent are not uncommon. Furthermore, display ads may be particularly effective for some products or services, such as complex, emotional, or higher end purchases.

If you do try video, make sure the quality of the video is very strong, and don’t forget your call to action! Don’t rush it. Don’t schedule your video ad time until you have at least a couple of good video ads ready to go, so that you can compare and contrast the results. Although creating a great video ad will take some effort, it will also convey a sense of legitimacy and quality about your business.

The Bottom Line on Internet Advertising

The bottom line is that while Internet display advertising can be used to target highly specific audiences, it can be just as effective for branding and driving sales. Just like any type of advertising, you need to test and test again. Ideally, test every single major variable, one at a time. Yes, it takes time—lots of time—but who ever said getting great advertising results would be easy?