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Thursday, January 21, 2010

3 Things Every Online Ad Should Do

Brought to you by Eric Picard

I've been working in the online ad space since 1996, and much of that time has been spent at the intersection of technology and advertising. But continuously I have also spent a lot of time working on ad creative, advertising user experience, and rich media advertising.

In the early 1990s, I spent some time working with ad agencies, where I helped designers make the transition from print design to interactive design (in those days, CD-ROMs). In 1996, I finished graduate school and started my first company, an early boutique web development firm.

In 1997, my firm won the business to build some banner advertising for Compaq. In 1998, I started one of the early rich media advertising companies, building all sorts of rich ad experiences -- ads with games in them, purchases within ads, video within ads, expanding ads, floating ads, etc. In 2004, I came to Microsoft and helped redefine the advertising experience principles for MSN and Windows Live. And for the next three years, I managed a small team of designers who built prototypes of next-generation ad formats in all forms of emerging media -- online video, interactive TV, mobile, video games, web applications, software applications, and social media.

Over the years I've developed a set of advertising principles that I believe every online ad should follow:

Attract the audience's attention with a very simple, clear brand message.
Drive a specific action-oriented core goal with that ad, plus enable one to five secondary goals to be accessed from within the ad (without leaving the web page the audience is visiting).
Instrument the creative to enable every possible activity the ad could generate to be tracked and analyzed, and then make changes to the ad during the campaign based on insights gained. (At the very least, bring those insights forward and use them on the next set of creatives.)
Let's take a closer look at these three principles.

Attract the audience's attention with a very simple, clear brand message
I prefer to break every ad into two parts. First, catching the audience's attention -- a hook, pitch, or teaser. Second, driving some type of behavior -- the close. We'll cover the close in the next section, but the pitch is incredibly important.

I've seen thousands of rich media ads over the years. Many of them fall into a few basic traps. They tend to optimize for capturing the audience's attention at the expense of showing something relevant. Or they tend to overwhelm the audience with too much information density.

The human brain is an amazing machine. It can categorize something you see very quickly. I'm sure most of us have had this experience: You're reading a website and, after reading the "main article" for a few seconds, you notice a link, image, or even an ad that is on the edges of the page, look it over, and click on it. The problem is this: Although the brain can process the information incredibly fast -- and many studies have shown that we see brands (icons, names, other messages) in banner advertising even if the audience isn't consciously aware of it -- most ads are not optimized to take advantage of how the brain works.

We build a lot of advertising as if the audience were sitting and watching the ad from the moment the page loads. Frequently you'll see little stories told in banner ads: scene 1, scene 2, scene 3, etc. The problem is that by the time your brain has flagged the ad as being of interest and pushed that ad to the top of your attention so you focus in on it, you've likely moved on from the information that caught your attention in the first place.

A simple ad with a strong brand message should have some level of continuity from frame to frame in the "pitch" (i.e., the attention-grabbing phase of the ad experience). If the audience connects with your message and value proposition in the first 1-5 seconds, you're very lucky. It's more likely that, if a person is going to pay attention, it will be in the next 5-10 seconds. And if you've already used up your pitch, you've lost your opportunity. The value needs to be apparent continually, and not just a linear story with a 10-second arc that simply terminates before anyone is likely to pay attention.

Drive an action-oriented goal and enable secondary goals
Every ad should drive an action or at least enable an action -- even brand campaigns. Default actions that should be supported include requests for information, the ability to forward the ad or other product information to a friend, and (perhaps obviously) clicking through to a website. But beyond the primary goal and these default secondary goals, you should make sure that you're not missing opportunities to really take advantage of the online medium.

Your product or service probably has more than one value proposition, and most products have primary and secondary markets that they cover. Build your online ads to take advantage of this instead of limiting them to hit one customer scenario only. Break your value propositions out into individual creative unit components, each of which can become the primary hook or secondary hook.

For example: If your company is running multiple campaigns with separate goals, combine the creative and give the audience the opportunity to connect with the value proposition that fits them best. This works for brand, DR, and hybrid campaigns. Surround the audience with compelling scenarios in which your product adds value or solves a problem. Enable forwarding of the story to a friend. After all, if you've done a good job at building customer personas and building out scenarios for those personas, people will further hone your targeting by sending their friends targeted value-oriented messages for you.

One example of this was a campaign I worked on many years ago for an online store. The company had three campaigns it was running -- one to sign people up for newsletters, another to showcase a "loss-leading product" and drive people to the online store, and another that focused on a contest the company was running. When the company ran these campaigns with dedicated creative for each, it was marginally successful. When we merged all three campaigns together as I described above, it was wildly successful.

This is how it worked: Create your pitch for each offer, and link each pitch to an expanding ad unit that features the pitched value proposition (or product/service) as the focus of the expanded unit. But let the consumer see the other options and review those as well. When we did this, we found that in many cases, the pitch for one offer drove conversions on secondary offers better than its own pitch did.

Instrument, analyze, and act
If we hadn't instrumented the ads so we could track user behavior, and then analyzed that behavior, we never would have understood what was happening. And we wouldn't have been able to then make changes to the creative throughout the campaign in order to optimize for results.

All the rich media vendors on the market can do this type of instrumentation and reporting, and even many of the ad serving companies can provide this type of reporting. But if you don't instrument the creative, you'll never get the insights. Very few companies operate without web analytics on their websites these days, and I would argue that every single great ad campaign is like a miniature website. Without measuring, understanding, and making changes, you're losing huge amounts of value.

Eric Picard is the advertising technology advisor to the Advertising Platform Engineering team at Microsoft.

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