Display ads often yield abysmal click-through rates and even lower conversion rates. What accounts for their disappointing performance? It’s a matter of inbound vs. outbound marketing: Unlike search ads, display ads are not served to searchers who are actively looking for something. Instead, we tack image ads onto social feeds or informational sites with the hopes that they’ll distract users from their current activity and entice them to click through to our website. As if disrupting the user from their intended activity isn’t enough of a challenge, we’re also competing with other image ads, making for a pretty chaotic space.
Rest assured, despite the not so favorable odds, you CAN design super-creative ads that break through the noise and captivate viewers, ultimately scoring clicks for your business. Here are 8 creative, effective image ad ideas to explore, using real examples from our own marketing campaigns and client accounts and backed by real data.
Creative Display Ad Tip #1: Consider Your Venue
It’s critical that you consider the platform on which you are displaying an ad before you design it. When it comes to social ads, you’re not just competing with other paid content, you’re competing with the users’ entire social network.
WordStream’s Paid Social Specialist, Brett McHale, says that social ads should “blend in AND stand out” on the page. Sounds pretty contradictory, huh? He goes on to explain that social content should be contextually relevant (meaning that it doesn’t look like an advertisement) and still grab readers’ attention with entertaining images and design elements like contrasting colors and negative space.
Using stock photos in social media ads will kill your performance. Instead, we recommend following Krista Neher’s “three R” strategy to drive your social content. Use real pictures of real things taken by real people. You can even solicit photos from your audience to use in these ads.
Michael Kors, the first brand invited to display ads on Instagram, has this practice down pat. Their ads feel native to the platform, yet still showcase their products. Their very first post, the first image above, resulted in a 370% increase in new followers.
Creative Display Ad Tip #2: Speak to Your Target Demographic
With display advertising, you have the opportunity to segment your audience based on their demographic details. Take advantage of this level of granularity and build ads that will resonate with each segment of your target audience.
Taking a “one size fits all” approach rarely yields great results for advertisers. For example, imagine a jeweler who specializes in women’s jewelry. He may be inclined to create ads geared toward a female audience, thinking this is target persona. However, upon examining his audience segments on a deeper level, he may find that a good portion of his audience is male and these men order more expensive items, likely as gifts. The jeweler should absolutely create another set of ads that resonate with a male audience.
One of our account managers, Allen Finn, shared a real-life example of this in a post on how small businesses can compete with the big guys. His team, who was working with a weight-loss client, recognized that, while men were less likely to click on their ads than women, they were significantly more likely to follow through with a conversion. In an effort to boost click-through rates for these ideal male prospects, they created this ad below.
The new ad yielded a significant uptick in click-through rates and astounding CPAs (3x less than the account average). As you can see, simply adjusting the ad content can pay dividends.
Creative Display Ad Tip #3: Get Your Mind IN the Gutter
We’ve all heard it—sex sells. In fact, invoking sexual innuendo is one of the strongest and most effective marketing tactics. Of course, this tactic is nothing new. We can track it all the way back to 1871, when Pearl Tobacco began printing naked maidens on their packaging, leading to an abrupt uptick in sales. Fellow marketers took note and the strategy spread like…wildfire.
But before you start swapping all of the models in your image ads for scantily clad replacements, remember that most online advertising platforms have strict policies prohibiting erotic images in ads. To make it through the approval process, marketers must be stealthy and use images or messages that simply imply sex. I love this example, from Volkswagen. The image and copy is completely PG, but the innuendo is clear.
Here at WordStream, we stumbled upon success with this tactic completely by accident. We created a guide titled “69 Creative Marketing Ideas to Boost Your Business” and began promoting it through our social channels. Engagement rates for these shares soared, so we dove into the data and recognized that people were commenting and sharing the posts due to the (unintentionally racy) numerical reference in the title. Because it was gaining such visibility, we also saw an impressive number of people clicking on the URL to view the guide. Based on its success organically, we began using paid ads to promote this guide.
Creative Display Ad Tip #4: Go EMO
Leveraging emotional triggers in ad copy is one of the most effective ways to connect with your audience. According to Courtney Seiter, Content Marketing Manager at Buffer, the four “basic” emotions are happiness, sadness, surprise and anger or disgust. Humans respond to each of these emotions differently, but they all incite them to take action.
Earlier this year, we worked with a client to provided weight loss solutions. Originally, they were running the ad below which features a generic stock photo. Not only is the image easily overlooked, it hardly screams “it’s time to lose weight”. In fact, until you read the text blurb, it’s unclear that the ad has anything to do with weight-loss services.
Recognizing that this ad was destroying the campaign’s performance, our strategy team decided to take a vastly different approach. They wanted their ads to connect with viewers on a personal level, urging them to seek help immediately. To achieve this, they created an ad that provoked disgust.
It was served solely to a male audience and the results were astounding. The grotesque image of the beer belly, coupled with the “size does matter” double-entendre, caught viewers’ attention. It hit home for those whose midsections looked strikingly similar, yielding a 47% higher CTR than the original ad. For more examples of “wins” with emotion ad copy, check out Helen’s post on the emotional science behind PPC ads.
Creative Display Ad Tip #5: Channel Your Inner Comedian
There’s no disputing that humor works wonders when it comes to advertising. In fact, according to a study published by the Journal of Marketing in 1993, when the humorous images and copy coincide with ad objectives, they are “more likely to secure audience attention, increase memorability, overcome sales resistance and enhance message persuasiveness”. Based on these findings, who wouldn’t want to integrate humor into their marketing strategy?
Unfortunately, there’s no secret sauce to building funny ad copy. We recommend brain storming with your team, customer focus groups and even turning to local comedians for inspiration. Even if you don’t have a super-exciting product offering, a little creativity can go a long way, as you can see in GoDaddy’s witty banner below.
When in doubt, borrow from widely-known cultural references (just be sure you’re abiding by the platform’s advertising guidelines). While the ad below isn’t hilarious in its own right, viewers associate it with Will Ferrell’s Anchorman movie, which is riddled with slapstick humor. The quote below the image, which is also from Anchorman, reiterates this. Even better, when users click to like it, the heart appears directly over both the ice cream and Ron Burgundy’s heart. Pretty clever, right?
Creative Display Ad Tip #6: Implement a Feel-Good Discount
I am the biggest sucker for discounts. A few years ago, a blue satin dress at TJ Maxx caught my eye. I didn’t love the style, but the fabric was pretty and the length was perfect for my stumpy, 5-foot-1 frame. I figured I’d give it a shot and headed to the changing room. I was on the fence about it, so I made a deal with myself—if it was below $75, I’d buy it, above $75 and it’d land in the discard pile.
I took a look at the price tag and, at $109, it came in over budget. However, I then noticed that it was a Stella McCartney, designer dress originally priced at $1,750. That’s discount of 94% off! Let me repeat, a NINETY-FOUR PERCENT discount. Needless to say, I made the purchase and, despite spending a little more than intended, I felt great about it, even proud. I had scored an AMAZING discount.
Salma Hayek has the exact same dress! And yeah, she may have styled it better but I bet she didn’t score the same discount…
The bottom line here is that humans are more likely to follow through with a purchase when we feel like we’re getting a deal on it. Advertisers should take advantage of this and include special offers or discounts in their display ads.
To truly determine what resonates with your audience, experiment with multiple offers. In the example below, you can see that we experimented with two different options, Free Shipping and 50% off. The client’s click-through rates DOUBLED when we switched to the second offer. Another example might be to test a 50% discount versus $10 off the order.
Of course, you’ll need to be mindful of which offers make the most sense for your business model, but this tactic is definitely worth exploring!
Creative Display Ad Tip #7: Pick Your Color Palette Wisely
Every detail matters when you’re building your image ads and color choice is no exception. To choose the main color for your ad, consider the psychological association we have with different colors.
Source: KissMetrics’ Infographic, How Do Colors Affect Purchases?
Once you’ve chosen your primary color, pair it with a contrasting color to ensure that your text is easy to read and your CTA button is highly visible. Use the handy chart below for help picking the perfect combination.
Source: SnackToolsBlog Post
Finally, when selecting your color scheme, consider the background on which your ads will be displayed. Of course, with the GDN this is often unknown and frequently changing. However, on social platforms you know exactly what backdrop you’re working with. For example, the Facebook platform is blue and white. Ads that are predominantly blue and white are at risk of blending in with the Newsfeed, thus garnering very little traffic. Instead, advertisers should use contrasting colors to make their ads stand out.
I love this example from Tough Mudder, which really pops on the newsfeed. Whose eyes wouldn’t be drawn to all that bright orange?
Creative Display Ad Tip #8: Shock Viewers with Unexpected Images
With ads cluttering the internet, it’s tough to create ads that stand out. One highly effective way to cut through the noise is to use audacious images to elicit a reaction from viewers. This technique, which has been dubbed “shockvertising”, evokes strong feelings among viewers, making them more likely to engage with the ad and remember it.
While digital advertisers should employ this wisely—steering clear of blood and gore, hypersexualized images and the like—a little creativity can go a long way with this tactic. I love the example above, which is for motor engine oil. The initial message “he burnt a newborn baby’s hand” paints the subject as a villain, but it goes on to say “but he save the rest of it from a burning building” turning him into a hero. They deftly intertwine this with the tagline “it’s what’s inside the counts.”
Finally, I’ll leave you with advice I was given when building my first display ads—“When in doubt, turn to puppies or babies.” They seem to do the trick, regardless of the product you’re selling or who your target audience is.