Designing Effective Banner Ads

by Joe Gillespie — Feb 1, 2003

I've often heard it said that banner ads are ineffective on Web pages. It's probably true, but then any misconceived ad will be ineffective and most banner ads don't stand a chance because the people that produced them don't know the difference between a 'notice' and an advertisement.

A notice is a statement displayed in a prominent position. It might say 'No Parking' or 'Closed' or 'Lost Dog'. It imparts a small piece of information in a minimal way.

In offices and colleges, notices usually appear on a 'notice board'. Firstly, it provides a point of focus - that's where you look for notices. It also stops people from posting notices all over the place untidily. In other words, it 'controls' the display of notices.

The actual form of the notice communicates something other than the message written on it. It could be nicely printed, typed or written with a felt-tipped pen. The differences these presentations make say something about the message's importance and permanence - or frivolity and transience.

The printed one that says 'No Smoking' or 'Emergency Fire Drill' is quite different from the hand-written one that says 'Chess Club, Thursdays at Five, Room 201'. They are all valid messages but their presentation affects their perception to the reader to some degree.

The purpose of a notice is to instruct or inform. 'Instruct' implies some kind of authority and 'inform' is more to do with the interests of the reader.

Okay, an advertisement is a notice too, at its most basic level. But, the purpose of the notice for the chess club is not just to tell chess club members where and when to meet, but also to attract new members by 'advertising' the fact that such a club exists. This is where the 'interests' bit comes in.

When the 'interests' part of the message dominates the basic 'when and where', you are talking 'marketing'! The fact that you are not actually making any money from the activity doesn't mean you are not 'selling'. What you are doing is trying to build upon 'interest' and 'convince' the reader of something. An advertisement for a chess club would have to do more than just inform, it would have to appeal to the reader's intellect - or need for like-minded company!

You could place an ad for a chess club just about anywhere. It's hard to think of an inappropriate place because chess is 'general interest' and cuts across all boundaries of age, creed and race. However, for someone with no interest in chess whatsoever, the ad will be totally wasted. It would take a lot of convincing to get someone with no interest in chess to come along to a chess club. This 'lot of convincing' is what advertising is all about.

For every ad, there has to be a 'target audience'. Defining and specifically addressing that target audience is the most cost efficient way to spend any advertising budget. You are shooting at the target with a rifle, not a scattergun. Knowing 'where' to place an ad is half the battle. For instance, placing a banner ad for a Web design company on this site makes little sense because the readership is mostly Web designers – they don't need Web design companies! Although the readers might look at the advertiser's site to see what the competition is like or to see if there are any jobs, they are very unlikely to spend any money with them. Although this seems very obvious, I still get several advertising enquiries from such companies each month and have to explain all this to them 'ad nauseum'.

Banner Ads

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This article is supposed to be about banner ads. The critical thing about banner ads, is that there's not a lot of room to do any 'convincing'. The best you can hope from a banner ad is to draw the reader away from what they are looking at to a place where you do have space - on another Web page.

Banner ads are signposts to somewhere that you probably don't want to go. Even though there is not much space, you have to do that much convincing to start with. Missing out on this simple requirement is where the majority of banner ads fail.

Let's stand back a little and look at what a banner ad really has to do. It's not an easy job so a little analysis is helpful.

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