4 Tips for Making Banner Ads That Actually Might Work

BBDO report breaks down science of digital creative

Mobile and desktop banner ads have long been major eyesores viewed with disdain by the digital advertising industry, but BBDO claims marketers are thinking about them the wrong way.

This summer, the agency started digging into what makes banner ads work, including data on its own banners and research from 28 research sources, creating a report called "Banner Beater: The underrated tool in your brand-building arsenal."

BBDO has good reason to pull together the report. Recent research from the Interactive Advertising Bureau found that spending on mobile banners hit $6 billion in the first half of 2016, a 62 percent year-over-year increase. And eMarketer expects that banner spend will increase 52 percent from 2015 to 2019. However, marketers still gauge their banner-ad success based on metrics like impressions and clickthrough rates.

"Clickthrough rates miss a lot of attribution of people buying products," said Julian Cole, head of communications planning at BBDO. And with more money and eyeballs shifting to mobile, "these rules are going to be more important," he added.

Below are four recommendations from BBDO's report to help brands make the most of ugly banner ads:

1. Keep the copy shorter than five to 10 words

Per data from Miyata quoted in BBDO's report, people can only process about five words per second.

Coupled with research suggesting that the average consumer only looks at a banner ad for one or two seconds, the agency advises brands to cap the length of copy on banner ads to five or 10 words.

That finding flies in the face of another data point from BBDO's research, though. The shop crunched stats on the length of standard banner ads and found the average animation on banner ads lasts 10 to 15 seconds and includes multiple frames, making it even more important for marketers to get their message across in the first few seconds of the ad.

2. Treat 'em similar to a billboard

Because banner ads only grab someone's attention for a split second, advertisers should think of them as spots for branding versus direct-response ads.

"With a billboard, drivers need to process the message in the split-second they take their eyes off the road," reads the report. "Internet users operate in the same manner—they are goal-oriented and pay very little mind to the extraneous information they encounter on the way to their desired content."

Cole added, "I'm not saying that direct response should go away, but we're not paying enough attention to brand-building."

BBDO also plans to experiment with removing advertising storyboards for digital ads, which are traditionally used to map out TV ads frame by frame.

"Going forward, we're going to do one storyboard," Cole said.

3. Make it look like an ad

There's a time and a place for so-called native ads that subtly plug an advertiser, but banner ads aren't it.

According to BBDO, a well-designed banner ad has the brand's logo and name in each frame, which is particularly important for packaged-goods brands selling specific products. For example, an ad for Procter & Gamble-owned Old Spice should feature copy and images of Old Spice, not of Procter & Gamble.

Here is a mock-up of a banner ad that incorporates a product into every part of the campaign compared to one that does not include product visuals.

That said, brands shouldn't completely rely on product shots in banner campaigns either. "Showing only the product can obscure the brand name and diminish message association and awareness," the report said.

Other best-practice design tips include sticking to one action per ad and using high-resolution and uncluttered images.

4. Keep the branding consistent

As more money moves into digital and mobile, brands should "think about [banners] as part of bigger, integrated campaigns," Cole said.

That means banner ad creative should resemble a brand's TV, print and any other components. "Use clear cues in each ad that link it to the overarching creative strategy," the report says.

That also includes keeping colors, fonts and themes the same, particularly for brands associated with color schemes and overarching campaigns like the M&M colored characters or Snickers' "You're not you when you're hungry."

Take a look at an example of banner ads for the brands below (both are BBDO clients):