August 12, 2014No Comments

Understanding online display ads

Online display ads have been around since the early 90's. Since then the internet has evolved dramatically. In the early years, online display ads were a guaranteed way to drive traffic to your product or website. Today however, online display ads face challenges such as overcoming "banner ad blindness," and competing with search engine marketing (SEM) and native advertising. Though they may not have the same impact as they once did, online display ads are still an integral part of an integrated marketing campaign.

Types of online display ads

There are several different types of online display ads. Below are examples and a brief description of each format.

Rich media ads

Rich media online display ad example
Click to see example.

A rich media ad typically contains either images and/or video and encourages user interaction. Key distinctions of a rich media ad:

  • The file size is over 40k
  • It has multiple click-through options/areas
  • Includes multiple levels of content (i.e. polls, twitter feed, video, etc.)
  • Requires counter or timer tracking
  • Uses HTML5 or multiple SWFs for functionality (i.e. expanding, peel back, floating, etc.)

Rich media ads are a great way to engage users and measure multiple actions such as closings, openings, click-throughs, and repeat plays. However, they do present a few challenges. The biggest drawback to rich media ads is that if they use Flash, they are not viewable on mobile devices. Another drawback is that the some users don't appreciate the intrusiveness of the ads.

Animated ads

Adding animation to an online display ad can greatly increase engagement with your audience. Keep in mind that simply having animation does not guarantee an up-tick in response. Your animation should work with and draw attention to your call-to-action. With that said, there are three types of animated online display ads: Flash, HTML5 or animated GIFs.


Flash online display ad
Click to see example.

Flash ads use images and video to create animated features which are then exported as an SWF video file. Unlike rich media ads, the animation is contained to the dimensions of the display ad and allow only one click-through action. File size restrictions for Flash display ads are usually capped at 40k. While Flash ads offer smooth animation and encourage engagement, they are not supported on mobile devices or any browser with Flash disabled.


HTML5 online display ad
Click to see example.

HTML5 ads are creeping up more often in online advertising campaigns. HTML5 ads are generally either programmed ads that rely on JQuery or Javascript to create animation, and then served through an iframe, or they use the video tag to play video ads. The benefits of a HTML5 online display ad include:

  • Multiple areas for user interaction (i.e. multiple links, slide show)
  • Smaller file size
  • Supported on mobile devices

Though still new to the online marketing arena, HTML5 ads show a lot of potential for marketers.

Animated GIFs

PG&E animated GIF online display ad

Animated GIF ads have seen a resurgence in the last few years. With Flash not being supported on mobile phones, animated GIFs have stepped in to fill that void. For most ad campaigns, the extent of animation used can be handled by an animated GIF. Since the file size for most online display ads is 40k, keep in mind these things when creating an animated GIF:

  • Use gradients sparingly
  • The less colors in your design, the smaller the file size
  • Allow 3-5 seconds for frames with pertinent information
  • Keep animations simple

Static ads

Static online display ad example
Static online display ads are just what they sound like: they have no animation. While not as glamorous as rich media or animated ads, static banner ads rely on the content and call-to-action to deliver success. Because the ads need no animation, things like gradients and multiple colors impact file size less.

Which online display ad is right for you?

As you can see, there are several options available for online display ads. Each option has its pros and cons. As with every marketing campaign, it is important to do your research and know your audience. Does your product warrant the robust use of a rich media ad? Is most of your audience using mobile devices to view web content? Is the purpose of the ad to provide awareness or to engage your customer. And most importantly: what is your budget? Knowing the answers to these questions will help determine the online display ad format that is right for you.

April 9, 2014No Comments

How good design gave safe sex a facelift

As designers, we are often tasked with breathing new life into an old message. This usually requires copious amounts of coffee, sleepless nights and a large scrap heap of failed concepts. Finding a design solution for an already established message is no easy task. You have to look at the history of previous creative (what worked, what didn't work), your target audience, current design trends, and then find a new way to break through to your audience. Once you find the creative solution though, it's fun to see an old message learn a new trick.

I'm ON campaign design by Frost*

Frost* design was recently faced with this challenge. The Australian LGBTI health organization ACON was looking to give new life to a familiar message: using safe sex practices to end HIV. This is a message that is still relevant today, but has a danger of being overlooked and tuned out. Looking for a fresh approach, they worked with Frost* design to develop engaging outdoor display ads to correspond with their "Ending HIV" campaign. The "I'm ON" display ads are designed to primarily target gay men. The creative solution built off the direct and modern design of the "Ending HIV" campaign, but infused with humor and bold statements. The simplicity of the design allows the ads to quickly convey the main message of safe sex through condom usage, and secondarily provide a way to get more information. The bold and light-hearted tone of the message, helps to engage gay men who have seen and heard it all before, and are tired of hearing a preachier message.

For Frost*, the hard work has paid off. Not only has the campaign been successful for ACON, but it is currently featured in Communication Art's 2014 Interactive annual, as a standout campaign. For a print campaign to get featured in an interactive annual, they must have done something right.

Giving old messaging a new facelift is part of the daily grind for most designers. What recent reinvented campaigns have captured your attention? Where do you look for inspiration when re-designing a campaign?

March 31, 2014No Comments

Going native: native advertising vs display ads

In today's web connected society, marketers are constantly finding ways to reach consumers online. Display ads used to be one of the most trusted weapons in a marketer's online arsenal. Sadly, the effectiveness of online display ads has been called into question. With so many online ads being served to customers on a daily basis, many consumers have "banner ad blindness." According to DoubleClick, the average banner ad has only a .1% click-through rate. When you factor in that 50% of clicks on mobile display ads are accidental, the number of viable click-throughs is even smaller. So if display ads are no longer engaging consumers as effectively as we'd like, what's the solution? Many marketers and advertisers are looking to native advertising for the answer.

What is native advertising?

I'm sure many of you have heard the term native advertising thrown around quite a bit in 2014. But what exactly is native advertising? The answer to that is pretty varied depending on who you ask. However, most advertisers and marketers will agree on the following qualifications for native advertising:

  • Native ads are generally content based. With content marketing playing a key part in today's marketing efforts, native ads are an extension of this content development. Native ads are more informational and less promotional .
  • Native ads blend in. To be considered native in design, native ads blend seamlessly with the content around them. They match the design of the space and do not disrupt the normal behavior of the user. Moreover, they should function in a manner similar to the existing content.
  • Native ads are paid for. It's important to note that while native ads should blend in with their surroundings, they are paid for ads and are not intended to deceive the user. As such, native ads should have some form of disclaimer such as "sponsored" or "featured" to alert the user that it is in fact an ad.

What does native advertising look like?

Below are a few examples of native ads:

Twitter native advertising

Facebook native advertising

LinkedIn Native Advertising

Why should I use native advertising?

Native ads offer several advantages to traditional display ads. Native ads break through "banner ad blindness" because they cause the user to process the ad as they interact with the content. According to a study by Sharethrough, consumers looked at native ads 53% more often than display ads. Consumers were also 32% more likely to share a native ad than a display ad. Check out their infographic about the effectiveness of native advertising.

Native advertising also focuses on content marketing. Since content marketing is about creating a dialogue versus a hard sell, consumers are more likely to view the targeted content. Native advertising allows you to feature your content outside of your own channels (company website, social media, etc.). This allows you to recycle content that may not have been used recently, but is still impactful for other outlets.

Challenges to native advertising

Native advertising is still a fairly new avenue for online marketing. Unlike display ads, there are no consistent standards for native ads. Because of this, it is important for companies to maintain creative management over the unique content needed for varying platforms. IAB has created a guide of the 6 most common types of native ads which can be downloaded here.

Native ads also measure less in brand recall than display ads. This is mostly likely due to the fact that a brand's logo is more visible on a display ad than in a native ad, but still something to consider.

Gaining user trust can also take time with native advertising. The best way to overcome this is by making sure your content is relevant and provides value to the consumer and doesn't appear as an ad disguised as content.

There is also debate over whether native advertising degrades the value of true editorial content.

Are display ads dead?

While native advertising is the buzz word of the moment, I still feel display ads serve a purpose. For one, they provide great brand recognition. Just like print ads before them, display ads are a subconscious reminder of brands for consumers. I think the key to a successful banner ad is when it is less distracting and more engaging. A subtle difference but an important one to distinguish.

I also think retargeted banner ads still have something to offer. Retargeted banner ads are behaviorally based and are served to a targeted audience. Though not the same as content marketing, they still have their use in integrated campaigns.

It's still too early to tell if native advertising will cause display ads to go the way of the dinosaur. But in the age of content marketing, it's not a bad idea to consider investing in this area as part of your marketing plan.

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© Justin Herren 2022 | Creative strategist + design lead