Waving the banner for online display

Guy Turton, Senior Researcher Media and Digital Practice Millward Brown

Gone are the days of simply measuring click-through rates to assess the impact of yet another direct response online advertising campaign. Today’s advertisers are becoming increasingly aware that they can create much more targeted, engaging online creative that can deliver significant brand impact in the long term, forming an essential part of multimediabrand building campaigns.

This growing appetite for online brand advertising is matched by the speed and breadth of innovation with which it evolves. However it can be dangerous to focus too much on what is new and lose sight of what is established. The recent evolution of the online advertising environment has been dominated by the development of online video and the challenge that mobile poses. However, while these new formats are exciting and potentially very powerful, it would be naive to overlook the importance of the more traditional formats of online display advertising such as banners and other embedded placements.

These traditional formats accounted for 73% of online display advertising in 2011 (Sources: IAB 2011) and are expected to grow by around 36% by 2013, at which point they will define a global market worth $34.4 billion (Source: Zenith Optimedia).

The force behind the resurgence

This belief in the power of online display is not misguided. A study conducted by Dynamic Logic and DoubleClick, which aggregated results from online display campaigns over the last 3 years, showed that these campaigns drove significant uplifts across all standard brand metrics, from awareness through to purchase intent. This is not to say that other formats such as video and mobile don’t also deliver brand impact, but it is important not to lose sight of what online display can offer.

Analysis of MarketNorms shows a clear downward trend in the impact of online ad formats as they lose their novelty value (see fig. 1) When introduced online video and mobile delivered previously unseen levels of brand awareness, however over the next two years this declined significantly. By contrast we have seen evidence of a ‘renaissance’ period of sorts for certain display formats, such as Static/GIF display becoming increasingly effective as an awareness driving advertising tool in the last two years.


There are two key areas that appear to be driving these increases in the impact of online display advertising, and which also hold the key to unlocking further potential for display as a brand building activity. The first is technological developments such as new formats and improved targeting; the second is the improving skill set of those involved in the delivery of display campaigns, leading to better application of formats and stronger creative.

Technological developments are at the heart of progress in online advertising. For example, analysis of our MarketNorms database shows that the technological developments which led to the creation of newer (and bigger) online display formats such as half page ads and wallpapers has helped to increase the overall brand building impact of online display across almost all brand metrics. In online display advertising it seems that size does matter.

Along with this, improving technology allows brands to customise their advertising more accurately than ever before, ensuring they are serving the right message, to the right people, in the right place, at the right time. As accuracy of online targeting and ad placement improves, online advertising as a whole will gain, but the sheer volumes in which display activity is served mean that it is the format that will benefit most significantly from the cost efficiencies that accurate targeting can deliver.

The second key driver behind increasing the impact of online display is the experience and intelligence of brand teams, creative agencies, media agencies and any other parties involved in the creation and delivery of online display advertising. Brand teams are coming to realise that certain formats are better at delivering on certain objectives than others and that it is essential that you design your online creative and structure your online campaign with this in mind.

In the case of Static/GIF, the nature of the format means that depth of engagement is limited and therefore it is best suited to delivering clear and simple advertising (Millward

Brown research indicates that this is the best format for communicating a single campaign message). The recent ‘renaissance’ of Static/GIF will be in no small part due to advertisers becoming more aware of this and tailoring their campaign accordingly. As advertisers become more familiar with using online display as a brand building tool, the importance of quality as well as quantity of impressions will increase, and with this so should the overall impact of online display.

Harnessing the power of successful creative

And so we arrive at the catalyst of successful advertising the creative. You can serve your ad to the right person, at the right time, in the right place, and in the right format, but if you serve them a weak creative you are immediately cutting your chances of delivering brand impact. Up until recently it appeared as though many advertisers were still approaching display advertising with a direct response mentality in which quantity was king and this meant that creative development (or lack of) was often secondary.

There is a growing sense that this mentality is shifting, indicated by an increase in the number of clients running Millward Brown’s Link for Digital pre-testing studies.The importance of strong creative is evident when one looks at the vast disparity between the brand impact delivered by the top performing digital campaigns and the bottom performing campaigns in Millward Brown’s MarketNorms database.

Strong performers deliver significant increases across all brand metrics, while poor campaigns can actually have a detrimental effect on consumers’ relationship with the brand. Online display creative does pose some unique challenges for creative agencies, however analysis of the top performing campaigns does uncover some common themes:

Brand presence on every frame the chances of a consumer viewing every frame of an online display ad is minimal therefore ensure that whichever frames they do see are clearly branded

Clear and simple messaging

As above, the way that online display ads are consumer means that complex messaging requiring multiple frames is largely ineffective, instead decide on a key message and communicate it clearly.

Each frame must stand on its own

An extension of the two point above, if a consumer only sees one frame of your ad, they should still know what they’re being told, and who is telling them

Reveal ads and interactive ads can be wasteful relying on a consumer to wait for the reveal is a risky strategy as you will waste a lot of exposures. Consumers shouldn’t have to work for the message.

As advertisers start to appreciate the importance of creative in online display and start to apply these principles we will see an increase in the effectiveness and efficiency of display advertising. We know that online display advertising delivers brand impact, but our top performers prove to us that when used well online display can deliver even greater impact than we have seen to date. As the role of online display in brand building campaigns permeates brand and media agency mindsets I hope we will see increasingly engaging display creative as part of increasingly intelligent media plans in which online display is used effectively as part of the digital mix.

When developing online media plans, today’s advertiser must have one eye on what is new and one eye on what is established. It is essential to be ready to embrace innovative formats because there is undeniably a novelty value that these bring, but it is also crucial to maximize the return on the more established formats that make up the lion’s share of the plan. Our data shows that campaigns using a combination of online video and online display deliver twice the level of brand impact of those campaigns that use either format exclusively. Online display delivers brand impact, online video delivers brand impact and mobile delivers brand impact, but combination is the key to success. 

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