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What is display advertising?

Many successful marketing strategies are built on banner advertising – but why? Find out the secret to banner ads, and how they work, in our dedicated guide

Display advertising is everywhere you look. Splashed across social media, bordering that blog you like, sat atop the headlines on the Sky News website – it’s the paid, digital marketing tactic used by most businesses, without you even knowing it.

That said, we’re so used to seeing adverts that we habitually flick the anti-ad switch in our brain. In fact, approximately 200 million internet users have installed ad blocking software for this very reason.

The modern marketer is now faced with a new kind of challenge: make a display ad campaign that both stands out from the crowd, and sticks in the mind – which, considering the competition, is easier said than done.

Read on to learn what display advertising actually is, how it works, and for examples of display ads designed for a variety of online platforms.

Looking to compare quotes for digital marketing agencies based on your business needs? If so, fill in the form at the top of the page – a good hack for saving time and money on market research.

What is display advertising?

A visual form of advertising that incorporates both text and graphics, display advertising appears on specifically designated areas of a website or social media platform in the form of a banner ad.

The internet’s answer to billboard advertising, display adverts (otherwise known as banner ads) are designed to increase the click-through rate to a landing page. This is done by cleverly combining striking imagery, attention-grabbing copy, animation, and even video content – using more than just words to create a stand-out, snapshot ad.

Display advertising is most commonly used to increase brand awareness, and to re-engage with customers who have previously paid your site a visit. It can also be used to generate new customers by leading them to a landing page via a click-through path. 

The point of a display ad is to engage the potential buyer, and to develop their interest in your product or service, before going in with the hard sell.

If you’re thinking of making a display ad yourself, be sure to consider the format. JPEG, JPG, PNG, and GIF images are all accepted by any network, but not all networks accept HTML5. 

Animated banners come with their own technical specifications, while image banners only need to be under 150kb in size – and of course, be compliant with regulations set by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

Top-performing display ad sizes include:

Ad size (measured in pixels):Description:
300×250The medium rectangle ad – at its best when embedded within text, or at the bottom of an article.
336×280The large rectangle ad – also performs well when embedded within a block of text.
728×90The leaderboard ad – does well when placed at the top of content, and is a popular choice on forum sites.
300×600The half page ad – more space means more content, but it also means more money. Highly appealing visually, and highly clickable.
320×100The mobile banner ad – can be used as an alternative to the medium/large rectangle ad, and provides twice the height of the standard mobile leaderboard size.

How do display ads work?

Using the same basic principles as print advertising, display ads are designed to inform, engage, notify, and increase awareness. They work by generating traffic to your website from an external source.

The point of a display ad is to encourage the customer to click on it. To increase the chances of being clicked, display advertising targets people with specific internet habits that are linked to the product or service being advertised.

Rather than just appearing in the customer’s search results, display ads differ from normal ads in that they appear on different websites in a variety of forms. 

They can be static or animated, contain text, an image or both, and appear on social media platforms in the form of Facebook banners, Snapchat geofilters, or Instagram sponsored ads.

Banner ads also appear on regular websites in the reserved advertisement space, i.e. at the top, bottom, or down the sides of a page.

Display ads work by targeting customers who have already expressed an interest in your product or service, which is detectable through their previous site visits or browser habits. This increases the ad’s chance of being clicked, and your chances of getting a conversion.

Don’t worry, though – it’s not all left to Google guesswork. You can have a say when it comes to the placement of your Google ads, and can opt for either automatic or managed placements.

Automatic placements

Google will determine the placement of your ads based on the sites it deems relevant to your business.

Managed placements

You can decide on the placement of your ads based on customer search trends and business relevancy.

Of course, the best way to gain complete control over who sees your advert is to buy advertising space on a specific website. That way, you’ll already know the tone of the site, and the type of audience who are likely to see the advert.

What are the benefits of display advertising for small businesses?

  • Extensive reach – as display advertising often targets a wider range of users, this can be beneficial for small businesses that are looking to make their brand known to as many people as possible
  • Creative – display ads can use images, video, text, and other elements to make them different, which is especially useful for small businesses looking to stand out from the crowd
  • Brand awareness – display advertising is a great way to get your business out there and make people aware of what you’re doing
  • Retargeting – display ads can be used to retarget users who have already visited your site, meaning they can help your brand become more memorable to potential customers
  • Affordable – compared to other forms of advertising (like print), display advertising can be much more cost-effective, which is ideal for budget-conscious small businesses

Types of display advertising

Display advertising can be separated into three broad categories:

1. Retargeting

Retargeting delivers highly relevant ads to your audience based on specific user behaviour and interactions.

One example of retargeted display advertising would be creating specific adverts which target users who have reached your pricing page, but have not completed their order.

This works by using the data generated from their visit to your site to then direct adverts containing similar products. This can be done automatically using dynamic remarketing display adverts, which are popular on ecommerce sites.

Dynamic remarketing works by pooling information from the data feed regarding the product or service that the customer has been viewing. This information is then used to automatically create a customer-specific banner ad based on a premade template.

To do this yourself:

  • Link your Google Ads (formerly Google AdWords) account with your Google Analytics account
  • You’ll then need to add a small bit of code (provided by AdWords) across all pages of your site
  • Next, create remarketing lists. These are specific website visitors to be targeted based on their previous interactions with your website, i.e. those visitors who have seen a particular category collection
  • Finally, within AdWords, create a remarketing campaign with different ads targeting different customers based on their interest in the product or service
  • All done! Now, when your customers visit your website then leave again, your brand will still be visible via online marketing. This recurrent brand visibility will also help to build trust with your audience

2. Acquisition

This type of campaign focuses on driving direct sales and acquiring new customers, doing so via in-market audiences, affinity audiences, and interest targeting.

In-market audiences are those looking to make an immediate purchase. Google will be able to pinpoint these people based on search history.

For example, someone reading mattress reviews, searching for local bed shops, and looking at different supplier sites is probably on the hunt for a new mattress (and maybe some funky new pyjamas, too).

Affinity audiences are a little harder to pin down. This term might refer to those who aren’t in ‘research mode’, but might – in light of their online profile – still be in the mood to buy. These people are categorised as ‘long term interest’ prospects by Google.

The affinity marketing audiences in Google Ads are split into the following ‘long term interest’ categories:

  • Banking
  • Beauty
  • Food and dining
  • Home and garden
  • Lifestyle and hobbies
  • Media and entertainment
  • News and politics
  • Shoppers (bargain)
  • Shoppers (value)
  • Shoppers (luxury)
  • Sports and fitness
  • Technology
  • Travel
  • Vehicles and transport

Once the affinity audience member has been categorised, streamlined display adverts will appear on the sites they visit that support display adverts.

To illustrate: someone who avidly reads the interior design blogs they subscribe to, and regularly listens to a ‘how to decorate’ podcast, would be categorised into the ‘home and garden’ affinity marketing group (available in Google Ads).

3. Brand awareness

Focussing on reach rather than conversion, an awareness campaign requires careful planning. In order to be effective, it will also need to run for quite a long time, which is cost you both time and resources.

The aim of the awareness game is to reach as many people as possible whilst sticking to your budget. Likes and shares will help to further your reach, but securing these in the first place can be tricky. 

Some businesses will even pay for more visibility and followers, but this can be obvious to the reader, so we recommend sticking to methods driven by organic search engine optimisation (SEO).

Whilst a brand awareness campaign won’t have the same clear return on investment (ROI) as one that focuses on acquisitions, it will have possibly unseen benefits in the long run. Brand familiarity can do wonders for your business, as the more the customers that see the brand, the more likely they are to trust it.

Display advertising examples

To properly describe what different display ads might look like would take quite some time. So, as pictures speak a thousand words, we’ve put together some display ad examples to show what display advertising really means.

Example one:

display advertising banner ad

LinkedIn banner ad – This is an example of brand awareness display advertising that is specifically designed for LinkedIn, and made to get the brand name ‘out there’. 

The reference to ‘work’ in the slogan makes it clear that the ad is designed for LinkedIn – the pun is intriguing, but there’s no hard sell here. An ad like this would feature in LinkedIn’s paid advertising space.

Note: LinkedIn banner ads are: 1400×245 px.

Example two:

display advertising

A medium-rectangle ad, designed to be an acquisition display advert on a search-appropriate website, such as an interior design blog. This captures the user intent – interior design – and subtly displays an advert that is in-line with that intent. This display advert would appear in a paid ad slot.

Example three:

display advertising

Large-rectangle ad – designed as a retargeting display advert to be used on any site the targeted prospect is likely to use, i.e. social media. The discount offer and code are larger than the brand name, as prior brand familiarity is assumed.

The same background image as other display adverts is used for consistency. However, the slogans have been replaced with an enticing offer, which encourages the customer to click through to the website and use the promotional code.

All three of the above display ads are marketing the same company, using the same principle, but targeting different customers at various stages of the user journey.

The time and placement of the adverts is determined by the audience's search habits. If they’ve never searched for ‘beds to buy’ on Google, they’re likely to see example one (the brand awareness ad).

If they have Googled ‘beds to buy’ but never visited the Start-up Bed Co’s site, then Google will assume they’re interested in buying a bed, and will show them example two (the acquisition ad).

If they've previously visited the Start-up Bed Co’s site but didn’t purchase a new bed, then Google will show them example three (the retargeting ad) to lure them back with an exciting offer they can’t refuse.

Best digital marketing agencies for display advertising

Here we identify some of the top agencies for display advertising for small businesses.

1. SiteVisibility: Best for industry leadership

SiteVisibility offers display advertising with services including creative concept and targeted websites, as well as collecting data and monitoring activity. It offers display advertising through Crimtan and Meerkat Works, its partner companies. 

As well as display advertising, SiteVisibility offers other services that run the full digital marketing spectrum, from content marketing and pay-per-click (PPC) to SEO – the latter of which it is perhaps best known for.

Indeed, SiteVisibility founded the industry-leading BrightonSEO conference, showcasing their specialist knowledge and position in the sector. In turn, that’s why we think it’s best for industry leadership.

Due to its industry expertise and authority, we think SiteVisibility is best suited to ambitious small businesses that want to grow and develop their digital presence.

Prices are available upon request.

- Well-known company
- Industry leaders
- Range of services available
- It might be too big an operation for very small businesses

2. Passion Digital: Best for PPC

Passion Digital promotes itself as a pay-per-click (PPC) agency with Google display advertising services. It also provides other specialist services within PPC, such as PPC for startups, for charities, and in multiple languages.

While it focuses on PPC, Passion Digital also offers SEO, content marketing, and social media marketing services. It has offices in London and Madrid. 

If your small business is looking to use display advertising as a primary part of your social media marketing, then Passion Digital could be ideal for you, as we think it’s the best for PPC.

From its Google reviews, Passion Digital seems to be especially suited to charities, as it seems to do a lot of work in the non-profit sector. 

Prices are available upon request.

- Expertise across multiple areas of PPC
- Experience working with charities
- International presence
- Could be clearer on what they do for display advertising services specifically

3. JDR Group: Best for B2B marketing

Based in Derby, JDR Group specialises in business-to-business (B2B) marketing, although it does work with a variety of clients across a range of industries. 

It offers display advertising, along with other services – like PPC and email marketing – either individually or as part of a combined service. JDR Group has certifications from Google, Hubspot, Infusionsoft, and Duct Tape Marketing, and also offers a free marketing audit. 

With its focus on sales and display advertising as part of a combined strategy, as well as the option to hire a digital marketing department, JDR Group could be ideal for small businesses that are looking to grow in size and increase sales. We think JDR Group is best for B2B marketing.

Prices are available upon request.

- Free marketing audit
- Option to hire a digital marketing department
- B2B specialists
- Business-to-consumer (B2C) focused businesses might be more suited to another agency

As a small business, should you oversee display advertising yourself, or hire an agency?

Here we examine the benefits of running a display advertising campaign yourself, as well as hiring an agency to manage it for you.

Benefits of DIY

  • Low cost
  • Opportunity to learn a new skill
  • Creative control
  • Thorough understanding of brand and style

Benefits of an agency 

  • Industry knowledge
  • Experience
  • Greater resources
  • New ideas

How to run a display advertising campaign yourself

In this section, we’ll guide you through the steps you need to take to run a display advertising campaign, with a focus on the Google Display Network.

Display ads are one part of Google AdWords, focusing on ads comprised of text and images that are displayed on sites across the internet.

1. Select goals

Firstly, decide on who you’re going to target – will you be aiming for new customers, or to reach people that have already visited your site? The latter is known as remarketing – for more information, visit the Google guide on display remarketing campaigns.

2. Target your ads

Next, think about targeting. This means choosing how your ads will be placed. Options include managed placements (i.e. picking specific sites that ads are displayed on), as well as targeting based on interests or topics. Contextual targeting is another option, whereby ads are positioned based upon related keywords. It’s also possible to combine methods. The method of targeting you choose will depend on the platform, and the goals you decide upon.

3. Plan a budget

You’ll also need to consider how much budget to set aside for display advertising, as well as how you’ll spend it. When it comes to the ads themselves, you’ll need to select the format – what size and type of ads do you want to use?

4. Run tests

Finalising a budget for display advertising also means factoring in resources for testing, both in terms of time and money. This allows you to see what does and doesn’t work and make changes accordingly, whether to the copy, images, or size of the adverts.

5. Measure success

Be sure to review your display ads on an ongoing basis, and make adjustments according to the data. You may also be able to assess the analytics and alter your ads based on your findings, too. This can help you to measure success – the criteria could include new site visitors, as well as the time spent on your site and the number of page views.

For a more detailed step-by-step guide to creating a campaign and ad groups, as well as how to target and bid, plus create image ads, visit Google’s guide to getting started on the Google Display Network.

Top display advertising tips from the experts

Steven Lowe, Senior Biddable Marketing Manager at MVF advises:

  1. Make your ads as clickable as possible. Click-through rate (CTR) is the king and queen when it comes to display advertising. With around 60% of impressions being viewable (viewable is when 50% or more of an ad is shown for one second or more), it is important that viewable impressions lead to clicks on your ad in order to drive traffic to your landing page. Therefore, it is super important that your ads are as clickable as possible. Some tips on how to improve this are hyperbolic copy, or more natural looking creatives, such as photos taken from your smartphone. 
  2. Treat different targeting types differently. Different targeting types will not necessarily have the same performance. For example, retargeting website visitors requires more specific messaging than a prospecting campaign as the user is further down the marketing funnel. Targeting is another powerful lever by which you can improve the CTR of your marketing campaigns. More specific targeting in tandem with more clickable ads will massively boost your CTR. 
  3. Leverage advertising platforms automated bidding. Unfortunately, computers are better at processing and analysing data than humans, but this means that automated bidding algorithms can provide great results for digital advertisers. Once your campaign has enough conversions (30 conversions in the last 30 days) it is possible to use bidding strategies like Target CPA bidding. This strategy takes into account more factors than are available to digital marketers relating to the profile of a customer in real time allowing marketing platforms to optimise to your stated goal. Target CPA bidding not only allows you to achieve your desired cost per action (CPA) but also allows you to increase your number of conversions. 
  4. Be mindful of mobile apps. Including mobile apps can be a great way of increasing the reach of your display advertising campaigns due to their huge reach whilst customers are browsing. However, it is worth monitoring their performance from a CPA perspective and a return on advertising spend (ROAS) perspective. When launching a campaign from scratch, it is sometimes worth excluding mobile apps initially and then including them in your targeting once your campaign is more optimised. 
  5. Testing relentlessly can supercharge your campaigns. Don’t be afraid to launch tests on your display campaigns. This can range from a new ad or a new landing page to new targeting or automated bidding. If it’s not been tested, how can you know if it works? It is worth reserving a proportion of your advertising budget for new test ideas. A winning test can drastically improve your key metrics like conversion rates or CTRs, which allows you to grow your campaigns.

What can an agency do that I can’t?

While it may be possible to run display advertising yourself, there are a number of ways that using an agency could help your business.

  • Multiple specialisms – as display advertising is often part of a wider social media marketing strategy, an agency will be able to offer expert advice and knowledge for digital marketing across your business
  • Team collaboration – if you work alone or in a very small team, hiring an agency offers access to a wider pool of people to work with, and different perspectives that you might not have thought of
  • Tools and software – it’s likely that an agency will use multiple tools and software to monitor and measure campaigns, some of which may require specialist understanding or a budget that you may not have
  • Scalability – if aspects of your display advertising are working well, an agency can advise on how to grow them. Conversely, if you need to minimise activity, then an agency can also offer ways to reduce less successful elements

What are the costs involved with display advertising?

Whether you opt to run display advertising yourself or hire an agency, there are likely to be some costs involved. Here, we examine what you could expect to pay.

With display advertising, you essentially pay each time a user clicks on your ad.

Banner ad costs are determined by the number of impressions (one impression equals one page view). For example, it’s possible to achieve 1,000 ad impressions for under £5. This often makes display advertising cost-effective, especially when compared with traditional forms of advertising, such as print adverts.

The size of the ad also affects its price – as you would expect, smaller ads tend to be cheaper, whereas bigger ads are more expensive. Plus, the sites the ads are promoted on can affect the price, with more highly ranked sites often attracting higher display advertising costs.

Similarly, the network you choose to run your display adverts on can influence costs, along with how targeted an ad is – more expensive ads are ones which are highly targeted, while general ads often offer lower pricing.

The Google Display Network offers three forms of pricing:

CPCCost per clickPay when a user clicks on the ad
CPMCost per mille (i.e. per thousand impressions)Pay for ads per thousand views
CPACost per acquisitionPay for ads when it creates a conversion

Next steps: Compare digital marketing agencies

Display advertising is a type of paid marketing that grants access to a variety of online platforms, and targets customers and prospects according to their search intent.

An efficient and effective method of digital marketing, display advertising gets your business’ name out there, and keeps it in the mind of the buyer. 

Using social media ad space, related websites, and organic searches, display advertising is everywhere – and now you’ve read this article, you probably won’t be able to stop spotting display ads in your day-to-day online activity.

For properly targeted social media campaigns, a social media management system can streamline your approach – maximising efficiency and your profits. 

Are you keen to find out more based on your business requirements? Go to the top of the page, complete the form to compare quotes for digital marketing agencies, and we’ll put you in touch with reputable suppliers.

Scarlett Cook
Scarlett Cook

Scarlett writes about a wide range of topics on the site, from business security to digital marketing and EPOS systems. She can also be found writing about diversity and sustainability in business, as well as managing the Just Started profiles.

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