Display Advertising: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started

Digital advertising commands large portions of ad spend, and it appears 2016 will be the breakout year when digital display ad spending finally surpasses search ad spend in the U.S. So, why does that matter? Well, if you’re only focusing on your search strategy and ignoring display, you’d be remiss to know your competitors are pulling ahead of you.

If your reasoning for not dipping your toes in display is lack of knowledge or fear of the unknown, knowing the basics will help.

What Is Display Advertising?

Simply put, display advertising is advertising that appears on a website. It comes in several forms, including banner ads, text, images, video, audio, flash, or even sponsored ads/content. You’ve absolutely seen them, unless of course you’re using an ad blocker. They’re highly visual and rely on the copy and images, and even sometimes the video or audio, to capture your attention and garner a click.

Display Advertising Example from The New York Times

What Sizes Are Display Ads?

To keep advertisers and publishers from going willy-nilly on ad sizes, standards have been set in place by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). There are hundreds of ad sizes available (download the full list here), but there are some ad sizes that are more common than others.

For instance, Google says their wider ad sizes tend to outperform their taller counterparts. They’ve noted their most effective ad sizes are the:

  • 336×280 Large Rectangle.
  • 300×250 Medium Rectangle.
  • 728×90 Leaderboard.
  • 300×600 Half Page.
  • 320×100 Large Mobile Banner.

While these ad sizes are very effective for Google, and may very well be very effective on other networks, it’s best to ask each network what works best for them. Regardless of the advertising network or the publishing platform, keep an eye on the border requirements of the ad.

The IAB states that display ad creatives should be “clearly distinguishable from normal webpage content.” Due to this, ads must have clearly defined borders so they don’t blend in with normal website content. This also is implemented by many ad networks, too, as it allows ads to be approved with minimal pushback.

Advertising Age Example of Clear and Distinguishable Display Ad

To make sure you’re meeting border requirements, you can work the border into the design so that it doesn’t blend into the surrounding page. This ‘Women to Watch’ ad on the Ad Age website employs not only a contrasting color (black against an all white background) but goes one step further with a gray bottom border calling out that it’s an advertisement. Clean, crisp, and transparent – exactly what the IAB wants to see.

Wall Street Journal - Bordered Display Ad

Another option is to build your border into the design. While it’s not as transparent as the ad on Ad Age, this one uses a light gray border to set it apart from the rest of the page. This helps to break up the white background on both the display ad and the website background, setting it apart from the content of the page.

How Can I Use Display Advertising?

Display advertising helps boost brand awareness and trust with consumers by using visual messages, something all advertisers look to achieve. There are many ways you can use display advertising to amplify your brand.

Retargeting a Product or Service

When a customer is shopping for your product or service, they’ve expressed at least some degree of interest. While they might just be researching, sometimes they’re an active buyer who simply gets distracted.

Walmart Printer - Retargeting a Product or Service

This is where retargeting comes into play. As an advertiser, you don’t want to come off stalkerish and obtrusive. Instead, you want to give a gentle nudge as to say “hey, remember me over here.” Wal-Mart does that well by targeting a recent search for a printer in my Facebook feed. And it’s that gentle nudge that works and can increase your ad response rate by as much as 400%!

Abandoned Shopping Carts

Just like retargeting, display advertising can be used to remind people of an item placed in their shopping cart. Reminding customers to complete a shopping cart purchase can be a simple way to boost conversion rates.

See, some people (ahem) use the shopping cart feature like a favorites list. It allows you to go back and reconsider a variety of options without having to write them down.

Bath and Body Works Abandoned Shopping Cart Display Ad Example

Simply reminding people of what’s in their shopping cart might be all they need to trigger a sale, like Bath & Body Works has done here with an email. If they still haven’t finished the transaction, reminding them with display advertising can be helpful. But if they don’t bite, sometimes greasing the wheel and offering a discount can boost conversions, too.

Offering a Discount

In an October 2014 study, over half of U.S. shoppers polled claimed they would be likely to purchase products in their shopping carts if they were offered the ability to purchase it at a discounted price. 28% of consumers underestimate the price of shipping, which leads to last moment shopping cart abandonment.

Use an Incentive

Sometimes all it takes to pull the trigger is an incentive or reason to say, ‘okay, you got me.’

Salesforce Desk - Use an Incentive Display Ad

As a marketer myself, I recently made the mistake of doing some research without going in incognito mode on Google Chrome. As a result, víola – targeting!

Now, yes, I did research Salesforce Desk alongside several of their competitors. Granted I am not ‘quite there’ with my decision, but targeting me with a free trial might be all I need to fall in love with their services and sign up as a paying client.

This same methodology can be implemented for ‘free shipping’ for a product, or even with a call-to-action to enter a giveaway. Remember, if the recipient is already aware and engaged with your company, all it might take to push them over the edge is a bit of an incentive.

Call Attention to Your Asset

Using display advertising to target users that match your buyer personas can help increase your newsletter subscriber counts or even draw attention to relevant, useful information.

Unified Sponsored Post - Display Advertising Drawing Attention to Your Asset

Here, Unified has made use of publicly available information on my LinkedIn profile to target me with their long-form content. Now I personally have no problem getting through my vacation time, but I’m always interested in ways to save time. Here, they target me with very relevant messages that speak not only to an aspect of my professional role (social media) but also my personal heartstrings (taking a day off).

Build Your Membership/Loyalty Program

Used discretely, building membership and loyalty to your product or service can be done easily, and effectively, with the right display program.

Display Advertising Build Your Membership or Loyalty Program Example

When using display advertising to build membership or loyalty, it must answer a very important question: WIIFM (What’s in It For Me). American Express does that well with a teaser – How far can 40,000 points take you? Good question, let me click this handy link to find out. The Outlets at Sands touts exclusive offers as a ‘Preferred Shopper’ which sounds quite promising, especially if I’m already likely to be shopping near this area.

Of course, you’ll need to be wowed to sign up for a credit card offer at first glance. But, this can be incredibly effective when the risk is low but the rewards are high, like trying out a new restaurant or upgrading travel plans.

Show You’re Better Than Your Competition

Remember, display advertising can help you retarget a message to an audience looking for your product or service. Why not use this active audience to ‘pitch’ why you should be considered over competitors?

Microsoft MQL Server - Display Advertising Show You

Microsoft SQL Server is competitive in the tech space and likely considered for business servers. But, just in case you’re considering someone else, they’re fast to remind you why they’re competitive: they’re faster, more secure, and more cost effective. And, pairing it with a game of chess, you get that sense that they’ve cornered the competition without ever mentioning their names.

Leverage the Time of the Year

One perk to our office location (we’re in Delaware) is we have water access. Beaches, canals, bays, and rivers, we have 365 days a year of water access and summer is right around the corner to tap into it.


Waverunners are synonymous with beach life, and Yamaha does an excellent job tapping into the summer season. If your product or service is seasonal, or even has regional spikes, display advertising can help leverage seasonal buys or holiday events.

What Are the Best Practices for Creative?

First and foremost, the creative (e.g. the image in your display ad) should be clear, concise, and impactful. Their flexibility allows for us to get the message across to a broad audience, but only if it’s done well.

Make the Creative Relevant


When your display advertising matches the relevancy of the publisher’s visitors, eureka!

Purina Pro Plan and PetSmart have clearly teamed up to target newly adopted pet parents with their messaging. Really, there’s little reason to visit Petfinder, unless of course you’re considering adopting a new furry family member. But the creative is very relevant – a new pet adoption kit ($160 value), clearly designed to fit the color scheme of Petfinder.

Include Price, Promotion, Exclusives, and/or Trust Symbols

FreshDesk Display Ad - Price, Promotion, Exclusives, and/or Trust Symbols

You have a limited amount of space to prove your point, use it wisely! Here, I’m met with copy that speaks heavily to trust (heck, it even uses the word in the copy). By incorporating a trust symbol – ‘trusted by more than 50,000 companies worldwide’ and an exclusive ‘30 Day Free Trial,’ it compels me to want to check out the offer and become the superhero of the office.

Use High Quality Images

Qualaroo Display Advertising - Using High Quality Images

Any marketer knows the frustration of a website visitor not converting. Not a marketer? Don’t worry – you can feel the frustration with this imagery!

Images in your display ads need to express the appropriate messaging. Not only is it good practice, but in many cases, using inappropriate images to gather attention, slander a competitor, otherwise distract a visitor, can get your ad banished from the display ad network, too. To keep your images on the up and up, images should:

  • Take up the Entire Ad Space You’ve Chosen.
  • Appear Correctly Aligned. Images shouldn’t be sideways or upside down.
  • Be Relevant, Clear, and Legible. Many networks will not approve copy that cannot be read or images that are not relevant or cannot be made out.
  • Be Brand Safe. Many networks assign ‘family status’ to ads to ensure they’re only shown to the appropriate audiences.
  • Not Contain Distractions. Strobing and flashing backgrounds are distracting, and not in a good way. They’ll likely never be seen either, as they won’t be approved.
  • Remove Spoofing Content or Text Ads. Remember, display ads need to look different than the rest of the website. Should they spoof content on the site, that’s not transparent advertising, and your ad won’t be approved.

Message Match Your Landing Page

Just like with search advertising, display advertising needs a strong, rooted message match. This means not only should your display image match that of the landing page, but all other offers must be buttoned up, too: price, item name, ratings, shipping details, discounts, etc..

Amazon Display Advertising - Message Match Your Landing Page

Remember, users bounce from websites when they have a poor experience. To keep them on your page, you need to give them a seamless experience. Consider it the brain-hack of digital advertising. Simply give the visitor what they expect to see, and hopefully they’ll purchase your product.

Use Rich Media

Rich media not only is visually appealing, but it’s a key driver of visitors to your landing pages. You’ve seen them in all their various formats, and they’re pretty easy to recognize.

Go to your favorite website containing advertising and look for the advertisements. If they’re flat, stagnant, and not moving, it’s not rich media. If the copy is changing, the background is moving, or the messaging is scrolling, playing a video, or contains audio — that, folks, is rich media.

Some examples of rich media include:

  • Expanding. A type of creative that will expand beyond the parameters of the original creative.
  • Floating or Interstitial. The ad creative appears to ‘float’ on the page or take over the full screen.
  • In-Page. This is a fixed position within a page. Usually the entire website will load before in-page advertising loads on a site.
  • In-Page with Floating. Pretty much as it sounds, an in-page ad and a floating ad for the same product or service appear at the same time.
  • Multi-Directional Expanding (MDE). The creative recognizes where it’s at on a page and ‘moves’ elsewhere on the page. For instance, an ad may recognize it appears on the far left, so it expands itself to the far right.
  • Multi-floating. Creative that acts as a single piece of creative, but borders or surrounds the page content.
  • Push-down. Creative that expands from the top down, ‘pushing’ the content out of the way to display the content.
  • Peel-down. Somewhat like multi-directional expanding rich media, only a small segment of the ad is show. When the visitor clicks that ad segment, it ‘peels-down’ across the content to display the ad.
  • Video. Incorporating a video into the overall creative design.
  • VPAID. Creative that appears either before, between, or after a publisher’s video that either fill (linear creatives) or do not fill (nonlinear creatives) the entire video player.

Don’t Forget About Mobile

Display Advertising - Don

Display advertising on mobile is a tough gig, but it works. Some reports say that as much as 60% of all online traffic comes from mobile, so optimizing programs specifically on mobile will pay off.

Sure, you’re dealing with a less-than-stellar amount of ad space to get your message across, but it is doable. For instance, Michelob Ultra hit me up with their ad on the popular fitness app, MyFitnessPal, telling me, at the end of my work day, I deserve a beer.

Yep, I do, and maybe I’ll just take you up on that, after I hit up the gym. Thanks, Michelob.

Others, struggle with the right balance between ad size and copy. Sure, interstitial ads are available, and work well, but they can also be annoying to close out on a mobile device. However, banners, like on the AccuWeather app, are particularly difficult to read, let alone see what they’re advertising. Striking the right balance between ad size and copy will contribute to the success of your campaign.

Lastly, some apps will even tell you when you’ll see advertising messages on their app. Thanks for the full-disclosure there, 6abc.

Sum of the story here, many of us use our phones on the go and even at home, so target visitors where they’re most likely to see you – on their mobile devices!


Display advertising is growing rapidly and can be easily triggered by simply understanding the user, their profile, and some basic information like interests, search history, location, or even past behavior. They’re excellent for branding campaigns as well as targeted conversion campaigns, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all concept.

A/B test your campaigns, copy, and creative to find your optimal mix, and you’ll be sure to generate successful display ad campaigns for yourself and your clients.

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