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Every Picture Tells a Story: Non-text Contextual Ads

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Using non-text contextual ads, AdWords advertisers can run multiple ad media/formats: static banners, animated GIF or Flash banners, and video ads.

Text and image contextual ads need to distract attention away from the site's content. They must also accomplish the following in rapid succession: establish a connection with the viewer; offer a reason to look closely at the ad; pre-qualify viewers (if necessary); describe the action you want them to take on the landing page; and provide a call to action.

Let's take a look at a sampling of banner ads and see how well they convey these messages. First up is this ad from Tickle, a site that challenges visitors to take tests and quizzes.

The ad has one main strength: a clear call to action, in the form of the "Click Here!" button, in the lower right of the ad unit. That's perfect button placement, since studies show that's where the eye usually ends up after tracking down through the ad from the upper left.

The ad is weaker in other respects: first, unless the ad appears on sites specifically related to brain teasers and quizzes, there's only a slim connection between the ad's first main message -- "IQ Question" -- and site content (I found the ad on a site related to financial services). Second, since the main graphic elements are pictures of insects, the ad is more likely to attract the attention of backyard entomologists than quiz aficionados.

Let's move on to one of my favorites: this LowerMyBills.com ad.

The animated version of the ad shows a grainy amateur video of two women dancing in an office setting. One of them whirls towards the camera and is embarrassed to be caught in such an un-businesslike act.

The graphic obviously doesn't relate at all to the selling point of the ad, but since people seem to enjoy witnessing others' embarrassment, it's hard not to get engaged in the video. There's even a "replay" button, which I suspect is used pretty often.

The "Fed Funds Rate Dropped..." message is not particularly strong, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that there's a strong possible benefit. The call to action is clear and easy: select your state and click on the "Estimate New Payment" link, nicely presented as a standard underlined hyperlink.

Here's a weaker ad. Try to figure out what's being sold.

The ad telegraphs a benefit that can be motivating: the $9.99 price. But it's too difficult to figure out what's being sold and why I should buy it. Is it a plate full of olives? Is it two plates (including the mysterious object in the lower left)?

All in all, it's a weak ad with washed-out colors and even a wasted opportunity. On the right side of the banner, where the eye rests after the traverse from left to right, the valuable real estate that should contain a strong call to action instead features a confusing logo that fails to motivate.

Let's finish up with this winner from Colorado Technical University:

First, the overall design suggests a college diploma at first glance, which should attract/distract the eye of people interested in getting a master's degree. The benefit is clear and compelling -- what master's degree candidate wouldn't want to look into an opportunity to be finished with the whole thing in less than a year and a half?

I especially like the call to action, which simultaneously reinforces a powerful motivator: selfishness. "You Owe it to Yourself" flashes at the bottom left, attracting the eye with a message that's somewhat of a non sequitur, but one that's apt to receive a reaction of, "Hell yes I do!" The button simultaneously provides the action mechanism and sets up the pre-sale by telling the visitor what they should do when they click through to the site.

Next week we'll dig into the mysteries of non-text ad bidding strategy and quality score calculation. The truth is counter-intuitive, and may persuade you to change your mind about content campaign best practices.

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