How can we design performance ads that actually perform? This seems like a simple question.
The simple answer is, create ads that are relevant to the people who are looking at them. But the reality is subtler than this.
Put simply, the goal of a performance ad is to get a user to click on it. And it's easy to create relevant ads that simply don't perform.
So how can we design the online user experience so that users will actually click on the ads that they see?
The Key: Task Flows
When on the web, users are engaged in tasks. Tasks have a start, some steps, and a goal. A user is engaged in a task, trying to accomplish some goal.
The task need not be all that complicated, and might only have a few steps. But without understanding tasks and task flow, it's easy to get performance ad placement completely wrong.
The user's task might be, for example, to read an article, and to understand what's in it. Here, the user starts at the beginning of the article, clicks or scrolls in increments to see sections of the article in sequence, and finally reaches the end.
For a performance ad to be effective, there must be a chance that the user will click on it. For the user to be motivated to click on an ad, the topic of the ad must be connected to the task that the user is engaged in. And for the user to be likely to click, the ad must be presented at a point in the user's task flow such that clicking on the ad won't interrupt the user's task.
The Two Principles of Effective Performance Advertising
So the two core principles of effective performance advertising are these.
- Relevance: Ad content must be relevant to the user's task.
- Non-interruption: Acting on an ad (clicking) must not be interruptive to the user's task.
An Example: Search Advertising
Consider search advertising. Let's say that I'm using Bing, and I'm looking for good ski vacation rental cabins around the Lake Tahoe area.
Here are the steps of my task:
- Go to Bing
- Search for [ski rental cabin lake tahoe” (or similar)
- Hit enter
- Review the search results page
- Click on a link on the page and explore the resulting page
- Go back to Bing and type in another search term based on what I've learned.
On any given search results page, there are organic results and paid results. The ads are, by design, relevant to my search term. So that satisfies our principle of relevance.
The key to search ads actually working, however, is that when users see them, they're at a point in their task flow when clicking on an ad doesn't interrupt them.
Indeed, in search, clicking on an ad is a natural next step in my overall task flow. I don't actually care all that much if I'm clicking on an organic result or a paid result (an ad). Both sorts of links are relevant to my task, and clicking on either type takes me forward in my task flow.
Designing the User Experience Around Ads
So, in general, how can you design a good user experience that leads to performance ads that work well?
- Map out the user's overall task flow. Understand where the user starts, what steps they take in the task, and what their goal is.
- Figure out how to associate ads with the topic of the user's task (relevance).
- Only put ads at points in the task flow where the user can actually click on them without interrupting the task (non-interruption).
Once you've mapped out the user's task flow in terms of states and transitions between states, you can usually figure out how to match an ad to the task. You can use information context from states in the task flow (page or other content), or declared user intent, or anything else that tells you what the user's task is all about. (Here, there are opportunities for contextual targeting, search term targeting, and even behavioral targeting.)
Determining relevance is trivial in the case of keyword search, but I would argue that in all tasks, there's always a clue regarding context or intent that will allow you to do some appropriate matching of the ad to the user's task. You just need to look for it, and understanding the user's task flow will help you find it.
This isn't complicated, but it's easy to get it wrong. Everyone involved with online performance advertising should design each user experience so that ads are only presented at points in the task flow where the topic of the ad is relevant to the task, and such that acting on the ad doesn't interrupt the task itself.
If you take care of these two principles of performance advertising, then performance advertising will take care of you.