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Online marketing's creative worst practices

Ken Liebeskind
Online marketing's creative worst practices Ken Liebeskind

With the wealth of digital media, much of it new, the propensity to render bad creative executions is prevalent. From static banners to repurposed videos to awkward click-to-call mobile and social media executions, there's a ton of bad creative out there that jeopardizes client advertising and marketing initiatives. For every glimmering piece of online creative, there's much more that doesn't work and turns viewers off. The result isn't just a one-off, but rather the chance to alienate viewers on a long-term basis.

"Consumers have developed a banner blindness," says Lars Bastholm, chief digital creative officer at Ogilvy, North America. "The dilemma we're facing ranges from everything from static banners to viral videos. It's all encompassing."

What Bastholm and the other executives we spoke with realize is that every form of digital content is tarnished by a wave of bad creative that diminishes its value.

In this article, we span the digital horizon to identify the creative problems each form of digital content has experienced. Read on to learn where the problems in each area lie and determine what you need to do to avoid the creative mistakes that have been made in the past. By reviewing and acknowledging the bad creative, you can ensure your next execution will be fresh and vibrant.

One of the biggest challenges of email advertising is creating emails that can be viewed. Every email service, from Hotmail to Lotus Notes, features applications that disable email images, thereby making it possible that users will see an email devoid of images. The creative solution is to design emails that communicate with broken graphics and add HTML text next to the images. "The brand and offer should be stated in text, not graphics, so if the images are off you can see the offer," says Richard Evans, product marketing manager at Silverpop.

Full-scale emails with text and graphics don't always work. For example, an email for Bath & Body Works (below) was so overburdened with offer copy that it couldn't be read in one sitting. "An email is like a retail store window," says Lisa Harmon, principal at Smith-Harmon. "You should put enough in the store window to interest them to come into the store, but not the entire store. There should be a balance between enough info and so little they don't know what they're looking at."

Besides the body of an email, advertisers must prepare the subject line, which will fail if it doesn't include the brand name. You have a 32 to 60 percent higher chance of having a business-to-consumer email opened with the brand name in the subject line, Evans says. Use of certain words, like "free," in the subject line could result in spam filter blocks -- but "free" isn't necessarily banned, so use it carefully.

A common email creative problem results when print or direct mail ads are repurposed. "It makes no sense," Harmon says. "People are in a different mode with email, their box is cluttered, and you only have two to eight seconds to communicate the message to elicit a click."

Email copy should be short and to the point, and images should be real life, which produces more clicks than clip art, Evans says.

Another unsuccessful move is to include a limited number of links, which impedes response. "Having one link button is harmful; you should continue to provide links throughout the message as image and text links," Evans says.

Another creative problem arises when emails are created quickly, with little forethought. "The fast hit-send nature causes people to think less and put less time into the creative," Harmon says. "Email is one of the few channels that continues to perform in the bad economy, so people should put more time into the creative execution."

The advent of social media has been ripe with advertising struggles because the social media environment isn't necessarily conducive to advertising. Many marketers contend that posting static banners on social media sites is a no-no. "Eye tracking studies indicate that people don't look at them," says Andrew Frank, a Gartner analyst. "It's hard to names ones that didn't work because nobody remembers what they were."

While many studies indicate that banners don't work on social media sites, it appears videos don't always have the intended effect either. Dove's two-minute video follow-up to its popular Evolution video provoked protest from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which charged Unilever with hypocrisy for the conflicting messages of its Dove and Axe ads. This provoked a satire video that fused the Dove and Axe ads and "made the company look hypocritical," Frank says. "It's an example of a cautionary tale when you do video on social media."

People don't visit social media sites to view content as much as to interact with peers, which demands a different marketing approach. And sure enough, a different approach exists, as companies send posts to blogs and message boards seeking to instill messages about their brands.

But many of these efforts backfire because they aren't executed properly or they miss their target completely, according to Susan Getgood, principal at Getgood Strategic Marketing.

There are many examples of social media blunders. Skittles famously developed a Twitter-powered homepage that led to negative comments about the product on its own site. Pepperidge Farms' Fishful Thinking campaign sent a special invitation to mommy bloggers. When they replied and didn't hear back from the company, negative comments abounded on Twitter. The weight loss drug Alli started a blog that sought to generate comments from consumers -- but those consumers didn't want to talk about their weight problems. "Mistakes come from not understanding the right tool or using the wrong one," Getgood says.

While many recent video ad executions have offered intriguing forms of engagement, video ads that are repurposed TV ads represent a serious creative faux pas. "Chopped-up versions of TV campaigns don't work," says Bill Day, CEO of ScanScout.

The reasons TV ads don't work online is because viewers have already seen them, and they are too long to play with most online content, including the short video clips that play at YouTube and most film sites. Pre-rolls are getting shorter, but agencies that continue playing 30-second spots online risk alienating viewers, who may stop watching the content -- and possibly leave the site and not return.

With pre-rolls, the goal is to play an ad that is watched in its entirety. "We've found, over the impressions we've served, that viewers interact within eight seconds of in-page media and don't wait until the last 10 seconds of a 30 second video," says Mike Griffen, vice president of marketing and strategic development for EyeWonder. "You should put the call-to-action message up front if you want them to interact."

A recent video ad for "S. Darko", created by Moxie Interactive for Fox Home Entertainment, gave viewers the option of viewing four different trailers. This is an example of great video ad creative because it was interactive and promoted viewer involvement.

This is the way in which online video advertising can beat TV, says Day of ScanScout, which provided the technology for the "S. Darko" ad. "TV ads are made for the sit-back experience, and online asks users to get involved with the brand. Taking action is more valuable than sitting and watching for the advertiser and the viewer."

Another interactive video ad innovation comes from Hulu, which allows viewers to choose the ad they want to see. In this case, longer-form ads are OK since viewers are watching full-length TV shows, says Chris Allen, vice president of video innovation at Starcom.

In general, the evolution of online video advertising has revolved around creating alternatives to pre-rolls. Overlays, which were popularized by YouTube, are the most common replacement. With overlays, users click on small banners at the bottom of the screen to play them, which scores points for interactivity and viewer choice. But, Day notes, some overlay ads are awful due to their poor creative. Likewise, Allen says they don't work if they cover up too much of the content the viewer is watching.

Video ads usually play alongside companion display units, such as 300 x 250 pixel banners. What works is when the display unit syncs with the video -- an unrelated banner can be deemed a creative failure.

Alternately, some advertisers opt to create their own long-form videos, which can be viewed on their own as creative content. But Ogilvy's Bastholm is wary of them. "Just because you can make it longer than 30 or 60 seconds doesn't mean you should," he says. "A lot of virals are incredibly long and not better for it. Agencies have to learn from other industries how to write long form content. The story telling is just not there." In short, agencies that create video advertising must become talented filmmakers.

In-game advertising is currently experiencing rampant growth, but there have been a number of creative pitfalls along the way, from the overabundance of static product placement ads to irrelevant ads that don't fit the games.

The Madden football game initially went "too far in terms of ad placement," with too many ads that disrupted the game, according to Jay Krihak, a senior partner and group director of gaming innovation at Mediaedge:cia. The same criticism can be levied at the Shaun White Snowboarding game, which was cited by GameSpot.com as "the most despicable use of in-game advertising" in 2008. It was "a desperate attempt at product placement, loaded with Target branding, from obnoxious billboards along the icy slopes to a Target Chalet."

Dario Raciti, director of gaming at OMD, says the Battlefield game made the mistake of placing a dynamic ad in a futuristic shooting game, which was irrelevant. "Placing dynamic ads with signage for today's brands in a futuristic environment doesn't do anything for the advertiser or the user experience," he says.

Raciti says one of the biggest mistakes in in-game advertising is trying to replicate ads from real world environments. Placing the same billboard someone sees driving on a highway in an action game doesn't work because "when I'm playing a game and I'm running and shooting, there's no time to read a billboard and the copy on it," he says. A highly visible logo and brand name is sufficient for an in-game billboard, he says.

Another creative challenge for in-game ads is proper placement within the game environment. "We did a study that looked at placements where eyes [were] tracked in the racing genre and found that ad placements by the side of the road were less likely to be looked at than ad placements in the middle of the road," says Jonathan Epstein, CEO and president of Double Fusion.

In addition, in-game ad content must be carefully monitored. "Text-heavy ads are great for role playing games but not for racing games, because it's unlikely the user's eyes will focus on the message while racing," Epstein says. For racing games, a logo or short tag line is appropriate.

Other in-game ad faux pas include too-long ads that play before casual games, as well as casual games that are skinned with advertising in a way that the sponsor's logo serves as the background of the game being played. "It's easy to do -- lazy advertising that offers no value," Raciti says.

Above all, casual game advertising should be entertaining. "Players want to escape, and the last thing you want is too serious a message," Krihak says.

The introduction of the iPhone provided expanded opportunities for mobile advertising with landing pages that play rich media, including movie clips and other video. "The landing page experience can be 3D in nature, with the richness of the video [looking] much better than [on] other devices," says Tony Nethercutt, vice president of sales for AdMob.

But 90 to 95 percent of mobile advertisers' audiences still use WAP devices, which means the advertising is generally limited to standard text and banner ads. Banner ads are preferable because even if users don't click on them, they see the advertiser's image.

Ads that have been lifted from other media, including print and TV, don't work for mobile advertising because of the size disparity. "The ad takes up a bigger percentage of the screen in mobile, so there's only so much room to put the info," Nethercutt says. The amount of copy and the size of the image must be carefully monitored. "We say make it twice as big or else the user won't know what they're reading or have time to read it."

Another problem with mobile advertising is overload. "Someone puts up an ad that connects to a landing page and says, 'Watch the video,' and once the user gets there, there are 20 things they can do," Nethercutt says. "If the goal is to get more video views, move it higher on the page with a bigger call to action."

Scott Terger, managing partner at Fli Digital, says mobile ads that click to traditional websites don't work because the website is a larger file size that hinders the experience. Thus, mobile-specific landing pages are preferable.

Another creative challenge for mobile advertising is the need to select a product or offer that's consistent with mobile usage. Kent Johnson, director of business operations at Platform A-Mobile says a national bank campaign failed when it offered the wrong product. "People aren't looking to refinance a mortgage on a handset or can't absorb the info on that front," Johnson says. "They redirected the effort to let people check their balance, see if a check cleared, and find out where the nearest branch is."

Johnson also says click-to-call campaigns "had their day" and aren't popular any more. "Users might be interested in the offer but aren't ready for a call, so setting up contact on a landing page is more successful than sending them straight off to a call."

The biggest creative problem facing banners is that that the static GIF image is a dinosaur. "It's ancient image technology," says Ross McNabb, director of digital advertising at Eyeblaster. The whole idea behind static banners (i.e., generating click-throughs) is losing ground because click-throughs take users away from a page that contains entertaining content that seeks to keep them there. Today's successful banners feature video or game content that allows users to view it without leaving the page. Static GIFs are a creative dead end.

McNabb cites two other reasons banners can fail creatively:

  • An advertiser's brand name isn't easily identifiable throughout the execution, with no clear call-to-action.

  • Poor frequency management, which exposes viewers to the same ad over and over again, is a sure way to command inattention.

There are also examples of banner executions that failed creatively because of their hideous content. The LowerMyBills.com campaign, which features silhouetted dancers and other characters prancing around copy promoting loan applications, was so outrageous it prompted a software developer to start a blog that critiqued the ads as "aesthetically bad," according to a tech producer for The Martin Agency.

A widget for the Los Angeles Dodgers offers a dynamic feed for each game with video highlights. A widget for a local utility company provides static gas prices. Any idea which one's the winner?

"You must have appealing content or results will plateau over time and drop off," says Peter Kim, CEO of Interpolls. "Very static widgets are bad. You have to give them something back for taking the action."

The action is placing the widget on a social media page, which is a big step because users don't want to clutter their pages. "Once they place it on their page, others will be exposed to it, and they'll place it on their page, too, so it's a large advantage for marketers," Kim says.

Since teenagers are the most common recipients, the content must include video, and it must play fast. "The youth market has attention deficit disorder, so you only have a split second to draw them in," Kim says. "Using Flash animation for 10 seconds before you show the video isn't good."

Successful creative for widgets must include entertaining content that is updated on a daily or weekly basis. "Having dynamic content as well as video are the key features we've seen in executing a high grab rate for the viral effect," Kim says.

Virtual world advertising that works -- such as the Kool-Aid Man with jiggling ice cubes seen on WeeWorld -- integrates into the lifestyle of the world's avatars, says Lauren Bigelow, WeeWorld's general manager. Advertising that doesn't work includes logos slapped onto virtual world merchandise and, of course, plain static billboard signage.

"Standard banner ads in virtual worlds are a complete disconnect," says Debra Aho Williamson, an eMarketer analyst. "If you don't pay attention to banners online, why would you do it in a virtual world where there's so much going on around you? Anything that doesn't fit in with the world doesn't work."

"Pop-out windows pushing a product derail the user experience in virtual worlds," says Barry Gilbert, vice president and research director at Strategy Analytics. "One of the key things is to build unobtrusive advertising that's less in your face."

Bigelow agrees that pushing products is a losing proposition, while making branded products part of the user experience works best. Visitors to WeeWorld become avatars who buy clothes with WeeWorld currency, which paves the way for apparel advertisers to show their wares. Cover Girl successfully promoted its make-up by offering it for free to avatars, and Skittles candy offered hats, bathing suits, and skateboards that visitors donned. This strategy works because "it spreads," Bigelow says. "Once you get it, your friends see it, and they all become brand ambassadors."

Even advertising for less desirable products can work. A razor that was advertised in WeeWorld shined when it touched an avatar's legs. "It was the opposite of slapping a brand, it was integrating it into the things they do," Bigelow says.

What didn't work at WeeWorld was an attempt by an apparel manufacturer (that Bigelow declined to name) to simply stick its logo on clothes. "They applied old advertising techniques to a new medium," she says.

In some cases on Second Life, visitors have soundly ignored some of the stores that brands have created in the virtual world. Because the stores weren't properly integrated into the user experience, there was no reason to visit them.

In general, many marketers view virtual world advertising as being relatively new and untested. "What's the appropriate media for the advertising and how you develop effective and unobtrusive campaigns, no one has the answer for that," Strategy Analytics' Gilbert says.

Actually, WeeWorld would beg to differ.

Ken Liebeskind is a freelance reporter and copywriter who specializes in digital advertising.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Tom Cunniff

2009, July 16

I believe that creative in online media works in a fundamentally different way than traditional media. This is because online is primarily a "do" medium, while traditional media is almost entirely a "view" medium.

Task-focused people can have what is known as "inattentional blindness". I've blogged about it here: http://tjcnyc.wordpress.com/2009/06/22/inattentional-blindness/

Commenter: Lee Freund

2009, July 16

The problem with display ads is that most creative agencies do not know how to create successful ads. Poorly designed creative, with ambiguous calls to action and little to no connection to campaign objectives - do not work. For those of us who work with digital agencies on display creative development, the work we see is quite shocking. Agencies currently build display ads based on gut, not actual campaign objectives and prior success learnings. Millions of dollars are invested in media yet just pennies in creative. Until marketers and agencies begin to focus attention and resources on creative, we will continue to hear that "display ads do not work". Unfortunately, the main driver here is the current agency business model which yields maximum revenue from building web sites not display creative. Here's a start... "Learn More" is not a call to action.
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Commenter: JR Hopwood

2009, July 15

RE: Banners

I would just like to add that we have found (and I have found at other companies as well) that static banners actually tend to work better on media sites. When I say 'work better' I mean the analytics on the back end, because any Digital Marketer worth their salt knows CTR is a somewhat irrelevant metric. I think the reasoning behind this is that rich media type ads distract the user from their ultimate goal; reading a story. However when a static banner (obviously well-timed, good logo and product placements, good message and fresh) is displayed it may peak my interest as I'm reading the story, or after, but never deters me from what I'm doing (just there, saying hello). We tend to get more qualified leads through static vs. rich media/video/etc and I think the only reason is the distraction theory. Because when it comes down to it, I'd rather have a low CTR but through the roof conversion, versus a High CTR and low KPI conversion. Just depends on your industry I guess...