Guide to Creating Compelling Advertising Creative

Online advertising seems so darn simple, doesn’t it?

You set up an ad, give a person a compelling reason to click it, specify who you want to show it to and…BAM! As if by magic traffic on your site abounds.

So then, tell me:

Why isn’t it working for you?

Ad after ad you launch fail to generate any significant results.

Sure, you get some visitors, maybe even sales. But on the whole, it’s nothing compared to what you’d hoped for.

However, your ads’ poor performance doesn’t mean that audience doesn’t want your product or that you’re targeting wrong people. It might as well be that your ad creative failed to grab their attention and convinced them to click the ad.

And in this post, I’ll show you what makes a compelling ad creative and how to create online ads that will drive wads of qualified traffic to your site.

What we’re going to talk about in this guide:

  • Do online ads actually work? And is there any point in launching them in the first place?
  • Why good creative makes all the difference?
  • What makes a good online ad?
  • How to overcome the trust issue in online advertising?
  • And finally, we’re going to go through all typical online ad elements (like the headline, colors or images). We’ll discuss how they affect your target audience and how to create them to attract more qualified clicks.



Do Online Ads Still Work?

I’m sure you’ve heard quotes like these already:

“Traditional marketing is not dying – it’s dead! The era of marketing as we have known it is over, dead, kaput – and most marketers don’t realize it.”

—Sergio Zyman, former Chief Marketing Officer, Coca-Cola – The End of Marketing As We Know It. New York: HarperBusiness, 1999.


“Yet most advertising is ineffective. Mathematically, that has to be true. In a given market four or five brands will develop marketing programs designed to increase market share. Yet on average, no one will increase market share, which in total remains at 100 percent.”

—Al Ries and Jack Trout – Bottom-Up Marketing. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981. pages 152, 154, 194, 195.


“Every day you’re exposed to more than four hours of media. Most of it is optimized to interrupt what you’re doing. And it’s getting increasingly harder and harder to find a little peace and quiet…The ironic thing is that marketers have responded to this problem with the single worst cure possible. To deal with the clutter and the diminished effectiveness of Interruption Marketing, they’re interrupting us even more!”

—Seth Godin, Permission Marketing. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.


I’m also sure that by now you’ve heard all the stats too:

  • Outbound leads have only 1.7% close rate (compare to, for example, SEO leads closing at 14.6% rate) [ 2012]
  • Twice as many marketers admit that inbound marketing delivers a lower cost per lead than outbound strategies. [ 2014]
  • Content marketing generates 3x as many leads as outbound strategies and costs 62% less [ 2013]

And so on and so forth…


At the same time, though, there’s plenty of data to suggest that there’s still place for online advertising in business marketing strategies:

US Digital advertising revenues hit another record quarter in Q4 last year. [ 2015]

As Sherrill Mane, Senior Vice President of Research, Analytics, and Measurement at IAB noted:

“Brands and agencies are focusing ever more attention on interactive screens, following consumers as they flock to digital platforms to be entertained, engaged and informed,” — [ 2015]

Ad recall from sponsored posts on Instagram was 2.9 times higher than Nielsen’s norms for online advertising. [ 2015]

In 2014, advertising on search engine sites (i.e. Adwords, Bing Ads) was the most effective advertising channel. [ 2014]

online-influence 2014


And sure, online ads’ CTR might still linger at 0.06% to 0.27% on average. However, given the raise of mobile, many forms of online advertising enjoy a resurgence.

For instance, mobile media time is greater than desktop.


internet-usage-trend 2015


And 48% of mobile users start their product research in the search engine:

search-start 2015


All in all, online advertising is still a much-needed part of many companies marketing strategies.


Why is Good Creative is So Important?

For one, because ad quality has a direct effect on the sales.

A 2010 study by ComScore found that ad quality drives 52% of sales changes.

comscore-ad-quality 2010


As the study points out:

“Getting the creative right is absolutely essential, and yet its importance so often gets minimized in the process of developing an ad campaign. Now is the time for advertisers using digital, as well as more traditional media, to get serious about optimizing their creative on the front end so they don’t get a rude awakening when the ads don’t work and they are left wondering what went wrong.”

Ad Quality also drives ad awareness

According to “The Power of Creation” study by OVK (direct link to the study (PDF)), discovered that whether an ad will be viewed largely depends on its creative:



Also, according to the study, the creative also affects how long a person will view an ad for:




Ad creative also helps to maintain ad’s engagement in a long term.

A research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2013 found that:

“[…] the longer a creative ad is aired; the more impact the creativity has on sales.”

And also:

“The impact of creativity was initially relatively small but typically gathered momentum as the campaign rolled out.”

So to sum it up, creativity helps the ad gets noticed, viewed and affects sales, also in a long term.


What Makes a Good Ad Creative?

I know, it’s a million-dollar question…

But just like there is no secret formula, there are certain factors we know that affect an ad’s performance.

A good ad is:



Displaying your online ad to the very people who are currently looking for what you offer is bound to generate positive results.


Attention Grabbing

It’s kinda obvious, isn’t it?

For an ad to work, your target audience has to actually see it.

Using a combination of various creative techniques, from a headline, ad copy, images, colors to a call to action, you can draw a person’s attention to the ad.


Communicates Its Key Message in a Clear Way

A good ad also provides information about the offer quickly and succinctly. For instance, the most successful ads use the headline to tell most of the story and the main copy to reinforce a person’s decision to act on it.


Connects with the Audience

And finally, a good ad is relevant to a very specific segment of the audience. This means relating to their needs and wants but also using creative elements they are likely to respond well to and identify with.


Trust and Credibility in Online Advertising

Even though the customers’ trust in online advertising is growing, more than half of us are still cautious about claims made by companies in their ads.

advertising-trust 2013


But what’s the problem with trust online?

We use trust as a filtering element to help us make the final online purchasing decision and avoid making bad choices.

In 2012, two professors from Priyadarshini Engineering College and S. B. Patil Institute of Management respectively developed a model for online buying behavior.


In the model, they identified 3 filtering elements buyers use when making purchasing decision online:

  • Security Concerns,
  • Privacy Concerns, and
  • Trust and Trustworthiness.

According to the model, if we discover any issues with the trustworthiness of an online information, especially if it relates to the buying process, we back down.

The same applies to credibility.

When browsing for information, we pay attention to cues that confirm credibility. And this behavior relates to online advertising as well.

According to BJ Fogg, one of the key people researching this issue, credibility is:

 “[…]  believability. Credible people are believable people; credible information is believable information. In fact, some languages use the same word for these two English terms.”

— What Makes Web Sites Credible? A Report on a Large Quantitative Study. 2001

He also identified two key characteristics of online credibility:

  • It is a perceived quality. Credibility doesn’t reside in any particular person, object or characteristic.
  • It’s multi-dimensional. We perceive credibility as a combination of a number of characteristics simultaneously. And the two key characteristics are – trustworthiness and expertise (source).

According to Fogg, we assess credibility by the Prominence – Interpretation system. Whenever we’re trying to establish if an ad, for example, is credible, two things happen:

  • We notice it (Prominence) and,
  • Based on those multi-dimensional aspects, we judge the ad (Interpretation).

Therefore, to be seen as credible, your ad must feature elements your audience is likely to interpret as credible.

How do you overcome trust and credibility issues in online advertising? With a compelling ad creative.


Creating A Compelling Ad Creative

Take a look around you (or to make this more relevant to the online world, flick through all the tabs you have currently opened in your browser):

You’ll see tons of ads in different formats, sizes, and shapes…

You’ll see different Adwords ads in Google. Some of them are just text, others include images, sitelinks, price information and even buttons allowing you to call a business.

You’ll see similar ads on Bing.

If you’re on Facebook, your sidebar is most likely filled with Facebook ads. Some might also appear in the newsfeed.

You see sponsored tweets when you log in to Twitter.

You notice ads in your mobile Instagram stream and on Pinterest.

Then there are banner ads in headers and sidebars of your favorite blogs. Some of these might come from the Google’s Display Network, others from other advertising networks like

Then there are different types of retargeting ads.

Reddit ads.

InApp ads.

Video ads in YouTube.

And many more.

In fact, an average adult sees over 360 ads a day.

media-exposure 2014


It, therefore, comes as no surprise that we ignore up to 82% online ads (and 59% of ads placed in search engines).

ignoring-ads 2014


So how do you ensure that your creative catches a person’s attention, communicates your offer and compels them to act on it?

Let’s take a look at how to create the 5 most common elements of online ads:

  1. Headline
  2. Ad Copy
  3. Images
  4. Colors
  5. Call to Action


Writing the Headline

It goes without saying:

The headline is the most important element of your ad.

For one, it’s what grabs a person’s attention.

With so many ads you see simultaneously, a headline is what’s going to attract a person to your ad.

A headline should define your audience.

A well-written headline should also help you pre-qualify the audience and highlight if what you offer is actually for them. After all, if you’re advertising health insurance to seniors, you don’t want young people to click your ads (unless they research insurance options for their parents, of course).

It should also deliver the complete message.

According to David Ogilvy, 4 out of 5 readers will read the headline but skip the rest of the ad (as per statistics Bob Bly quotes in The Copywriter’s Handbook).

And therefore, it makes sense to include the complete offer in your headline so that the 4 people, at least, get accustomed to it, even if they skip the rest of the ad.

Finally, it should also compel people to read the ad copy.

Many products require additional information to a person before they make a decision to click the ad. And a headline is the one element that could compel them to read it.

There are many formulas for writing effective ad headlines. In his fantastic book, “The Copywriter’s Handbook”, one of my favorite copywriters, Bob Bly, presents 7 headlines that are guaranteed to compel readers to take action.

Headline Formulas:


1. Direct Headlines

To grab a person’s attention, your headline doesn’t have to include a catchy wordplay.

Sometimes, stating the offer in the simplest terms might be more effective to achieving your objectives.

As their name suggests, direct headlines go right to the point. For example:

Baxter Shaving Brushes – 30% off.

This headlines’ strength lies in simplicity. They don’t force a person to process the headline to get its meaning but offer them the benefits upfront.



2. Indirect Headlines

This headline type targets our natural curiosity. Their aim is to raise questions in a person’s head, rather than deliver the offer directly.

For example:

“What you can expect from marketing automation”


3. News Headlines

If you’ve launched a new product, feature or made changes to an existing one, you could use them as an ad headline too.

For example:

“Introducing the New Gillette Razor”

“Now Shipping to Europe Too”




4. How-to Headlines

You see these headlines all over the internet these days. And for a reason:

As Bly writes in the book:

 “Many advertising writers claim if you begin with a how-to, you can’t write a bad headline. They may be right.”

How-to headlines promise an aid to help overcome target audience’s specific problem:

“How to Cure Acne in 3 Steps?”

“How to Promote Your New Business?”

Sure, they might not be suitable for all forms of online advertising (i.e. Google Adwords or Bing Ads). But if you’re launching a Facebook or banner ad, they might work perfectly.



5. Question-Based Headlines

Questions draw our attention.

I’m sure you’ve experienced something like this before:

You were buried deep in your thoughts oblivious of everything around you. But the minute you sensed that someone’s asking you a question, you immediately started paying attention.

Question headlines target what’s known a curiosity gap, a theory stating that **realizing that we don’t know something makes us crave to find that missing piece of information.



6. Command Headlines

Sometimes the best way to drive a person’s attention to the ad is by telling them exactly what to do. Simply.

For example:

Grab this free eBook now!

Sign up to win the free cruise!



7. Use Testimonials

I’m sure you already know the power of testimonials in online selling.

As many as 88% of customers base their buying decision on reviews and peer opinions.

In ecommerce, 61% of customers read reviews and testimonials before deciding on a purchase.

But did you know that you could use testimonials and reviews to attract a person’s attention to your ad too?

Often the best way to intrigue someone to view your ad is to offer a direct quote from a satisfied customer.

For example:

“This product helped me increase sales by 231%”

“With [product] we increased customer retention by 123%”



Are those headline formulas the only way to write powerful and engaging ad headlines?

No, of course not. There are many other tricks you could use. For example:

You could use negative superlatives to get more clicks

Hard to believe but it’s true:

Headlines including negative superlatives (i.e. worse, never) perform better than ads with positive ones (i.e. better, always).

According to a study conducted by advertising platform Outbrain, headlines with negative superlatives, on average, perform 30% better than the ones including positives.



Writing Ad Copy

A headline grabs a person’s attention. But it’s the ad copy that offers the proof convincing them to take action.

And so, the next step after creating a headline is to write a copy that will compel someone to click the ad and visit your landing page.

There are two approaches to writing ad copy:

You could use an emotional appeal and aim to generate an emotional response to your ad that in turn should motivate a person to take action.

Advertisers use emotions like fear, greed or vanity to entice customers to buy their products.

Here are a couple of examples from traditional advertising:


[ 1996]





The other technique you could use is a rational appeal. Show a practical benefit of your product or service to attract and persuade users.

Here’s how we’ve used this approach:





Choosing the Right Colors

Did you know we can look at the ad for just 100 milliseconds (that’s much shorter than a blink of an eye) and still understand it?

But here’s the catch – this works only if the ad has color in it!

And that’s because specific areas of our brain are particularly sensitive to colors and process them quickly. What’s more, they activate right after we see something colorful.

This also means that adding color to your ad is a surefire way to attract a person’s attention.

What’s more, you can use colors to communicate the emotion of the ad without having customers to read even a single word!

What colors to choose to evoke a different response from the target audience?

Disclaimer: I’m piggybacking this section on fantastic research by my colleague whom I share writing duties on another site with, Andrew Tate, who wrote a guide on using colors in advertising. You can read it here.

Make your ad red to get attention.

Apparently, we associate red with danger. And therefore, we’re attracted to it as it typically signals that something’s about to happen.

When promoting food-related products, use green

Green signifies freshness and nature.

For one, green things are generally good to eat and healthy.

Green is also the color of nature. Even though it boasts many colors, when imagining nature related things we think them green.

Luxury sells better if you dress it in purple

Historically, purple has always been associated with royalty and wealth.

It’s also the color associated with feminine and romantic.

Purple is also often associated with wisdom, dignity, independence, creativity, mystery, and magic.

But be weary of what shade of purple you use.

You see, light purple evokes positive feelings. But dark purple might make people gloomy and sad.

And finally, black signifies exclusivity

In many cultures black is associated with death or evil and often has negative connotations.

But, it also denotes power, elegance, and exclusivity.

If you’re promoting high priced products, black might help you convince viewers to their worth.

Of course, there are other colors to use. And as long as you remember that color can affect our perceptions of the ad, you should have no problems researching and identifying the most viable colors to use in your creative.


Selecting Images

If you’re launching text-only ads (like traditional Adwords format), you don’t have to worry about images to use.

But if your plan is to attract new buyers with Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google’s Display Network, banner ads, retargeting ads and many other formats, you’ll have to use images.


The type of image you use is going to have an effect on your ads’ performance.

For one, images affect our behavior.

And there’s plenty of research findings that confirm it.

For example, in this article, AdEspresso mentions a study from the University of California, that discovered how using non-rational images in advertising (i.e. fun, sexy images or ones having nothing to do with the ads’ subject) circumvents the viewers’ awareness, drops their natural guard against impulse purchases and ultimately, made them more likely to buy.

Or, according to a research conducted by Mark Rubin from the University of Newcastle,

“showing that pictures of companionship don’t just increase the giving of help, they also increase the intention to seek help.”

But apart from modifying our behavior, images also play subtle roles in advertising:

They help potential buyers visualize what you offer.

They attract attention.

And can communicate ideas that words would be ever able to convey.

Here are a couple of techniques you could use when selecting images for your ads.


Use Images that Show Emotion to Elicit Specific Response to Your Ad

Emotional approach is an old trick in advertising book and we’ve talked about it already when discussing ad body copy.

But did you know that you could also apply it to images your ads feature?

According to Neuro Science Marketing Blog advertising campaigns showing emotional images perform, on average, twice as well as those with the logical approach.


Why do these images work so well?

For one, according to the article, because emotions translate into symbols we immediately decipher and relate to our lives.

For instance, a smiling child might bring back memories or communicate a peaceful and joyful time we strive for.

Shocking images evoke pity and in turn, increase our willingness to help.


Feature Something Unexpected to Draw Attention

We’ve already talked about how showing non-rational images affects buyers.

And the simplest way to use this technique is by featuring something unexpected in your ads, a funny image or one unrelated to your product.

It might help drive attention to your ad and compel users to at least reading the headline.


Constructing a Call to Action

Depending on the ad type you’re building, you might have to use a different call to action (C2A).

For example, Adwords ads don’t feature an explicit C2A button. Instead, the headline serves as a link.



In this case, the C2A is typically embedded in the actual ad copy:



Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites allow for placing actual C2A buttons in their ads:



Banner ads often feature sections that look like buttons too:



But in spite of the ad type you’re launching, it must include words that will urge viewers to take the desired action immediately.


Here are a couple of tips that will help you write compelling calls to action:

Start your C2A with a strong command verb

Open your favorite search engine and put up any search. Then read through PPC ads that show up.

Look at ads in your Facebook stream.

Finally, visit your favorite blogs and take a look at banner ads in their sidebar.

And then, tell me what all the calls to action you saw have in common…

They’re all incredibly short, often containing no more than a handful of words.

For example:

  • Buy Now
  • Click to Download the Report
  • Sign up for Free

And so, when writing a call to action, you need to get your point across as quickly as possible.

You need to tell a viewer what you want them to do. And the best way to achieve it is by actually starting the C2A with this desired action.

Just take a look at those couple of examples I listed above. All define the action in the opening word – the command verb.

Include Your USP (Unique Selling Proposition)

In PPC ads, where you’re not restricted by the length of a button, include a reason why someone should click the ad – your unique selling proposition.

The simplest way to define USP is as an answer to a question what’s in it for the audience?

Will your product help them lose weight? Save money? Become more productive?

For example:





Use Numbers

Price is the key differentiator in many industries.

Many customers pay more attention to how much they’re paying for a product rather than where they’re buying it from.

And so, using price in your C2A might become a strong factor differentiating your ads from the competition.

Plus, anyone who sees price in your ad and decides to click shows high interest in what you’re selling.

And if you’re afraid to show the price just because it might seem to high, there are a couple of mind tricks you could use to make it look smaller.

Roundup prices

You see, our brains process rounded up numbers (i.e. $20) faster than if they contain decimal points (i.e. $20.15).

And so, if you want buyers to make a quick decision, display rounded numbers.

Reduce price by 1cent to make it seem lower

Did you know:

We pay the most attention to the leftmost digit and the least attention to the last digits of the price.

And so, reducing the price by 1cent often reduces the left most digit, making the price seem lower (i.e. 4.99 vs. 5.00).


Include Social Proof

Finally, instead of listing the price, use social proof to highlight your product’s popularity.

To find out exactly how social proof affects our buying purchases, check out my guide to social proof marketing by AdEspresso.

But to recap:

As humans, we exhibit what’s known as the herd mentality. We follow the crowd. The post lists many research experiments that have proved this behavior to be true.

And what’s important, this behavior also affects our buying decisions.

For instance, we prefer to dine in a busy restaurant, associating people already eating there with food quality.

Hire service providers based on the number of positive reviews.

And… pick products based on the number of people who have purchased them already.

And so, listing social proof in your C2a is bound to increase the number of clicks on your ads.

Here are a couple of social proof types you could use:

  • Star ratings and reviews,
  • Number of past customers:
  • Reviews and testimonials.


And, that’s it

We’ve discussed the benefits of creating a strong and compelling ad creative. We’ve talked about how it affects a person’s willingness to click the ad. And we’ve gone through all major elements of online ads, like the headline, ad copy, image and call to action.

All that’s left for you now is to go off and use this knowledge in practice.

Best of luck!

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