Turn Up the Heat(Maps) on Your Ads

Great design, strong copy, and strategic offers are all keys to an ad’s impact. But the first step is capturing attention. Understanding the basic elements of effective digital ads can save a lot of time and money — which is why we evaluated nearly a year’s worth of ads and how people interacted with them online.

How heat maps work

We analyzed what elements of ads drew the most touches and clicks (conversions), using innovative “heat map” technology. The heat map measures the time spent on the ad based on when a user’s pointer or finger (if using a tablet or phone) crosses into the ad frame and remains for at least one second.

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More than 40,000 impressions were analyzed to see exactly where on the ad users touched or rested their pointers or fingers. This data, along with action taken, revealed the factors that determined an ad’s success. Here are a few compelling discoveries:

Images are not (necessarily) where it’s at

Perhaps you have heard that images are always the best choice for ads. That’s a common refrain among advertisers. But heat map analysis showed that images are not always the best approach — especially images of people.

We tested three versions of the same ad for one of products, League One — one with a people-focused image, one with a product-focused image, and one with no image.

Here’s what we discovered about how users engaged with the ads:

  • We saw 1.2x more clicks on the ad with no image
  • There was a 40% increased click rate on ads without people images vs. ads with people
  • Viewers spent 6 minutes longer spent on ads with product image vs. people image
  • Ads with a product image converted at 1.3x the rate of ads with images of people

Avoiding images in your digital advertising, especially images of people, may feel counterintuitive to schools, camps, and classes, which often leverage photos of beautiful children in their advertising. But remember, digital ads compete with a lot of other aspects of the web page where your ad appears — some of which include video, audio, or other attention-grabbing features. In this context, a clean, simple message stood out.

Note also that the findings are strictly for these ads and may not apply to your market or to other platforms, such as social media.

Backgrounds make a difference

A simple background for your digital ads is often the best choice for making your message stand out. User behavior proved that people were drawn to solid backgrounds. They grab attention and drive clicks. It’s that simple.

However, your ad may need an image on occasion. When that’s the case, combine the image with a solid text background. According to our research, those ads may generate almost the same amount of clicks as a solid background alone.

Banner-sized ads generate more conversions

When it comes to the size of an ad, we found that the most popular size used by advertisers is the nearly square-sized 300×250. In fact, it’s used 2-4x more than any other size digital ad because advertisers seem to think it works best for allowing your ad to be visualized.

But we found that a banner-sized ad of 300×50 stands out as the clear winner on ad size when it comes to conversions.

Banner-sized ads are used only for mobile and apps, so increased mobile viewing could be the reason behind the higher conversion rate of this type of ad.

Here’s the skinny on the best and the worst ads

When it comes to the best performing ads, a solid background with text or a solid background with text AND a product image were stand-out winners, generating the most clicks and interactions from users. Additionally, these top 5 converters were horizontal and rectangular, rather than square.

The bottom 5 ads (in terms of engagement and conversions) all had one thing in common — images in the backgrounds. In addition, all were sized at 300×250 — popular among advertisers, but proven less effective by our research. Messages that were unclear or hard to read also contributed to poor performance.

The importance of testing

We hope these findings help provide some guidelines as you create your digital ads. However, it’s always best to test your ads, changing only one element at a time (including when and where they’re posted) in order to know which change is impacting your results.

As you experiment with ad elements, you’ll begin to find out what works for your audience.

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About Gina Calvert

Gina Calvert is the Senior Marketing Writer for ACTIVE Network, providing marketing and business resources for active lifestyle organizations across a range of markets, including government, nonprofits, camps, schools and endurance events, for more than six years.