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How to Create Ads People Want to Click

John Tabita

If you’ve been in the web industry less than 10 years, you don’t realize you’ve been standing on the shoulders of giants.

It’s commonplace for those in digital media to disparage print advertising like Yellow Pages. But were it not for countless media studies conducted over the years, we’d have no clue how to make an effective ad.

Each year, the Yellow Page industry commissions a Metered Ad Study. Third-party media research firms place call-tracking phone numbers on nearly 200,000 display ads. This measures ad performance metrics like average number of calls, cost per lead, and return on investment.

The study reveals an interesting phenomenon. Often, two ads of the same size, both placed in the same heading, will get radically different call counts. When one ad gets 87 calls a month and another ad gets 22 — researchers want to know why.

They found that ads under-perform when they lack information consumers need to make a buying decision. The Yellow Page industry used this data to develop a list of six factors that every ad should include.

These work because Yellow Page users are further along in the decision-making process. But unlike Yellow Pages, the Internet allows people to conduct research as part of the buying process. So to create ads that people want to click, your ad must first be relevant.

Creating Relevant Ads

In 1999, the best-designed minivan ad could not have enticed me to buy one. But in 2000, my family grew by one and minivans became relevant to my needs. Suddenly, minivan ads were everywhere.

Even the best designed minivan ad will struggle to entice you --  until your family grows big enough that you need one.

Even the best designed minivan ad will struggle to entice you — until your family grows big enough that you need one. Photo: John Lloyd

According to appointment-setting guru Scott Channell, “60 percent of your prospecting success will come from simply hitting the right targets.” This applies to all advertising and marketing.

Home Depot learned this lesson the hard way:

The company arrived [in China] in 2006 armed with its popular slogan: “You can do it. We can help.” But cultural studies have shown that most people in China don’t want to do it themselves. They want someone to do it for them.

Six years later, Home Depot closed all its stores in China. As Home Depot CEO Frank Blake later told Fortune, “In China, doing it yourself is not a point of pride.” Oops.

Make sure to present the right message to the right customer. People don’t read ads; they read what interests them. Before you consider placing an ad buy (or going to China), identify your target audience.


Usability includes readability, design elements, and effective ad copy (e.g., compelling headlines and call to action). Let’s talk about each.

Headlines in PPC ads

PPC ad

If I’m searching for a personal injury attorney because I’ve been hurt in a car accident, then Hurt in a Car? will capture my attention far better than Smith and Jones, Attorney-at-Law.

In advertising, the headline is the single, most important element of your ad copy. With pay-per-click advertising, the headline is one of three available lines. So make it count.

One way to make PPC headlines more effective is Dynamic Keyword Insertion. This causes your headline and ad copy to match the search query. (Notice that my search query business cards online appears in both.)

Headlines in Display Ads

In display ads, your headline is not the most important element in your ad copy. It’s the only element in your ad copy.

Search advertising targets buyers who are looking for a seller. But consumers who see your display ad are consuming content rather than searching for your product or service.

That means you must draw your consumer’s attention away from what they’re reading. So your display ad must combine a strong headline statement and appealing graphics.

Design Elements in Display Ads

With outdoor advertising, you have three seconds to capture the consumer’s attention. So take a page from basic rules of billboards design:

  • Short copy
  • One offer
  • Clear graphic
  • Readable typeface
  • Show it, don’t say it
  • The more impressions, the better

Vista print business card ad

But outdoor advertising is not a direct response medium. So be sure to include a call to action in your display ad.

Like commuters traveling at 60 mph, web surfers are not looking for your product or service the moment they see your ad. This is why display advertising has a low CTR (.05%). It’s better suited for branding and exposure than generating immediate leads or sales.

That said, research suggests that display advertising can increase the effectiveness of your search ads:

We consistently see SEM (search engine marketing) spike when a banner buy is in market. Clearly banners have a demonstrable effect on awareness even if they don’t generate an immediate click.

Uncovered in the ruins of ancient Rome and Pompeii were signs advertising taverns, gladiatorial games and property for rent. While they couldn’t measure impressions and CTR back then, the principles of effective ad design are almost as ancient. Deliver the right message to the right customer at the right time. It worked for the Yellow Pages and in Ancient Rome. It can work for you, too.