Contrary to what some might say – display advertising is far from dead. Many successful marketers have built their entire company almost solely from display advertising. And no, these aren’t only big Procter & Gamble-style brands.
Many are small teams of scrappy direct-response marketers who have figured out a simple “shortcut” to making display traffic work. This “shortcut” has nothing to do with any kind of marketing hocus-pocus. In fact, it comes down to two simple words: competitive intelligence.
In other words: Look at what your competitors are doing on display and learn what’s working for them so you can leverage their results to spend smarter.
Although people might not think about it, ethically copying your fiercest competitors’ display advertising strategies might be one of your best business decisions.
As Pablo Picasso once said:
“Good artists copy; great artists steal.”
This mindset applies to the digital marketing scene, and we’re going to teach you how to dissect any successful advertiser’s campaign so you can avoid the pitfalls of display advertising.
Note: While Picasso did use the word “steal,” we urge you not to directly copy your competitors. That’s not the point and it can get you in trouble. However, there is nothing wrong with using what they’ve already found to work as inspiration to improve your display campaigns.
Traffic Sources & Ad Networks
There’s no chance of having a successful funnel if your traffic is of low quality. Luckily, this might be the easiest part of the entire competitive intelligence process.
There are literally hundreds of different ad networks, and the ad network selection generally follows the 80/20 rule: 80% of your traffic will come from 20% of the ad networks you test.
There are some basic recommendations for traffic sources, but you’ll always want to check the tags of an ad to see which network is serving it.
One way to do this is by looking at an ad’s script code.
For example, this DigitalMarketer ad on wikihow.com is being served by the Google Display Network (GDN) because it shows the “googleadservices.com” code when you view the source with Chrome’s “Inspect” tool:
You can access the tool by right clicking on any ad and clicking the “Inspect” tab on the dropdown. Firefox has a similar tool.
Another way to get an idea about which networks an advertiser is using is to download a free Chrome/Firefox plugin called Ghostery. Ghostery shows you all of the ad tags and trackers that are on a given page:
By using Chrome’s “inspect” tool or Ghostery, you’ll likely see some of the most popular ad networks pop up. Some of those ad networks include the Google Display Network, Conversant, BingAds, and many others. These are all of the networks that serve the traditional banner ads that people think of when they hear the words “display advertising.”
The next type of network you’ll want to test out is a new take on an old concept:
Native ads are designed to blend in with organic content. Sources estimate that native ads will make up 74% of total US display ad revenue by 2021. Many large advertisers have begun to allocate more of their ad budgets from traditional banner ads over to native ads.
Native ads work really well for advertisers in various markets…
- Native works for direct-response companies.
- Native works for health advertisers.
- Native works for ecommerce brands.
- Native works for big brands and software companies.
- And native especially works for publishers who want to drive traffic and increase ad revenue (ad arbitrage).
In other words, you’ll want to get in on this quickly, because your competitors are likely already testing out Native.
Today, the “big three” native ad networks are:
They are used by affiliate marketers, financial newsletters, cost-per-action advertisers, and personal finance advertisers:
They are also used by health and fitness advertisers:
Large brands like Walmart:
Health and beauty:
And just about everyone else.
Most advertisers can find some use for native ads. You just need to locate the perfect network, have the right ad, and test a variety of landing pages (you’ll see which ones you should test later).
There are hundreds—if not thousands—of ad networks out there. Many of them are relatively unknown, except to your competitors. Although they might be small, they can provide a huge boost in sales and ROI once you know how to find and use them through competitive intelligence.
Honestly, choosing ad networks might be one of the easiest parts of running a display campaign. Most advertisers only choose a few to buy with. However, the next part is where many marketers get stuck and where competitive intelligence earns its place in your marketing arsenal.
This is the step many people fail on. They use a high-quality network, they design great ad creatives with compelling copy, they optimize their funnel, and they even get a few clicks… But their CTR might be so low that it’s impossible to get out of the red. Maybe they’re getting traffic, but it’s not converting. So, they’ll often go back and change the ad copy and landing page copy.
Anyone who has tested out display advertising has fallen victim to the publisher trap. You might get clicks, but no one seems to be buying. So, you take a look at the publisher/placement report (the sites your ads have been showing up on). For example, you may see that the network is showing your ads for an enterprise software product on a celebrity gossip site.
While gossip sites tend to get a lot of traffic, it’s unlikely that someone reading those articles will be in the right mindset to sign up for a seven-day trial for a high-end help desk software.
Placing your ads in front of the wrong audience might be the #1 reason why display campaigns fail. It doesn’t matter how awesome your ad creatives and sales funnel are; the wrong person seeing the wrong offer will never work.
The best way to find publishers that work for your market is to look for publishers where you see your competitors’ ads popping up constantly. If you see an ad on a publisher or set of publishers, then you know that this specific ad creative and market will work for you as well.
However, there are a couple of different types of publisher selections being used. Keeping these in mind when you’re scoping out different publishers is the key to your success.
Contextual targeting is when the content of your ad creative/offer is directly related to the publisher’s content.
For example: Imagine you sell a digital course that shows golfers how to improve their short game. If you want to contextually target someone, then you’d show your ads on sites related to golf.
Here’s an example of a contextually targeted ad from Revolution Golf:
Another example is the classic “4 Foods to Never Eat” ad on a weight loss article:
Contextual targeting is used by almost every single advertiser. However, there are two other targeting methods you’ll want to pay attention to.
Demographic targeting is placing ads on sites that are relevant to the demographics of your target audience. This could include your ideal customer’s age, sex, race, economic status, education level, etc.
Here’s a great example on Weight Watchers:
Weight Watchers is not a clothing site. However, its audience is mostly female. Therefore, Zulily—an ecommerce brand that sells women’s clothing—is on target for the Weight Watcher’s audience due to its mainly female demographic.
Another classic example is alcohol ads that are shown during sporting events. Booze (in theory) has nothing to do with sports. However, beer and other alcohol beverages go together with the demographic of the main sports viewers, men.
Here’s an ad for Jim Beam on The Bleacher Report (a sports news website):
Demographic targeting is a bit more complicated than simple contextual targeting.
However, let’s take things a step further.
Psychographic targeting is targeting based on the values, attitudes, personality, or beliefs of the publisher’s audience. Psychographic and demographic targeting usually complement one another.
You’ll often see psychographically targeted ads on political websites. For example, Newsmax—a conservative news website—shows this ad from Mindhealthreport.com on a page about Muhammad Ali and the disease that killed him:
First, the ad is targeted at older Americans, considering the age and appearance of the man in the creative. Polls show that older Americans tend to identify more often as Conservative than liberal. That hits demographic targeting.
However, Conservatives also tend to be more religious. That hits psychographic targeting. Thus, an ad and offer all about how prayer can help improve your health is right on target for this publisher’s audience.
You’ll also see a lot of ads for the survival/prepper market on conservative sites. Here’s an example for a “tactical flashlight” on the same publisher:
The above example works because conservatives…
- Tend to be pro-gun
- Make up a large part of the security/survival market
Choosing publishers can be tricky, even with competitive intelligence. However, you’ll see results A LOT faster when you use publishers that are similar to your competitors’. But, if you don’t have an ad creative that speaks to your target audience, then you’ll see lackluster results.
That brings us to our next step in the competitive intelligence process…
One of the hardest parts of display advertising is consistently coming up with good ideas for ad creatives. There is, however, “inspiration” for you (or your graphic designer) every time you hop on the internet.
Most large advertisers rarely come up with amazing ideas out of thin air, and great ideas tend to come from competitive intelligence. But you need to be looking at the right ad creatives.
Ads to Look For
You’ll want to look for two types of ad creatives for your competitive intelligence:
- Ad creatives from direct competitors
- Ad creatives from direct-response advertisers in mass markets like finance, weight loss, and relationships
Competitors might be obvious, but why should you pay attention to direct-response companies in those three markets?
Mass markets, like weight loss, are the most competitive niches on the planet. Weight loss alone is a $64 billion dollar industry. It’s extremely competitive because it can be so profitable, and there are many weight loss advertisers who rely heavily on display advertising to bring in new business.
The competitive nature of the industry means these advertisers are continuously innovating. They are always testing new ads, new landing pages, and new traffic sources. They must constantly test in order to stay one step ahead of the competition. These companies know what works on display in general. With a few changes, most direct-response strategies can be used for any market. You can find little snippets of copy that you can transfer to your market.
For example, here are three ads from three different markets:
The markets are all different (mutual funds, website design, and weight loss), yet all of these ads are based on a similar concept: There are a certain number of things to avoid in order to see better results with whatever it is that your prospect desires.
Ads to Avoid
As we’ve said before, you want to make sure that you see an ad creative or landing page continually running in order to deem that it’s been successful for the advertiser. However, there is one exception to this rule:
You want to avoid relying on concepts from big brand ads, especially when it comes to ad creatives. For example, take a look as this ad from Kroger:
And this ad from Givology:
These two ads were not designed with conversions in mind. There is no copy or hook that compels you to click the ad. Both ads just have the company logos. Big brands run these ads because they almost always have an advertising budget that they must spend every year. ROI often takes a backseat to making sure that as many people see the ad as possible. They are just looking to burn through their budget, and that’s not the best idea for most advertisers.
The Most Important Factor: The Hook
Display ads are different than search ads. They need more of a “hook.” They need to be a bit more provocative and snap the browsers out of their daze and get them to click the ad.
Most of this is done by using emotionally compelling copy. While specific words are important, it’s the emotions behind the copy that make people click and, ultimately, buy.
Sure, the headline is important. Yes, the call-to-action is important. You should test them, but it’s the emotions that are the most important thing to be on the lookout for when you’re analyzing new angles and hooks to use in your ads. Here are a few examples.
Curiosity is why those “you won’t believe what happened next…” ads work so well. After all, we really want to know what happened next! If you make people curious enough, they won’t be able to help themselves. They’ll have to click. And if they’re on target, they’ll have to buy.
One amazing example is InstantCheckmate, the background check company. Almost all of their ad creatives run off of curiosity.
Here’s an example:
People will be dead curious to wonder what exactly is online about them. It’s almost impossible to not click on that ad.
Direct-response advertisers are also pros at running ad creatives based on stories and curiosity. Here’s a great ad from the Palm Beach Research Group:
People see this and will be curious as to why social security “sucks” and how they can get an extra $4k a month. Curiosity is an amazingly powerful emotion.
Fear & Powerful Emotions
Many have heard the phrase, “people buy with emotions and reason with logic.” Marketing and copywriting is a transference of feelings. Make people feel a certain way and you’ll get them to buy. It’s nearly impossible to make a sale without reaching some sort of emotional bond.
The key to doing this is stimulating emotions in your ad copy and on your landing page. There are many emotions you can use, but the most powerful and most used emotion is fear. People will happily pay to be able to sleep at night.
LifeLock—software for identity-theft protection—uses fear to make sales during tax season:
These ads were…
- already addressing what was going on inside their prospects’ heads (that they need to pay their taxes)
- scare people by showing how easy it is to have their identity stolen
Or this PSA ad that uses fear to convince people they need to wear their seatbelt:
Fear obviously isn’t the only emotion you can use, but you’ll see many advertisers using it. Unfortunately, it’s easier to use negative emotions to get people in the mood to buy. However, you’ll need to see which emotions are being used to drive sales in your market. Fear might not be the best for your business.
Numbers in Copy
As you saw before, there are multiple advertisers using the “4 mistakes” or “4 things to avoid” angle. Numbers in copy are extremely powerful. A certain number of items is a “big idea” that’s easy to understand.
For example, there are three foods that are harmful, and you shouldn’t eat them. People get it. “There are three foods that I shouldn’t eat.” If you just said, “Harmful Foods To Avoid” without the number, it simply wouldn’t be as powerful.
We’ve also seen advertisers use specific numbers when it comes to discounts in ecommerce ads. For example, Zulily almost always uses the number “70%”:
We’ve also seen Wayfair use the 70% discount number in their text display ads:
What is it about the number 70%? I speculate that it’s high enough to make people want to click, but not so high as to make it unbelievable. The point is, there’s a psychology behind the numbers in your market that you should be looking at and taking advantage of.
This just scratches the surface with some of the hooks and emotions you should look for when doing your competitive intelligence. However, before we go onto the next section, we can’t stop without showing you a few native ads.
Native ads are a whole new ball game. Since there is less going on, there is much more to “swipe” here. Plus, you’ll often see multiple native ads from different styles of advertisers in the same widget. Therefore, you’ll likely be able to use pieces of copy from multiple markets and test them out in your own ad.
Viral sites and large publishers who wish to promote their content through native ads also have a very good idea of the type of content that drives clicks and shares on native. If you see the same types of content over and over again, then consider testing it.
As native networks begin to initiate a “cleanup” process, you’ll see fewer risqué ads. However, they’re still around and they still work.
Some of these images are more risqué than others, but there is always at least some sexual undertone to the image itself, even when the market itself doesn’t warrant it. Here’s an example of an ad for an insurance advertiser that’s not risqué per se, but it is using a bit of sex appeal to drive clicks:
Sex has sold since the beginning of time. It’s alive and well on native, and we don’t see it going anywhere any time soon.
Shocking and Weird
Society is full of voyeurs. Many people can’t help but look at the gross, strange, or just plain horrible part of everyday life.
Along those same lies, you’ll also see many health advertisers using pictures of strange foods and herbs in their ads. Here’s an example from a company that sells weight loss info products:
We live in an entertainment-based society, and celebrities are huge in native advertising. You’ll often see some of the most shared and advertised articles are about celebrities. Many celebrity ads are linked to listicles (an article written in the form of a list). These are mainly linked to viral content sites running ad arbitrage.
However, viral content sites are not the only advertisers harnessing the power of celebrity. There are advertisers who use celebrities in their ads and landing pages and then tie in a simple quote or piece of advice from the celebrity into the offer itself. For example, you’ll see a lot of finance advertisers using Warren Buffett:
Or this ad featuring a Shark Tank star that leads to a lead-generation advertorial for a mortgage refinancing offer:
The point is many native advertisers “borrow” celebrity credibility. Each market has its own set of celebrities, even yours. Think about how you can tie them back into your offer.
This might just be the most important process of your competitive intelligence because so many display campaigns do everything right up until the prospect lands on your site.
In display campaigns (often called “cold traffic”), the landing page is even more important because you’ll usually only get one shot at getting someone to do what you want on your site. Therefore, a cold traffic landing page needs to be very compelling, since you often haven’t built up enough trust before they landed on the site.
Different markets with different products and price points will require different landing pages depending on the length of the sales cycle. For example, it’s going to be difficult to get someone to purchase enterprise software that costs $2,000 without a bit of communication back and forth.
You probably have an idea about what the sales cycle is like for your market, but again, it’s crucial to look at what other successful advertisers are using on their landing pages. That being said, here are a few examples of landing pages that are currently working on display:
An opt-in page (also called “squeeze pages”) is a page where you offer to give something in return for someone’s email address. Lately, we’ve seen fewer opt-in pages on display.
Part of this has to do with specific ad networks placing more restrictions on the information that must be seen on an opt-in page. Another reason is that some marketers now say that the “money math” of sending traffic to opt-in pages just doesn’t work out.
However, there are markets where the opt-in page is still seen. These tend to be industries with expensive products and long buy cycles. For example, you’ll often see SaaS and Enterprise software/hardware companies using opt-in pages by offering a white paper in exchange for an email address.
Here’s an example from SanDisk:
As opposed to the opt-in, there is also the option to make the sale right there on the spot. There are multiple mediums that advertisers can test out, including, the long form sales letter.
The Long Form Sales Letter
This is the classic long form sales letter that leads the user down the “slippery slope” of compelling advertising copy. These are still prevalent on most sites but are not necessarily the norm on display.
Here’s an example for a thyroid supplement:
The Video Sales Letter
The Video Sales Letter (or VSL) tends to be the modality of choice for most direct-response advertisers on display. Most of these videos are PowerPoint slides with a voiceover combined with live action footage and/or animated text and images. Here’s an example from a direct-response advertiser selling a diabetes info product:
You’ll also see other companies using videos but not in a traditional VSL format. The Dollar Shave Club popularized their form of funny/entertaining sales video. Other companies have followed suit.
Here’s the landing page for The Dollar Beard Club, who uses a similar approach as the Dollar Shave Club in a sales video for their beard creams:
Many people simply prefer watching a video to reading. However, like everything, you’ll need to test various landing pages and discover what works for your market.
Advertorials have been the biggest change in landing pages to date. An advertorial is a landing page designed to look like an organic blog post, news story, or editorial story, but is actually a sales pitch in disguise. There are two main types of advertorials.
The first is an advertorial designed to look like a news story. Many financial advertisers in the mortgage refinance and credit card markets use advertorials that look like this:
Many advertisers often opt for using a different domain to host these advertorials. This is usually a domain with a name that sounds more like an online news site or a site that sounds more professional.
Another type of advertorial we’ve seen a lot of lately is what I call the “blogvertorial.” The blogvertorial is similar to an organic news story, blog post, or review, only the difference is the site appears to look more like a blog and it is almost always hosted on the advertiser’s main domain.
One great example is The Dollar Shave Club (not to be confused with the Dollar Beard Club). It sends a lot of traffic to these blogvertorial review pages that include a call-to-action at the bottom:
HelloFresh also uses blogvertorials to promote its food delivery service:
Common Ecommerce Landing Pages
Many of the pages you’ve seen can also work if you’re running an ecommerce business (especially advertorials and blogvertorials). However, one landing page that’s used by many of the most successful ecommerce business is the gated landing page.
The gated landing page requires visitors to enter their email address before they are allowed to browse the products. The opt-in box is often overlaid over a few different items, which acts as a bit of a teaser.
Zulily is a massive ecommerce advertiser that relies heavily on the gated landing page:
You’ll see that Wayfair (another multi-million-dollar spender on display) also uses gated landing pages:
Many advertisers might be skeptical about using this type of page, or a few of the pages in this post. These pages might seem annoying to visitors.
However, when multiple successful companies are using the same type of marketing funnel (not just limited to landing pages), you can be pretty sure it’s working.
This is the power of competitive intelligence. You’re no longer left asking, “does this really work?”
The last two tips for landing pages are the following:
- Test landing pages that you see are working for your market or ancillary markets.
- Test landing pages that you see working for other advertisers that your competitors might not be using.
For example, perhaps none of your competitors are using advertorials. However, since you know they are working for other competitive industries, they might work for yours as well. This could give you a leg up on competitors since you’d be one of the first to use a landing page style that your target audience is not used to seeing but might respond to.
Here’s a simpler, albeit important, lever in the process. You don’t want to do all that work by paying for a visitor and customer and have them leave right before buying (which is when many of them will leave).
Therefore, you’ll want to take a look at some of your most successful competitors’ and advertisers’ checkout pages across various markets.
Start with the very basics:
- What sorts of conversion elements are on the page?
- Are there testimonials? Seals? Guarantees? How is it laid out?
- What is the flow of the checkout?
- Are there any payment plans? If so, what are they?
- What happens after the user finally decides to buy?
Upsells and Downsells
More often than not, you won’t make a profit off of your front-end offer. Many advertisers don’t. They make a profit off of upsells, downsells, and continuity plans. Therefore, it makes sense to see what other advertisers are doing to increase their average customer value.
For example, here are the upsells for one of the biggest fitness products over the past couple of years, Old School New Body:
If I was going to sell a similar fitness product to the same target market, I would probably create upsells that were similar to the ones that this advertiser used. While you should never copy directly, using similar products made in the style of your product can only help you increase your average customer value on the backend.
One of the best investments that you can make is to purchase all of the successful products in your market. You’ll be able to go through the sales funnel yourself as if you were a customer. You can take screenshots of every single step of the process, and use this form of competitive intelligence when you’re designing your sales funnel backend.
But the backend competitive intelligence doesn’t end there.
Email Follow Up
Since the cost-of-acquisition on display can be expensive, you’ll need to keep monetizing your current customers even after they’ve run through your sales funnel.
What’s the best way to do this? Email is an essential tool in every single display campaign. All of the top marketers use email constantly to continue to monetize their current customer base. Your best future customers are the ones who have already bought.
You’ll see the advertiser from the previous section on upsells (Old School New Body) also consistently emails you even after you’ve bought the product:
These emails include new products, affiliate offers, and tips/tricks to build goodwill. They never stop monetizing their current customers, which is probably why the product is so successful.
Sign up for all the email lists in your industry. All of your competitors. Buy their products. Sign up for the email lists of all of the major direct-response companies (e.g. Agora). See what they do, and then implement their strategies into your own funnel.
Although they may never admit it, almost all of the most successful companies perform some form of competitive intelligence. It truly is the quickest way to take your company from the red to the black. It takes a bit of extra time, but you’ll find the increase in ROI is worth it.