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January 26, 2009 / davebirss

How to do a banner ad – PART 2


This is the second part of my ‘How to do a banner ad’ trilogy. I’m assuming that you devoured my last post on how to approach a brief for doing banners, so now it’s time to get you ready for coming up with concepts. Please give me feedback if you disagree with any of this or have any better advice to share.

Keep it short and simple

People don’t hang around much on the internet. They close windows if they’re not loading fast enough and they’ll instantly click away from pages if they don’t meet expectations. And your banner is somewhere on the periphery of what they’re actually there to look at. So you need to be quick.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau recommends no more than 15 seconds from start to finish (see what they have to say here). I’d recommend even less, if you can. One of the rules I use is to try to get the full storyboard into no more than 5 frames (here are some storyboard templates, if you need them). I’m known for preaching that you need to remove stuff until you have the simplest expression of the idea – and there’s nowhere that’s more true than with banners.

Go to where the people are

Over the last few years I’ve had numerous debates with clients who insist that their banners lead people to their website. I personally think this is a big mistake. It may boost their site traffic slightly – but it’s a waste of an engaged customer.

If a customer tinkers with your banner, they’re doing so in an environment that they’ve chosen and that they feel comfortable in. If you ask them to visit a branded website where they know they are going to be fed propaganda and be sold at, you’ll lose the vast majority of them.

If it helps, you can have tabs that offer more information or allow people to download PDFs or let them sign up to a newsletter or whatever. Don’t make your audience go any further if they don’t have to.

On nobody can hear you scream

Most media owners don’t allow you to use sound in your banners without interaction. This affects video banners most. If you’re putting a TV ad in a banner it’s a bit like watching a commercial break with the sound down. And few TV ads would survive that indignity unaffected.

When it comes to normal banners, don’t use sound to attract people’s attention. You can, however, use sound when people interact with your banner, by clicking on it or even just rolling over it. This has led to something that I really, really hate – the tiny button on a video banner telling you to click for sound. Hideous!

You can never be too rich

Most of the time you’ll be working with standard banners and you’ll have to deal with the file size restrictions that go with the territory. But occasionally you’ll get to work with ‘rich media’. That means you’ll have a lot more to play with when a user interacts with your banner – so this is where you get the opportunity to really do your stuff.

There are a few different ways that rich media can work and it’s a good idea to make sure you understand exactly what you’re working with before you start. Don’t make any assumptions. These things can vary according to the media owner, the ad server and technical advances. However, here are the main rich media options with examples from the wonderful bannerblog – click on the images to see the banners in action:


If a user rolls over the banner (hopefully on purpose) the banner area can expand across the page. Some of these start pre-expanded and shrink after a few seconds. Some don’t. Here’s a good example:


But there’s something important to point out with expandables – you don’t have to use the whole area. In fact, often it’s better if you don’t. Here’s another expandable that shows how to make it work for you without just stretching the containing box to fit the expanded dimensions:


Talking banners

If you’ve got more than one banner on a page, they can communicate with each other. That means an interaction in one banner can affect what happens in the other one. Like this:



I’m not a great fan of these because I find them so intrusive. But they’re an option and you just have to do them sometimes. And here’s one that was done particularly well, in my opinion:


User initiated video

With this option, you usually get a bit more filesize so that you can use a little bit of video to attract people’s attention. After they’ve interacted with the banner, you can start streaming more video. Like this:


Talk to the server

To be honest, this is pretty much the same as what happens with user initiated video. In both of them, the banners communicate with the server – but I thought I should split them up because they can be quite different effects. You see, what you can do here is get the banner to send stuff back to your own server so that you can process the data and then fire back information to the banner.

This piece from Crispin Porter is like a mini version of Subservient Chicken. You enter a word, it sends your word back to the server and then the server fires back the appropriate video response. If you were to store all the processing and video responses in the banner it would be huge. This is a much more efficient way of doing it.


I hope this guide is helpful to some people. Please give me feedback so that I know if I’m giving you the right information – and tell me if there’s anything else you’d like me to cover. If you’re really more interested in seeing the different creative approaches to banners in a bit of cheat sheet sort of way, you’re in luck. That’s the third part of the trilogy – and it’s coming soon.

Keep your eyes peeled for
PART 3: Examples of creative approaches for banners


Leave a Comment
  1. Dave / Jan 26 2009 7:03 pm

    I’ve been spending well over a million a year on banner ads and from my experience… A good static banner outperforms any kind of interactive or animated banner I’ve tried.

    My old boss once spent about 60K with a big ad agency to develop a set of interactive and animated banners – in the hope that they would outperform my simple designs but with no luck.

    Also… It all depends on what you goal is.

    If you are trying to get a message across – You want something people are going to look at and hopefully get the message (If you create an eye-catching banner – Mission accomplished)

    If you want a direct response – You will want something that people need to click on if they want to learn more. (No clicks = The design was a failure)

  2. Bob Nobody / Jan 27 2009 9:59 am

    Dave, do you work for Because all those ads do is catch my eye and then make me want to kill the people who work there.

    If all you want is eyeballs and clicks, all you’ll get is incremental ROI (but hurray, it’s measurable!) and lots and lots of NOISE.

    Already, ad agencies and big brands are complaining that the internet is losing its effectiveness. Before long, it’ll be like newspapers or radio — too cluttered to be seen as a serious media vehicle.

    • davebirss / Jan 27 2009 12:24 pm

      Hi Bob,

      It’s no secret that I don’t like banners. Like you, I generally find them intrusive and ugly. And as a site owner as well, I get irritated by distracting ads on MY pages. In an ideal world there would be no banners. But this is not an ideal world. We’ll have banners for a while yet because:

      – there are lots of sites that have advertising as their revenue model. Without it, they wouldn’t exist.
      – big companies understand banner advertising because it’s so similar to print advertising. And – as you say – it’s measurable. So they’ll throw money at it even if it isn’t that effective.

      But there are changes happening. The first is that the creation of banners is slowly migrating from digital agencies to traditional advertising agencies. That’s what my guides are for – mainly to help traditional ad folks get their mind around this new stuff they’re having to do.

      But in the longer term there’s another change that will happen (that I’m sure we’ll both be happy about). When the web started, people borrowed from the models of the real world to build their digital stuff. As the web grows and develops, this tide will start to move in the other direction again and real world will be more effected by digital stuff. This is all good when digital is a great place to innovate and try new stuff without taking too much of a risk. So some pretty radical models can emerge – and pretty rapidly too. And with any luck one of these models will be a good revenue model that doesn’t require distracting skinny boxes to be shoved all over the content.


  1. How to do a banner ad - PART 1 « The Dictionary of Specific Generalities
  2. How to do a banner ad - PART 3 « The Dictionary of Specific Generalities

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