What Display Advertisers Can Learn About Creative Optimization From Search and Social

creative optimization thunder ads

In years past, display advertisers have not been able to benefit from creative optimization because budgets couldn’t support the amount of creative work involved.

But today, emerging productivity solutions such as creative management platforms (CMPs), programmatic creative tools, and dynamic creative optimization platforms (DCOs) significantly reduce these barriers to high-volume ad production to a very manageable level.

These tools couldn’t have come along soon enough. The level of sophistication in media buying, targeting—and availability of audience data in general—has created substantial opportunities for advertisers to reach audiences with relevant, data-driven messaging like never before.

Creative management platforms and programmatic creative tools enable mass ad production that doesn’t sacrifice pixel perfection. These powerful yet intuitive technologies empower advertisers to generate versions and variations within minutes. Additional efficiency is captured through the ability to edit an individual ad unit and simultaneously propagate those changes across multiple ad sizes.

Dynamic creative platforms provide similar advantages by offering an intelligent and self-learning process that’s heavily automated. Ad designs become increasingly sophisticated through ongoing modifications driven by data from spreadsheets and live feeds. DCO requires significantly higher upfront investment[s] but the data-driven automation offers the most hands-off solution.

All three technologies enable the kinds of customizations that have been used in PPC and social ad campaigns for years.

While by no means a new practice in advertising, creative optimization is a relatively new practice in display. To learn how best to apply the creative optimization tactics made possible by these new technologies, let’s take a look at insights from the more mature channels of search and social ads, and see how they translate to display.

Creative Optimization Lessons from Search & Social


Ad text optimization—the process of improving performance of pay per click (PPC) ads—is one of the core activities of PPC managers. Always on the hunt for better ROI, AdWords gurus relentlessly optimize the creative for their campaigns.

Social ad managers also understand the power of creative optimization. In the realm of social, optimization can apply to both the text and graphics in an ad.

A high-performing PPC or social media campaign needs more than compelling copywriting. Achieving strong results requires:

  1. providing a specific and relevant offer to the viewer
  2. testing and optimizing subtle ad variations
  3. refreshing the creative over time

With efficient creative production in hand, all three tactics are now available to display ad campaigns, too.

The Basics: Optimizing with Creative Variations


Ad variations in PPC are absolutely imperative for success. For maximum PPC ROI, each ad group should have 2-3 variations at all times.

Common ad variations include:

  • by title case (e.g. “Summer Sale!” vs. “Summer sale!”)
  • varying the call to action
  • changing the description line

Display advertisers can learn from search that even a small batch of creative variations can add up to significant performance gains over time. These optimizations, when done correctly, also reveal general principles that can be applied to future campaigns to kickstart the optimization process.

In the social arena, one of the most obvious creative optimizations is trying different images. Facebook, for instance, makes this so simple that it encourages every new campaign to do this by default.

Above: Facebook encourages testing multiple images by default
Above: Facebook encourages testing multiple images by default

Creative Variations in Display

Optimization in display ads has the potential to be vastly more complex than its native ad counterparts in search and social, but it doesn’t have to be.

When putting together your optimization plan, first consider the goals of the activity:

  • What are we trying to learn with this campaign?
  • What questions are we going to answer?
  • How can we best design this test to meet these goals?

Many unfamiliar with creative optimization have superficial notions from website conversion optimization that it’s all about changing background or button colors.

While those experiments can produce positive results, creative optimization can be so much more powerful—revealing insights about what your audience cares about and responds to.

For example, a leading smartphone manufacturer may have a new model that is thin, light, has a great camera, and is waterproof. By creating a split test with four creatives, one promoting each benefit, and running that test against various audience segments, the manufacturer can learn which features and benefits appeal most to different groups of consumers. These insights can then be applied to campaigns in other channels, like TV, where impact is harder to track and measure than in digital display.

Start With Message Relevancy

PPC and social ad managers know that good creative begins with message relevancy. Both channels have extremely valuable audience data. This data can be used to customize ad units that will resonate better with specific viewers.

In search, for example, what the user is searching for gives clues to his/her intent. If I search for “Mazda CX-9 vs. Hyundai Tucson”, it’s likely that I’m in the market for a large SUV at a good value. Being relevant with a PPC ad’s messaging can be as simple as having the offer reflect the intent of the search. Ads for Mazda and Hyundai vehicles would be a good start. Showing SUVs in those ads would be even better.

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 9.56.38 AM
Example: Hyundai message relevance in retargeting

Social ads have their own treasure troves of audience data that allow for very precise behavioral and demographic targeting which advertisers can use to great effect.

It’s true that many display ad buys are are more broadly targeted than the laser-focused possibilities in search and social, but relevancy is still attainable.

A first step is to look to the creative brief to clarify the audience and the advertiser’s proposition.

  • What about the advertised product or service appeals to the targeted groups? Are there important differences between them?
  • How do their reasons to buy vary?
  • What benefits matter to each segment the most?
  • Where are they in the purchase cycle?

In looking at the audience in this way, marketers can examine demographics, psychographics and other traits to make the proposition more customized to subgroups within the target market.

Selecting relevant imagery is an easy optimization to make. If the ad shows an image of a person, modifying that image to align with the audience group can be a good start.

A bank, for example, may be looking to expand its business within minorities in the African American, Asian/Pacific Islander, and LGBT communities. By creating three ads instead of one, each featuring pictures specific to those groups, the bank can take a first step in the direction of creative relevancy.

Customized Messaging by Day Part

Another common optimization in social advertising is day parting, where marketers schedule campaigns to hit social feeds during specific times or days when usage peaks and activity is most likely to result.

Display advertisers can consider similar tactics, varying the message they are promoting by the time or day it is being shown.

Keep Creative Fresh

PPC and social advertisers also know that keeping messaging fresh helps improve the performance of their campaigns. Clever creative rotations can help attract new attention while painting a fuller picture of the advertiser’s proposition.

The importance of avoiding stale creative has been echoed in a Marin Software study, where direct response campaigns with rotating creatives drove 35% higher CTRs than the ones without them.

Display ads often suffer from creative fatigue as well, but that no longer needs to be the case. As in social and search, display advertisers can take advantage of programmatic creative tools to generate multiple creatives at the onset of the campaign, with the intention to rotate new artwork in if and when performance starts to diminish.

Carefully Control the Scope of Your Split Testing

As tempting as it may be to test and optimize every aspect of the creative, campaign managers should heed the warnings from search and social, and be cautious to limit the scope of their variations. With each element that changes, it becomes more difficult to reach validity, requiring a larger impression volume over a potentially longer period of time.

Generally split testing should be limited to one element at a time, especially if you are trying to converge on general principles that will work for future campaigns. Playing too much with layout and adding/subtracting design elements can easily cause too dramatic of a difference between creatives and invalidate a split test.

This caution should be especially heeded with DCO, where it can be tempting to create vast multivariate tests that optimize every little creative detail. Without millions of impressions—sometimes even billions—these campaigns can fail to reach the scale required to validate the test, and waste a lot of impressions in the mean time. 

Keep in mind there is an opportunity cost to running any test. Impressions delivered to the losing creative are ones that could have been more impactful on the winning creative. For a direct response campaign, you can calculate that opportunity cost in dollars. But the alternative to this opportunity cost is not optimizing at all—an even less desirable outcome.

Don’t Just Stop at 95% Significance

An important lesson to learn from PPC, social ads and even website conversion optimization in general, is that statistical significance does not equal validity in a split test.

You might be thinking now that because of the opportunity cost mentioned above, you should stop every test once it reaches statistical significance. The cold hard truth is that we are not as in charge of our audience cohorts as we would like to be. Time, day of the week, weather, season, buying cycle—there are many factors that influence behavior which can skew a test, and meeting the mathematically-minimum number of impressions to yield a result is only one of many factors that need to be taken into account. 

To avoid the validity trap, here are some good rules of thumb:

  1. Run tests in full week increments.
  2. Test for at least 3-4 weeks.
  3. Do reach statistical significance at a confidence level you are comfortable with.
  4. Beware of small sets of results.

What To Do With The Results of Split Tests


Speaking of results, with all this testing and optimizing of your creatives, what do you do with the results? In the most ideal situation, there is some rebalancing of the campaign toward the best performing ads.

Stop underperforming ads. When the creatives aren’t producing the desired result, swap in something else or stop the placement altogether.

Redistribute budget. Transfer spend from low performing campaigns with high impressions, to higher performing campaigns with fewer impressions.

Run small tests and then bet big on the winners. For maximum ROI, you can plan to run your experiments up front, and then apply the bulk of the budget only after the best performing units and segments have been identified.

Cultivate the Right Mix of Talent

What makes a good search or social ad manager is a combination of creative thinking and data-driven discipline. Those are two perspectives that don’t always come together in equal measure.

That’s why this difficult mix of abilities is increasingly in demand in all forms of advertising, where teams and individuals who are capable of quality copywriting, design and data analysis can leverage ad tech for big performance gains. The first step toward creative optimization is actually team optimization.

So make sure the right people are connected together from the onset, and good luck with your next campaign.

Essential Guide to Programmatic Creative Technologies

This Post Has One Comment

Comments are closed.