The days when Google AdWords was the only option to advertise online are gone. Today there are more ad networks to choose from than most small businesses can handle: Adwords, Bing, Facebook, Twitter, Advertising.com, Chitika, Blogads…
What’s more, you also need to pick the right ad formats: search advertising, display advertising, mobile advertising, social advertising, native advertising…
Adding to this complexity is the fact that ads are delivered in a multi-device world: computers/laptops, tablets, mobile phones (and the next generation of smart watches is already on the way).
With so many options at hand, businesses are facing several challenges:
1. Where do you even start if you are new to online advertising?
2. How do you scale an existing advertising strategy?
3. How do you manage all of the above without wasting time and ad dollars?
Let’s start by looking at the top ad formats and ad networks in 2016.
Understanding Ad Formats: Search, Display, Social
There are two main types of online advertising: search engine advertising and display advertising. Even though social advertising is usually described as a separate format, it’s basically a form of display advertising.
Both search and display ads are available on desktop, tablet and mobile devices. The mobile segment is currently outgrowing all other segments in online advertising.
The implication for advertisers: a mobile-friendly/responsive web design is a required (not optional) ingredient in 2016. It’s even a must-have if you don’t advertise online since it affects your organic search ranking on mobile devices.
Search Engine Advertising
Search engine advertising continues to make up the largest share of total online advertising spend (IAB report).
If you understand the unique nature of search ads, this doesn’t come as a surprise. The format basically allows you to put an ad in front of a person that is actively searching for what you offer. In other words, it’s highly targeted advertising.
Compared to display advertising, search engine advertising is characterised by higher click through rates and conversion rates but also higher cost per clicks.
Google Adwords and Bing Ads dominate the search advertising space. Both Google and Bing also deliver ads in smaller search engines (Ask, DuckDuckGo etc.) through partnerships.
Display advertising is the second largest ad format based on advertising spend. Google Adwords is also one of the main players in the display advertising space. Others include Yahoo, AOL, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and advertise.com.
Compared to search engine advertising, display advertising is characterised by lower click through rates and typically lower conversion rates but also lower cost per clicks.
There are several different display advertising formats:
- Text ads
- Banner ads
- Video ads
- Mobile ads in apps
- Mobile ads on websites
- Social ads
High-performing display advertising campaigns normally depend on contextually relevant websites. Recently more and more display advertising focusses on targeting user profiles based on interests, demographics or remarketing cookies.
Display advertising is typically more complex to setup, manage and optimise. However, this additional effort often generates good advertising ROIs.
If you are new to online advertising, start and scale your search advertising strategy first and move to display advertising after.
The three largest players in social advertising are Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Other platforms include Reddit, Pinterest, StumbleUpon and Instagram. Each platform offers unique ad formats that fit it’s user interface.
Social advertising has been proven to work well in supporting content marketing strategies. Both Facebook and Twitter also offer effective ad formats for promoting mobile apps.
Facebook is typically the best way to start your social advertising strategy. It offers scale and sophisticated targeting features.
Top Advertising Networks in 2016
For both new and existing advertising strategies the first step is to exploit the potential on the top advertising networks. The main advantage of these networks over smaller platforms is that they offer scale and polished user interfaces.
Due to their popularity they also tend to be competitive so ongoing optimisation is key to a high return on investment.
Even though there are many other ways to advertise online, Google AdWords is often the best platform to start with. It’s a sophisticated and easy-to-use platform with lots of features to analyse and optimise your ad performance.
Adwords offers both search engine advertising as well as display advertising. Within each category there are several different ad formats advertisers can use based on their marketing objectives.
For detailed Adwords strategies check out the Adwords Management Series.
Yahoo! Bing Network
The Yahoo! Bing Network (a search alliance between Yahoo and Bing) offers access to ad inventory of both search engines through one platform. Bing Ads offers search advertising and display advertising inventory in a limited number of countries.
Bing’s lower search engine market share results in lower traffic volumes compared to Google Adwords. However, the competition on Bing Ads also tends to be lower which can result in lower acquisition costs than on Adwords.
Facebook is the leader in social advertising and therefore a major player in display advertising. Facebook offers interesting targeting capabilities since it collects detailed personal data for each user (age, gender, interests etc.).
In the last few years, Facebook has continued to improve its advertising features and formats. Facebook’s custom audiences, lookalike audiences and ads for mobile app promotion have become popular among advertisers due to their effectiveness.
Twitter Ads haven’t been around as long as Facebook ads. After an invite-only period, the self-service ad platform finally opened up in 2013. Since then the platform has continued to expand the number of ad features, formats and supported countries.
Twitter Ads are effective in supporting content marketing strategies as well as driving mobile app installs.
LinkedIn differs from Facebook and Twitter in that its audience is focussed on job professionals. If you are selling B2B or trying to advertise to job seekers, specific professions, business owners or decision makers, LinkedIn is a great way to reach them.
How To Start and Scale Your Online Advertising Strategy
In this section I will describe a proven process for starting and scaling your advertising strategy. Over the last 10 years, I’ve worked on dozens of advertising strategies and the process laid out here works well for the majority of businesses.
There are obviously exceptions where businesses should follow a different approach. Some examples would include business models focussing on mobile apps, publishing and affiliates.
Step 1: Search Advertising
For most businesses, search engine advertising is the best way to start an advertising strategy.
Why start with search ads? In the last 10 years I’ve seen very few examples of businesses that generate a positive ROI on display advertising but not on search advertising. However, I’ve seen countless examples where businesses advertised profitably on search but were unable to do the same on display advertising.
In addition to this, search advertising campaigns are relatively easy to setup and require less advertising experience to generate targeted visitors.
- Start by setting up Adwords search campaigns (make sure to turn off the display network)
- Monitor your cost per acquisition closely using conversion tracking
- Optimise your campaigns based on your target cost per acquisition
- Scale your campaigns until you either hit your budget limit or until you can’t spend more due to search volume constraints in your market
- Replicate the same search advertising strategy on Bing Ads
Step 2: Display Advertising
Once you have optimised and scaled your search strategy, it’s time to test display advertising.
Google’s display network (GDN) is one of the largest display networks and also one of the easiest to setup and manage.
- Create separate display network campaigns on Adwords
- Start by focussing on desktop/tablet traffic (set mobile bids to -100%)
- Test different targeting strategies (keywords, topics, interests)
- Monitor your cost per acquisition closely using conversion tracking
- Scale your campaigns
If your display campaigns are generating a positive ROI on desktop/tablet traffic, you can replicate the strategy in separate mobile only display campaigns.
Step 3: Social Advertising
Now it’s time to move on to social advertising. The best platforms to start with is Facebook Ads.
- Create Facebook campaigns focussed on desktop traffic
- Test different targeting strategies (custom audiences + lookalike audiences are great)
- Monitor your cost per acquisition using conversion tracking
- Scale your campaigns
Again if desktop traffic is working well, you can replicate the same strategy with mobile traffic.
Once you have followed steps 1 – 3, you can scale further on other platforms. If display traffic is working well you can scale using direct media buys on SiteScout. If social traffic is working better you can test platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest or StumbleUpon ads.