Display Advertising

Display advertising is one of the simplest and most direct forms of digital advertising. It’s also one of the oldest, with the first ever display ad appearing online all the way back in October 1994.

Display advertising involves paying to have your marketing content – such as an image or a video – featured on a third-party website, in the hope that it will help you to get seen by as many people as possible. This is typically the most common form of digital advertising, and is often used interchangeably with online advertising to refer to any form of graphic advertising that encourages the viewer to click through to a landing page. 

The key types of display advertising

Display advertising is a fairly broad term that encompasses a few ways to showcase your brand online. Therefore, it pays to understand the differences between them and when they may be most effective.

The three main methods are:

  • Site placement advertising: The advertiser selects a particular website where they would like to run their display ads.
  • Contextual advertising: Ads are placed on websites that are relevant to the product or service on offer – an ad for mountain bike accessories on a site dedicated to outdoor sports, for example.
  • Remarketing: Display ads are targeted at users who have previously visited the advertiser’s website but left without purchasing or taking the desired action.

Display ads have been around for a long time, so brands should always be looking for fresh strategies and methods in this space to gain maximum benefit from it.

Making display advertising work for your brand

If you get it right, this approach to online advertising can deliver results including a big boost in your brand profile and visibility. Like many forms of marketing, display ads depend on the right combination of words and visual elements to succeed.

One of the first steps will be to determine what type of display advertising to use. There are a few options to choose from here, which may require a different combination of copy and visual elements to attract and engage your audience.

The main types include:

  • Banner ads: The most familiar and traditional form of display advertising for many people, these appear either at the top of a page or vertically down the side.
  • Prestitial and Interstitial ads: More common on mobile, these are full-screen ads displayed before or between content, such as appearing before a page a user has requested.
  • Rich media ads: The use of interactive features such as video and clickable elements to make an ad stand out and grab attention.

However you approach display advertising, you’ll need to make sure you’re offering engaging copy and clear visuals, and that your ads will not be viewed as intrusive by either readers or search engines.

When you need to raise the profile of your brand online and get your key messages in front of your target audience, display advertising can be an effective way to do it.

However, businesses today need to be aware of the fact that many internet users have low tolerance for display ads, with use of ad blocking software on the rise and ‘banner blindness‘ becoming increasingly common.

It’s important, therefore, to have a strong grasp of this type of advertising and the various methods, strategies and content types that fall within it.

What is display advertising?

Display advertising refers to the use of video, images and text elements on third-party websites to promote your brand and market your products and services. It’s a practice that dates all the way back to 1994, when American telecoms company AT&T ran its first display ad on the earliest iteration of Wired magazine’s website.

These types of ads are designed to stand out and catch the attention of users browsing the host website. This is the key differentiator between display and native advertising, with the latter designed to blend in with the webpages on which it’s placed to provide a more natural and non-disruptive experience for the audience.

Display ads can be classified in various categories and can be run on different platforms, such as the Google Display Network and Facebook. Understanding the nuances of this approach to advertising will help you plan a strategy that works for your business and your customers.

Remarketing ads

Remarketing (or retargeting) has become a common approach in the display marketing and advertising space as brands look for ways to make their content as relevant and personalised as possible.

It allows you to target people who have already shown interest in your business, possibly by taking an action such as:

  • Visiting your website or a particular landing page on your site
  • Submitting a form
  • Downloading content
  • Signing up for an account or product trial

Remarketing uses a section of code on your website to track behaviours such as these and then position targeted display ads to engage the user who took the action. It’s the reason why you often come across adverts inviting you back to websites you’ve visited recently, or promoting products you have previously looked at online.

Contextual advertising

Rather than using buyer personas, profiles and characteristics to aim your advertising at a particular segment of your audience, contextual targeting works by placing display ads on websites that are relevant to your brand or the product or service you’re advertising.

A business that sells running shoes, for example, could use contextual advertising to run targeted ads on websites aimed at sports and fitness enthusiasts.

You can use different criteria to decide which websites your adverts should be placed on, such as:

  • The theme and focus of the host site
  • The topic and keywords used in each display ad
  • Language and location
  • Site visitor browsing histories

Site placement advertising

If you want maximum control over where your digital display advertising appears, website placement gives you the option to select specific websites to host your ads.

You can choose entire sites, or even individual landing pages where your ads will be positioned. This can be an effective approach if you want to achieve maximum relevance or target customers at a particular point on their purchasing journey.

Google Display Network

If you want to build a deeper understanding of display advertising, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the various platforms you’ll use to plan, position and manage your ads, the biggest of which is the Google Display Network. This collection of more than two million websites reaches more than 90 per cent of internet users around the world.

Advertising on the Google Display Network opens up opportunities for you to connect with your target audience while they’re engaged in activities such as browsing online, watching YouTube videos or using mobile apps.

You can choose from various display ad types on the network, including:

  • Responsive display ads: A partially automated approach, this allows you to choose your ad copy, images and logo, and let Google optimise other elements of your ads to improve performance.
  • Uploaded image ads: If you would prefer to have more control over your advertising, you can upload ads as images in various sizes or in the HTML5 markup language.

Gmail ads: Expandable ads that appear in the top tabs of users’ inboxes.


After Google, the other platform you can’t afford to ignore if you want to get good results from your display ad strategy is Facebook – the world’s biggest social media platform. At the time of writing, Facebook has nearly 2.9 billion monthly active users.  

If even a small proportion of your Facebook advertising connects and elicits the desired action from your audience, you’ll see a considerable return on investment (ROI).

Facebook ads come in various shapes and sizes, including:

  • Image ads
  • Video ads
  • Poll ads
  • Carousel ads
  • Slideshow ads

To get the best results from your next display advertising campaign on this platform, consider the advice provided by the network itself. Facebook recommends:

  • Using vertical videos (since most people hold their phones vertically)
  • Using small fonts and fewer words when placing copy on images, to limit the proportion of text to imagery
  • Keeping your ad copy short, clear and concise
  • Making use of the various call-to-action (CTA) buttons that are available for Facebook and Instagram ads

Display ad targeting

Targeting is one of the most important aspects of display advertising. You need to ensure your ads are in the right place at the right time to stand any chance of customers not only paying attention to them, but clicking on them.

In the increasingly crowded and competitive digital space, effective targeting is a must if you want to avoid your ads being overshadowed and ignored.

So what methods can you use to improve this aspect of your display ad campaigns?

Affinity audiences

The Google Display Network provides tools to help you reach customers based on their interests, whether they have shown this through active engagement with your products and services, or through their activities and pastimes.

Interest targeting falls into three categories, one of which covers affinity audiences – dozens of separate groups that reflect a range of topics and interests.  You can select particular audiences you think would be most interested in your business and choose to show your ads to one or more of them.

Balance targeting and reach

You can take a very precise approach to targeting each display ad campaign you run by layering various criteria. Rather than just targeting people who are interested in running, for example, you could refine your targeting to get your ads in front of running enthusiasts who are female and under the age of 30.

While this can be useful for connecting with niche audiences, you also need to think about your campaign reach: the number of impressions you can expect to achieve within your chosen criteria.

Every time you add a new layer of targeting and get more specific with your audience profile, you reduce the potential reach of your ads.

In-market audiences

In-market audience targeting is another useful feature of Google’s display ad network that can help you find customers who have shown an interest in products or services similar to yours.

Based on data on past behaviour and activities such as the websites people have visited and the product pages they have looked at, you can set conditions to ensure each Google display ad appears in front of relevant customers.

Custom affinity audiences

If affinity audiences aren’t specific enough for your needs, you can narrow your scope by using custom affinity audiences, which allow more specific targeting of each display ad campaign you run through specific keywords.

Continuing with the previous example of a retailer selling running shoes, rather than selecting an affinity audience such as ‘sports fans’, this business could target keywords such as ‘long-distance running’, ‘training for a marathon’ or ‘running tips for beginners’. 

The company’s ads would then appear on websites containing these keywords, which raises the likelihood of them attracting clicks from engaged, interested customers who are ready to buy.

Facebook also provides a dedicated custom audiences targeting option, which is useful for remarketing because it lets you show ads to people who have recently taken actions such as visiting your website or looking at sales or product pages. Furthermore, you can exclude groups who are unlikely to click on a display advert, such as those who have purchased recently.

Facebook Audience Insights

To give yourself the best chance of getting good results on the world’s biggest social media network, make sure you’re using dedicated tools such as Facebook Audience Insights.

This helps you refine your campaign targeting on the platform by collecting information about Facebook users and people already connected to your landing page. You can then take a more informed approach to engaging with customers similar to those already in your audience.

Facebook Audience Insights can help you gather data on:

  • Demographic factors such as age, gender, education level and job titles
  • People’s interests and hobbies
  • Lifestyle indicators such as relationship status and location

How to measure display advertising

To run a successful display advertisement campaign, you need to look ahead and consider how you will measure results and gauge your ROI.

That will involve collecting data on key metrics that will give you insights into how your ads are performing on various fronts.


The fundamental starting point for evaluating any display campaign, the impressions metric tells you how many times each ad has been served. This can give you a useful overview of how your campaign is performing in general terms and can also be significant from a bidding and payment perspective – if you choose to pay per 1,000 impressions on the Google ad network, for example.

However, there are drawbacks to impressions as a metric. Firstly, it doesn’t give you a precise idea of how many people have seen a particular display ad, because it may have been shown to the same user multiple times.

Furthermore, a high number of impressions doesn’t necessarily mean lots of people are paying attention to your adverts, since a large proportion of users could simply be scrolling right past them.

Click-through rate

Click-through rate (CTR) is a more specific and informative metric than measurable impressions, because it tells you how many people actually click on each display ad you’re running at any given time. This can help you make data-based judgements about key elements of your advertising, such as the quality and effectiveness of your imagery, copy and CTAs.

CTR also has its shortcomings as a display campaign metric, such as the fact that someone merely clicking through to your website doesn’t tell you much about their level of engagement with your brand or their willingness to buy. 

Also, a low CTR doesn’t necessarily mean your ads aren’t working. A customer might see a display ad, remember your name and make their own way to your website at a later date, for example.


Measuring your display ad conversion rate is the most effective way to gauge your ROI. At times this is a straightforward process – when you can see that a customer has followed a direct route from clicking on an ad to completing the action you want them to take, for example.

It isn’t always this easy, however. Some people could convert into customers or take the desired action after seeing a display ad but not clicking on it, which might distort your view of how well your ads are performing.
There are other metrics that could help you build a more nuanced picture of customer journeys and behaviour, such as view-through. This calculates conversions that occur within 30 days of a user seeing, but not clicking on, a display ad.

Average cost per click

Attracting clicks is a key objective of any display ad campaign, but it’s also important to know how much you’re paying to achieve this goal.

Measuring your average cost per click (CPC) is one of the simplest ways to gauge the financial efficiency of your display advertising. You can calculate average CPC by simply adding up the total cost of all clicks you’ve received and dividing that figure by the overall number of clicks.

Why you should use display advertising

If you get your campaign strategy right, display advertising can play a crucial and highly productive role in your broader digital marketing efforts.

Grow and maintain your audience

Prominent placement of display ads on relevant websites and pages will help you build brand awareness and recognition among a larger audience. Even if people choose not to click on your ads, just seeing and becoming more familiar with your name will make them more likely to buy from you or take other positive actions in the future.

Furthermore, display advertising can help you maintain and strengthen existing customer relationships by showcasing offers or new products.

Instant impact

In-depth, high-quality content like blogs and whitepapers are crucial to effective marketing, but there are also times when it’s beneficial to have a quick and powerful impact on your audience.

Display advertising can help you do this with content that is designed to be visually compelling and attention-grabbing, such as a well-designed banner ad.

Ease of use

Platforms like the Google Display Network and Facebook’s advertising services make it quick and easy to plan, target and launch a display ad campaign. They also provide the tools you need to measure performance and track how much you’re spending on advertising, so you can ensure you’re getting good value for money.

Reaching customers at different journey stages

There are many benefits to be gained from connecting with members of your target audience at different stages of their buying journeys.

Whether you want to start building relationships with customers who are still considering their needs, or get quick conversions from those who are ready to purchase or make a commitment now, display advertising is versatile enough to help you get results.

If you’re daunted by the choices you have to make and the factors involved in display advertising, consider speaking to an experienced digital agency.