Advanced Guide to Display Advertising

Attract customers, generate new leads, and build loyalty for your brand.

An Introduction to Display

When discussing Display Advertising, we are referring to image-based ads of various dimensions and formats that are placed on third-party websites that affiliate themselves with particular Display Networks. Image ads are a great way to reach new customers and they give brands the chance to connect with consumers in exciting, attention-grabbing ways. In addition to driving traffic to your website, these ads help build brand awareness and brand recall. Although the number of first-click and last-click conversion rates are relatively low for display networks, they play an integral role in the buyer’s journey. Staying top-of-mind, in a world where sorting through the noise is a constant struggle for many consumers, is key to any successful campaign. This is why Display, while building awareness for your brand, also increases demand for your product or service on other channelslike Search.

Most search engine ad networks, like Google Ads and Bing Ads, will offer a Display advertising option wherein advertisers can upload captivating image-based ads. These ads are then eligible for placement on websites that have partnered with the display network. Hundreds of millions of people visit these websites every day, so you can see the opportunity that exists to grow one's business.

Every search engine has a different name for their image ad platform: Google Ads calls it the Google Display Network, Bing calls it the Microsoft Audience Network, and so on. For the purposes of our discussion, we will use “display network” as a catch-all term when referring to a search engine’s image ad platform. Further, while we have referenced Google and Bing display networks, it's important to understand that Google has been in the business for over a decade longer than Bing has. As a result, the Google Display Network is significantly more robust than competing platforms. While Bing has been rolling out new features on Display as part of a larger effort to gain market share, the tactics we discuss will mostly apply to Google Ads. Despite small technical differences between platforms, display ads serve the same purpose: to introduce consumers to your brand, drive traffic to your website, facilitate user engagement, and convert visitors into buyers through various digital channels.

Advertising Goods & Services

Any company can use image ads to bring in conversions and improve their bottom line. However, some product categories require different strategies on the display network than others. Our take is that products should be advertised based on the category they fall into: a tangible good, an experience-driven service, or a product that falls somewhere in between the two. Generally-speaking, companies selling goods should focus on promoting product features. When advertising services, marketers should clearly communicate the derived benefits and experience.

For example, manufacturers of laptops, headphones, and other electronics could have a streamlined look to their ads that just feature the products in question. This is especially true if these products are available for purchase online through an e-commerce store, as customers can get a good look at the product and other relevant information before even clicking through to your website. On the other hand, ads for companies selling cleaning services, gym memberships, or magazine subscriptions should highlight the benefits of purchasing from their particular brand (e.g. keeping a tidy house, getting healthier, staying informed...etc.). Of course, many product categories—including some of the ones mentioned above—fall somewhere in between a good and a service, like a newspaper outlet, or a chain of pizza restaurants that delivers. Other products still are hard goods that provide an easily communicated experience, like high-end cars or even scented candles. In the cases of both of these product categories, you can absolutely showcase the product as well as the connected experience. You’ll need an effective and creative team of designers who can adapt their skills to each product or service. If you have that, your team will be able to create ads that effortlessly appeal to your target audiences.

In this guide, you will learn how to set up a display campaign, how to reach out to your most valuable customers online, what to look for in a creative (from images to copy), and the best KPIs with which to measure the success of your campaigns. Understanding these factors and how they relate to one other will be crucial in showcasing your brand’s unique flair and helping you stand out from the alternatives and substitutes in a highly competitive digital landscape. Of course, no ad campaign is successful without proper set-up⁠—so we’ll go over that too.

Display Campaign Set-Up

Once display campaigns get going they can be an effective way to energize your existing customers and introduce your brand to a new target market. The initial set-up, though, requires a fair amount of work and fine-tuning before launch. Without giving proper attention to these details in the early days of your build, your campaigns may wind up costing more than they should. Follow these tips as you go about setting up your first campaign. As you read along, remember that no two display campaigns are alike. While the best practices described in this guide will apply to most brands, most of the time, it's important to tailor your campaign to your business.

Set Your Goals

First, you’ll want to define the goals of your display campaign. You can do this by asking yourself several questions. When customers click on your ads, ask:

  • What action(s) do we want them to take?
  • Are we looking to generate leads or sales from our website?
  • Do we want to increase brand awareness or traffic to a specific website page?

When selecting your goals, you’ll be given many options to choose from at this stage of the process. Each option requires a slightly different approach to display advertising—especially when it comes to your creative. So, when your search engine prompts you to select a goal for your campaign, select the one that best suits the goals of your marketing team as a whole. Whatever your reason for advertising, a suitably well-organized display campaign can help you achieve any of the marketing goals you’ve set for yourself.

Select Your Targeting Criteria

Once you have your goal, you’ll need to decide on your targeting criteria. You’ll see many of the same options that are afforded to you on a search network campaign: location and language targeting, budget, and bid strategy. Like your search network campaigns, you’ll be able to customize the bids for each of your ad groups. The difference on display is that you’ll only be able to set your bids at the ad group level. Instead of keywords, you’ll be selecting audiences you want to target. Naturally, you’ll bid more on ad groups that target audiences you want to prioritize and lower your bids when targeting audiences you’re a little less certain about. We’ll discuss audiences and their value in greater detail a little later.

Choose Your Bid Strategy

Your Display Network will probably recommend different bid strategies based on your goals. For more established campaigns with lots of data for you to analyze, you might test an automated bidding strategy such as Target CPA. You’ll need a lot of data for an automated strategy like Target CPA, because the algorithm will need to draw on that data to decide when and where to show your ads in order to reach your set CPA target. Automated bidding strategies can make or break a campaign. This is why we recommend selecting a Manual CPC strategy, at the outset, until sufficient data is collected.

A Manual CPC strategy is great for gaining insight into how your ads are working and determining which of your audiences generate the greatest value for your business. This is because manual bidding necessitates a deep-dive into an account to make manual adjustments to bids based on performance (as the name implies). This will allow your search engine to collect enough data for a switch to an automated bidding strategy in a few weeks’ time. Let your campaigns run in this fashion for a few weeks before making any changes to bidding strategy. This will give you a solid bank of hard data on which to base your optimizations and KPI targets before transitioning to automated bidding.

Optimize Frequency

Some networks will give you the option of setting frequency caps on your display campaigns. Frequency caps are fairly straightforward—they set a limit on the number of instances someone can see your ad within a defined period of time. You wouldn’t want to dull your message and annoy users by showing them the same ad fifteen times a day for a month. Set frequency caps to ensure each viewer can only see your ad a pre-determined number of times during a fixed interval of time. This will better-guarantee that your ads grab the viewer’s attention every time. While there’s no universally agreed-upon best practice, we recommend initially setting your frequency caps at seven impressions per week. This means that your ad will appear approximately once per day for each user in the audience.

Set Content Exclusions

The next thing you’ll want to do is set your content exclusions. Most display networks will offer this and most brands will have a few categories of content that they most definitely do not want to be associated with. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to exclude sites and content having to do with violence, controversial political issues, drug use, and mature themes. These suggestions represent only the broad strokes of content that may not fit your brand. Keep in mind that there are still many sites popping up every day that have yet to be categorized by search engines. A well-managed display campaign requires constant monitoring and optimization of placements and exclusions.

Define Audiences

Finally, when setting up your first ad group, you’ll also need to set up your audience targeting. Audiences are groups of users who share similar traits, based on their aggregate search history and anonymous online behaviour. You can target one audience or many so use this as a rule of thumb: the audiences you select should align with your target market and the goals of your campaign. Further, if you’re in a position to create multiple campaigns—and if click volume and conversion performance demand it—you can spin off one of your audiences into its own campaign in order to better understand and optimize performance. Let’s dive a little deeper into campaign structure where we reveal some of our ideas on how to best format your ad groups within a campaign.

Campaign Structure & Ad Formats

Large display networks will offer two main types of ads: traditional image ads and Responsive Display Ads (RDA). While RDA guidelines differ from network to network we’ll cover the basics next.

Responsive Display Ads

In this format, you will need to upload one or more images, write some accompanying variants of ad copy, and allow your ad network to show different combinations of images and copy to determine which ones perform best. Depending on the images you upload, your ads will be able to show in any size and format across the display network. As a result, you won’t need to create ad groups for variants of every ad size. Instead, you can start your campaign with a single ad group that contains all of the audiences you want to target and define your campaign by either the product being sold, the geographic area being targeted, or any other dimension you choose.

The RDA format makes ad creation and management simpler, since every image and line of copy will be mixed and matched in a live environment. Further, most of the creative A/B testing will be done by a machine learning algorithm. All you need to do is upload the assets you want to test and let your search engine take care of everything else. However, the flexibility of this format means less control over the creative messaging that appears in-market at any given time.

Use Audiences to Define Campaigns

If you’re hoping to retain more control over your creative and do some A/B testing of traditional image ads, we would recommend defining your campaigns by the audiences they target. You don’t need to create a new campaign every time you wanted to target a new audience (that could get overwhelming very quickly!), but you could group all of your targeted audiences into one campaign and monitor them easily in the same view.

Turn Ad Formats & Dimensions Into Ad Groups

Next, we recommend defining your ad groups by the size of the ads in them. Any display advertiser will tell you that certain ad sizes are more popular than others. This means that average CPC will differ based on ad size. Doing this will allow you to monitor performance of ad sizes easily just by looking at the ad group level.

Create Multiple Ad Variants

With regards to the A/B testing of ads themselves, you’ll be able to upload variants of the same size to each ad group, where each ad may have a distinct image, ad copy, and/or design. As with Search Network ads, best practice is creating and running three ad variants per ad group. Upload, monitor, optimize, gather results, and create new ads based on the performance of your previous ads. Starting this routine and sticking to it will ensure your performance on the display network improves over time.

Now that we’ve gone over campaign set-up and how it’s affected by your audience selection, let’s go into finer detail about the process of selecting appropriate audiences for your campaigns to target.

Audiences & Targeting

Generally speaking, Display audiences are split into three broad categories:

Affinity Audiences

Affinity audiences are audiences defined by their interests. These are users whose online habits and searches reveal the topics they are most passionate about. They can be travel lovers, movie buffs, prudent investors, foodies, or any other classification from the dozens that networks allow you to choose from. By their nature, affinity audiences have only shown an interest in certain product or service categories and so may not be as engaged with your ads as some of the other audience groups we discuss in this section. However, targeting affinity audiences still plays a vital role in generating brand awareness and attracting top-of-the-funnel users.

In-Market Audiences

The second category of display audiences is the in-market audience. Audiences in this category are actively researching the purchase a specific product or service. By targeting an audience that is already researching products related to yours, you’ll be attracting bottom-of-the-funnel visitors to your website. It’s important that your ads appear to customers in the research phase of the buying process, so that your brand can be part of their consideration set when they actually decide to make a purchase.

Throw your hat in the ring by choosing an audience from the hundreds of in-market options that search engines make available to you. Depending on your product offering, you can target your ads to users looking to buy anything from sports equipment to real estate, concert tickets, and everything in between. You can target multiple audiences at once—most networks will not establish a limit. In fact, we actually recommend that you do target multiple audiences in order to test their performance in a live environment. Then, as time goes by, you can focus your efforts and budget dollars on the audiences that have provided you with the greatest return.

Custom Audiences

For both affinity and in-market audiences, you may find that the predetermined options available in the platform do not apply to your product category or, at the very least, do not fit exactly with who you want to target. In some cases, display networks will allow you to create Custom Affinity and Custom In-Market Audiences of your own. This method is a little more labour intensive, since you will be creating your own audiences from scratch. Though, customizing your audiences also gives you the chance to target your customers with pinpoint accuracy. You may even find more success with this method, because after all, who knows your audience better than you?

Custom In-Market Audiences can target individuals who visit or search for the URLs you specify and the keywords that you deem the most relevant. Custom Affinity Audiences work in a similar manner, except you can have your display network target audiences by their interests in topics, places, apps, and by URLs they frequently visit.

If you’d like to take your display advertising efforts the next level of laser-focused targeting, custom audiences may be the right fit for you.


The last audience category for Display is the Remarketing audience. This audience has interacted with your business in some way through its website. Therefore, Remarketing audiences can be defined as almost exclusively containing bottom-of-the-funnel (BOTF) users. These audiences can include site visitors, users who converted on your site, and much more. To put it simply: if you can track an action that takes place on your site, users who complete that action can be targeted. Some platforms will create Remarketing lists for you automatically but, in most cases, the really interesting audience combinations will come from those you create yourself.

Along with being able to target all website visitors or all converters, you can create a Remarketing audience list for users who visited your site but did not convert. This is probably one of the most valuable audiences you can target on display. This audience is clearly interested in your product but, for whatever reason, did not take that leap of faith the first time they visited your site. There are several reasons as to why this may occur and, when it does, you can target these visitors with unique messaging or special offers at no extra cost to you. In fact, conversions gained from Remarketing audiences often cost much less than those gained from other display campaigns. This is due to the fact that users on your Remarketing lists have, to varying degrees, a pre-existing relationship with your business.

If you have an e-commerce site, you can target users who abandoned their cart before making a purchase. Alternatively, you can target purchasers of a product with ads for that product’s accessories or refills. For example, you can target ads at customers who have purchased a gaming laptop from you with a special offer to purchase a wireless gaming mouse. If you track form submissions, you can show ads to customers who saw but did not complete your form. Moreover, some networks will automatically create similar audiences to the ones you’ve created as a way of expanding your reach.


In addition to audience targeting, display networks will allow you to refine the targeting of your display ads by Topic. Topics are exactly what they sound like: the subject matter of the website your ads are appearing on. Usually, you’ll see a far greater return if the content of the site your ads appear on is related to the ads themselves. Let’s consider a manufacturer of high-end sports cars. Would their ads generate more leads and interest from patrons of a news site for automotive enthusiasts, or a site that sells swimming pools? Using Topic targeting, the car manufacturer can ensure its ads appear only on the most relevant websites.

Note that Topics targeting will layer on top of your audience targeting. This means that both the criteria for your audience AND that of the topic need to be met before your ad will show—it’s not either/or. A user will not see your ad if they are a member of your audience but the website does not fit with your chosen Topic and vice versa. Although you'll want your ads to be as focused on your core audience as possible, take care when layering Topics on top of your audiences as you may be limiting your reach (and profits).

A solution to a limited audience size is to merely set audiences and Topics to "monitored" status, rather than exclusively "targeted." Display networks have different names for this, but it’ll be easy for you to figure out which is which when you get into the ad account. If you choose to monitor Topics before targeting them outright, just be sure to check in on your account performance regularly. Always remember that users browsing sites related to your product are far more likely to be interested by what your business has to offer. Selecting audiences by the Topics they’re passionate about allows you to build upon the solid foundation of targeting you built when selecting your audiences. Only choose the audiences and Topics most relevant to you and exclude any audiences or Topics that don’t generate value.


Finally, you may want to customize your ad placements once you’ve finished setting your audiences and Topics. Placements are defined as the domains of the third-party websites where ads can run. Adding or excluding placements lets you show your ads on domains of specific websites you deem high value, and conversely, allows you to exclude non-value generating websites from being able to show your ads at all.

Bringing It All Together

So, what’s the best option for you when selecting the targeting criteria for your display campaign? Do you use Audiences, Topics, Placements, or some combination of all three? The answer to that is: it depends. However, for most brands, most of the time, some combination of all three is best.

Start out by setting your audience targeting by making sure your audiences are as relevant as possible without unnecessarily limiting their size. Some audiences are so niche and small that targeting them won’t create enough traffic to generate value for your business. Next, fine-tune your targeting using Topics, ensuring you only select those relevant to you.

It goes without saying that you don’t need to be as strict with your targeting methods as we’ve outlined here. Your Audiences, Topics, and Placements don’t need to be 100% related to your product for them to generate value. For example, ads for fitness clubs don't have to appear on websites about bodybuilding or weight loss; they could be displayed on websites related to the World Cup, Olympics, or CrossFit Games. Although the audience may be a little less precise, we’ve seen a lot of overlap in our own work between people interested in sports and those interested in fitness.

Targeting on the display network is a great venue for experimentation and really testing the waters to see who is interested in your product or service. You may be surprised to find great interest in your brand from a consumer segment you never thought to target. 

Finally, after giving your account a few days to generate traffic, begin the ongoing process of excluding placements from your campaign. Our recommendation is to exclude many mobile apps, as many of them generate a lot of accidental clicks (driving up your costs) with very little return. For the same reason, it’s a good idea to exclude sites pertaining to games, quizzes, trivia, and so on from your campaign (unless of course, you’re in the games business yourself...). 

In summary, ensure the effectiveness of your ads by having them appear on sites relevant to your brand. Do this, and you’ll be well on your way to a successful display campaign.

Design Best Practices

One of the cornerstones of a great display campaign is a collection of visually-striking, engaging, and informative image ads designed to catch the audience’s attention as they browse the ever-crowded digital advertising landscape. Of course, given all of the variable aspects of an image ad—colour, contrast, brightness, verbiage, font, and images—the look and feel of each ad will differ from campaign to campaign, from business to business, and from target audience to target audience. However, there are some universal best practices to consider when designing strong image ads for any brand.

Responsive Display Ads

If you’re running RDAs, you’ll focus most of your design efforts on the image itself. Make sure it displays the product or service experience prominently, as this will be what draws the user’s eye to the ad. Be sure also to include your logo, as this is your only chance to associate your brand with the story you’re trying to tell in your image. Finally, when writing your ad copy, try to complement the message in your image. Describe the product, its benefits, and what makes it unique.

Further, avoid redundant messaging among your ad components. Each RDA will have space for an image, a short headline, a long headline, and a description. Given that you have the room for five short headlines, five descriptions, and fifteen images, and they all appear together in various combinations, it’s easy to fall into the trap of uploading redundant messaging without realizing it. That’s why you’ll need to proofread your images and copy rigorously and avoid any chance of repeating the same message twice, or more, in the same ad.

Keep Ad Graphics Simple

There are a few finer points to mention with both RDAs and traditional image ads as well. First, keep it simple. Image ads should consist of an image, a background, and ad text on the background. Don’t try to communicate too much with a complicated image or with a fancy design in your background that obscures your main message. Ads will be relatively small when they go live, so don’t drown out your message with an overly convoluted image. Your image should pop against your background, so a monochromatic background is usually best.

Choose the Right Image

Second, pick an image that communicates the benefits of your product effectively. The story you tell shouldn’t be a complicated one, but rather, a simple one that leaves the viewer wanting to see more. Remember that the goal is to drive traffic to your site, where users can find out more about your business. The ad should show your product benefits, while the website describes how your product will provide them. Customers will want different things from you depending on their values and on the nature of your business. But whether they want amusement, status, control, wealth, or convenience, your job as an advertiser is to show customers how you can help them meet their needs. The best way to do this is to be as clear and direct as you can possibly be.

Simplify Ad Copy

Third, don’t overdo it with too much ad text. Many marketers try to cram as much text as possible into their image ads to appease their product teams. In our experience, less is more. In other words, ad copy consisting of three words often performs better than ad copy describing a product or an offer in full detail. Text should clearly state the benefit of your product/offer and include a button with a concise call-to-action. Even though you and your designers are spending a lot of time on these ads, the average customer scrolling through will barely glance at an ad that contains too much text. Keep in mind that ads will be a lot smaller when they appear in-market—especially on mobile devices—so don’t include so much text that your ad becomes unintelligible. Lastly, make sure your logo is clearly visible in the ad but kept separate from any of the ad copy you include.

Follow Your Branding Guidelines

Finally, whatever you choose in terms of image content, size, background, ad copy, font, and so on, it should match the branding of your website. Customers see your ads as an extension of your brand. If your ad does not coordinate with your website, the audience will likely navigate away from your site immediately and you’ll have lost out on a potential sale. Don’t make your ads a carbon copy of your site but more of a brand extension. Make sure your design team draws inspiration from your website but give them the creative freedom to put their own unique stamp on it. This will help if you’re running image ads for a limited campaign or short-term offer run.

You may have noticed how much we stress the importance of testing your ad variants against each other in a controlled environment. Without testing, you’ll never know if a certain creative would provide you with a better return than another. If you’re running three ad variants and your data starts to indicate that customers are more responsive to one of them, create new ads based on that high-performer and start testing it against your new ones. This is the best way to incrementally improve the performance of your display campaigns.

Next, in order to find out if you’ve been successful in developing meaningful content for your customers, there are several metrics you should keep an eye on. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list but more of a jumping off point that contains the most common metrics display advertisers report on.

Reporting & Insights

When it comes to measuring the success of a digital advertising campaign—Search, Display, Social, or any other channel—good KPIs tend to be Conversions and CPA. At its core, every business is looking to sell its product. Whatever business you’re in, there’s always an action you want customers to take on your site. And whether it’s a hard purchase, form submission, or newsletter signup, it’s an action you can track. Therefore, your first step will be determining what you want customers to do once they reach your website. Having said that, display campaigns are most effective when they are about brand building and generating demand. For this, you'll want to look at KPIs like returning visitor percentage, frequency, time on site, bounce rate, reach, and impressions. When it comes to recording conversions, you may run into some challenges.

As an advertising tactic, display builds brand awareness exceedingly well as it brings in plenty of visitors for a comparatively low cost. But this is often the user's first touch-point with your brand and they have a long way to go before converting and becoming a loyal customer. A typical buyer's journey might begin with an introduction to your brand on display. If a need is successfully identified, the user might conduct a series of searches online. This is referred to as information search, which is followed by an evaluation of alternative products in the marketplace. This stage might end with the audience member realizing that you offer the greatest value. When this occurs, they will likely search for your product expressly and convert on your site via other traffic channels that include Organic Search and Direct Traffic. Under last-click conversion attribution model, web analytics would attribute the entirety of that conversion to the final search the user conducted, even though it was your image ad that introduced them to your company in the first place.

As a result, many marketers tend not to give display campaigns the credit they deserve. While a position-based conversion attribution model (one that gives equal credit for the conversion to both the first and last ads a user clicked on) can help give a more accurate depiction of display's performance, the picture still won’t be 100% complete. For this reason, we recommend taking a more comprehensive view of performance with regards to display, rather than just looking at Conversions and CPA.

Quality, Efficiency, & Reach

When measuring the efficiency and quality of your display campaigns, look at your CTR. Most image ads receive many impressions but relatively few clicks. This means that a CTR of less than 1% is completely normal and anything over 1% is great. CTR is also an effective way to ensure your ads are running in the correct Placements. A CTR that’s far higher than the expected 1% could mean your ads are showing on mobile apps and sites where many clicks are accidental and provide no value to your business. You can rectify this by excluding placements with both higher CTRs and lower Conversion Rates (CvRs).

Next, you’ll want to gauge your CPC. If you’re seeing high CPCs on high-volume ad groups, you can lower your maximum bids and test the impact on overall conversions. If you’re seeing low CPCs and ad groups that are bringing in lots of conversions, you can raise your bids to capitalize on that performance. As your campaign runs over the next few days and weeks, make sure to monitor your bids and adjust where necessary so you can spend your budget on the ads that are really making a difference for you.

The next metric you’ll want to keep an eye on is frequency. As we mentioned earlier, this is a measure of how often a user sees your ad within a given time frame. Based on a benchmark of seven impressions per user, per week, you can adjust your frequency caps either upward to increase the number of touch-points per user you receive or downward to have your ad shown to more users but fewer times.

Benchmarking Performance Against Competitors

There are two lesser-known metrics that uncover how well display campaigns are doing. They are not as widely-used as other metrics because they involve the performance of competitors and it’s not a good idea to optimize towards competitive metrics (this would mean relying on competitors’ performance to remain steady over time). However, competitive metrics can be a helpful guide when reporting on your ads’ visibility in the marketplace. Two metrics we will cover in this guide are Display Impression Share and Relative CTR.

Display Impression Share (IS)

First, Display Impression Share (IS) represents the percentage of times your ads appeared to customers out of the total number of times your ads could have appeared. How often your ad appears depends on your budget, your audience definition, the bids you set, and your ad's quality. Display networks take each of these factors into account when considering whether to show your ads. For instance, if your budget is too limited, your ads won’t show as much as an advertiser who has a higher budget. In another example, if you define your audiences very broadly, your ads will be eligible to show more often; but more audience members means you’ll be competing with more advertisers.

You can maximize Display IS by optimizing any of the factors we outlined above. Set a healthy budget from the outset of your campaign and bid strong on your display ad groups, just as you would for a search network campaign. We already discussed the importance of quality graphics and ad copy in your image ads as they relate to the customer experience. If a network decides the quality of your ad is not up to its standards, your ad may not show at all. Use audiences to maximize your Display IS by striking a balance between targeting and reach. Generally, the more focused your targeting (Audiences, Topics, Placements...etc.), the higher your Display IS will be; the fewer audiences you’re targeting, the fewer advertisers you’re competing against. On the other hand, you don’t want to target so few audiences that you suddenly find yourself receiving very few impressions at all.

If you’re wondering what a good Display IS benchmark should be, we’ll tell you what we tell our clients: the level of competition you’ll face depends on the industry you’re in, as some industries are far more competitive than others. But, no matter what industry you’re in, don’t expect a Display IS of 90% right out of the gate. Given the sheer volume of advertisers on display networks, a good starting point would be a Display IS of 15% - 30%. Make no mistake, you’ll start out low as networks will need time and lots of data to assess the quality of your ads and how often to show them. But, if you’re in a position where your Display IS increases over time, you’re headed in the right direction. Again, make sure your team recognizes that, while Display IS can be a useful guide, they should try to avoid optimizations made for the sake of any competitive metric.

Relative CTR

Relative CTR is a bit less technical than Display IS. Relative CTR is a measure of the CTR of your ads compared to the CTR of your competitors’ ads, expressed as a percentage. For example, a Relative CTR of 200% means customers are clicking through your ads twice as often as they are for advertisers targeting the same market. Conversely, a Relative CTR of 50% means customers are clicking your ads only half as much as advertisers in the same market. As you may have guessed, Relative CTR is indicative of how engaging customers find your brand, products, and offers, compared to your competitors. Relative CTR is simpler to decipher than Display IS; in every case, whatever the settings of your campaign, a higher Relative CTR is always better.

Now, the reason we do not optimize towards either of these metrics and only use them as a guide is that competitive metrics assume that all competitors and advertisers are running their display campaigns correctly. It’s important to make the distinction between “competitors” and “advertisers targeting the same market”. Given the free-form nature of a lot of audience targeting, many advertisers may be eligible to show ads to your audience without necessarily being a direct competitor. This is what we mean by “advertisers targeting the same market”. For example, consider an advertiser for a luxury shoe brand. They’ve done their due diligence and are only targeting users they know are interested in their product (i.e. fashion lovers, luxury shoppers, and so on). However, an online retailer of sports memorabilia (running shoes, hats, jerseys, etc.) could just as easily target these audience segments and drive up costs for the whole industry without really being a direct competitor.

Reporting on Responsive Image Ads

When it comes to RDAs, you’ll be able to report on all these metrics for each combination of images and ad copy that ran in a given period. As previously discussed, RDAs will automate the process of creating ad variants and test them for you. The ability to see the volume and efficiency metrics of each combination of images and copy will let you determine your top performers more quickly than ever before. And, you’ll be able to upload higher-return graphics and ad copy that much faster.


Display advertising doesn't have to be an intimidating chore. While there are still many nuances that you’ll come to understand as you optimize your own campaigns, everything we’ve covered will be easy for you to master after some practice. From campaign setup, to audience definition, creative design, and reporting and insights, you should now have the knowledge you need to get a Display campaign set up and under way on any display network.

When setting up your campaigns, do so in a way that makes sense to you and aligns with the structure of your website. Don’t oversimplify your campaigns by, say, running just one ad group for all audiences. At the same time, don’t over-complicate your campaign structure to a point where it becomes difficult to gain actionable insights from the data. Defining your target audience is something that marketing teams at every company should be doing, regardless of whether they’re running digital ads. As a result, you can channel that information into the display network when defining your Affinity, In-Market, and Remarketing Audiences. Networks will also offer you the choice of creating Custom Affinity and Custom In-market Audiences, outside of the default Audiences already included in the platform. Make a habit of monitoring your Audiences and adjusting who you target as the market and your user base evolve over time.

Designing successful image-based creatives doesn’t just mean showing off a glossy, hi-res photo to your audience and hoping that your customers will respond by making plenty of conversions. You and your design team will need to work together to develop graphics, copy, and other ad components that resonate with users, fit with your overall brand and established guidelines, and feature a strong call to action that encourages conversions. Your image ad will oftentimes be the first impression of your brand, so you’ll need to put your best foot forward for the entire creative design process. And, of course, don’t forget to monitor the results of your ad variant tests.

Brands have many different options when reporting on performance but remember that conversion-tracking for display may not be 100% representative under most conversion attribution models. Therefore, it’s best to report on display campaign performance holistically, rather than reporting on Conversions and CPA alone. You can gain valuable insight from metrics such as CTR, CPC, and Frequency, which will help you determine effectiveness, efficiency, and reach. Conversion tracking is also useful to include in reporting, if your team understands the reported CPA will likely be high. Also, be sure to use competitive metrics such as Display IS and Relative CTR to gauge your ads’ visibility in relation to competitors. As your company grows, customer priorities will shift and your website will need to adjust as well. If you discover a new action you want customers to take on your site—or an action they can already take that you’re not tracking—make sure to implement conversion tracking on that action and include it in your reporting.

When bringing these four components together, a good rule of thumb is to avoid thinking of them as occurring in any specific order. When planning out your campaigns, think of set-up, audiences, creative, and reporting as integrated parts of a whole rather than separate steps in a list. The execution of one affects the others in different ways, so you’ll need to consider that in your planning. Don’t set up your campaign structure without thinking of the audiences that they’ll target and don’t define your audiences without thinking of which creatives you want those audiences to see. As we mentioned at the beginning of this guide, a solid Display campaign requires a lot of work to be done on the back-end—along with continuous optimization—in order to be successful.

At the end of the day, your performance won’t be judged by how closely you adhere to the directions in this or any other guide. Rather, your performance will be judged by how well you adapt this information to advertising your own business. The best practices put forward in this guide will work for most businesses, most of the time. But, as we’ve said many times before, every business is different and will need slightly different approaches to display advertising in order to succeed. Tactics that work for one product or business will not necessarily work for another. You will need to research, plan, monitor, and optimize regularly as your campaign runs.

Display advertising is an essential part of most digital marketing strategies. Operating alongside paid and organic search marketing, paid and organic social marketing, and email marketing, display advertising ranks as one of the largest generators of brand awareness across the entire digital marketing mix. There may be small differences between each display network, but the fact remains that image-based ads are an extremely important branding tool.


Speak with an Expert

Speak with an Expert

We’re always available to chat, so reach out to Tandm if you have more questions for our team of experts to answer, or if you are interested in a display advertising partnership with our agency.