Promoting your product or service with banner ads - is it worth it?

Back in April of this year we decided to have a look at running some banner ads on a number of high profile design-related sites. Over the last couple of years, advertising in our little corner of the web has come a long way. There are loads of highly trafficked design sites with excellent content and affordable ad slots. On top of this, the rise of targeted ad networks such as The Deck and Fusion Ads has made it much easier to get in front of the right crowd.

While we’ve dabbled in some banner advertising before, I decided to take a more thoughtful approach this time. We put together a number of banners, dedicated landing pages and put conversion tracking in place to measure the results. When looking into this process initially, I didn’t come across many write-ups from advertisers on what worked, what didn’t and just how effective the ads had been for them. In the interest of helping fill that void, here’s the process we went through, and some of the surprising results that eventuated.

Coming up with the ad creative

As part of the merger between Campaign Monitor and MailBuild last year (more on that here), we added a stack of new features to make it easy for designers to earn passive income off their clients through email marketing. In a nutshell, you can create a sub-account for each client, set the price they should pay and earn a profit every time they send.

We figured this was something that lots of designers might find useful and it became the focus of our banner ads and associated landing pages. Here are the 3 ads we ran with initially.

The 3 banner ads used for this campaign

For the final design of these ads we enlisted the help of the clever team at Newism, the same team that coded the current version of the Campaign Monitor site. We couldn’t have been happier with the results.

The Landing Pages

As well as testing multiple ad creative, we decided to put together a number of dedicated landing pages for the campaign. We’d randomly display a different landing page for each visitor and measure which one converted best. We bought in the amazing Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain (who designed our web site) and Brad Hayes to help with the design.

Landing Page 1: Earn money in your sleep

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This key for this page was to promote the idea of earning money in your sleep. We highlighted the 3 simple steps involved (rebrand, resell and then profit) and included an inline signup form allowing those interested to signup and start using the app on the spot.

Landing Page 2: Are you a designer?

{title}

This was definitely the most controversial landing page of the four. We took the fact that Campaign Monitor is built for designers to the extreme by including a modal window that overlays the landing page asking the person if they are a designer or not. If they clicked “You betcha”, they’d be shown the page below that highlights how easy it is to resell Campaign Monitor.

If they clicked “Nope”, the landing page behind the modal would fade out with a message explaining that “It’s not you. It’s us.” We then linked to a number of other Email Service Providers that they might consider checking out that are built for a less targeted audience.

Unexpectedly, this approach stirred up a lot of conversation on Twitter. Some called us ballsy and classy for linking to our competition, others asked if we were breaking up with them. I personally received a number of emails from people complimenting us on being open and honest with people. The truth is, we’ve always referred potential customers to our competitors when we know they’re not the right match (see this post from 2 years ago). It’s how we’d want to be treated, so it’s only fair that we do the same to our customers.

Landing page 3: Modal-free just for designers

{title}

In the interest of testing what sort of impact the modal window might have on conversions, we also tested it against the very same landing page modal-free. The page was exactly the same otherwise, so should provide a nice comparison.

Landing page 4: Our home page

{title}

In the past we’ve just pointed people to our home page, which in itself is a landing page aimed at converting people to give us a try. Will it out-perform the dedicated landing pages that have a clearer connection to the ad creative?

The Results

Over April and May we booked advertising spots with The Deck and Fusion Ads along with Smashing Magazine, Six Revisions, Webdesigner Depot, Webresources Depot and CSS Elite.

We set up a redirect script on our servers that would choose one of the 4 landing pages above for each visitor and pass through any of the required parameters in the URL so we could track everything with Google Analytics. We have a number of goals set up so we can track important things like a customer signing up, sending a test campaign and becoming a paying customer. If you’re interested, our designer Dave Martin has written about our Google Analytics setup in more detail here.

We judged the performance of each banner ad and landing page on the number of visitors that signed up to Campaign Monitor, as opposed to basing it purely on revenue. Because of the nature of our pricing, it can be weeks or even months before a customers starts paying for our software. We’ll use the revenue numbers internally over the coming months to get a true idea of ROI.

The best performing banner ad

The blueprint banner ad

The blueprint banner ad outperformed the other two with a conversion rate of 3.5% resulting in 370 people signing up for Campaign Monitor. Here are the full results.

Banner Ad Conversion Rate
Blueprint 3.51%
Post-it Note 2.36%
Chalkboard 2.09%

The best performing landing page

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This one surprised everyone. Personally, I was concerned the modal window would result in a lower conversion rate because of the barrier of an additional click. I was pleasantly surprised to see this page gave us 25% more conversions than the next best performing page. Possibly the biggest surprise of all was that the “Earn money in your sleep” page with the inline signup form didn’t give us one new customer. Not one! Here are the full results.

Landing Page Conversion Rate
Landing Page 2: Are you a designer? 4.34%
Landing page 3: Modal-free just for designers 3.48%
Landing page 4: Our home page 1.52%
Landing Page 1: Earn money in your sleep 0%

The best explanation we could provide for this is that people like to check out a product more before signing up (there was no link to the product from the page, the focus was on the signup form). The other landing pages provided links back to the site where an interested customer could take a feature tour, check out the pricing, etc before signing up. On top of this, the form had a total of eight required fields. Reducing this to the bare minimum and asking for the customer data after they signed up might have helped convert more. But still, not one?

The best performing advertiser

Fusion Ads

From the day we turned these ads on, Fusion Ads has consistently been our best converter. This includes visitors who have signed up right through to total revenue to date. We’ve also seen good conversion rates from other advertisers, which you can see in the results below.

Advertiser Conversion Rate
Fusion Ads 3.17%
The Deck 2.62%
Smashing Magazine 2.46%
Six Revisions 2.05%
CSS Elite 2.03%
Webdesigner Depot 2.02%
Webresources Depot 1.9%

It’s important to keep in mind that these are conversion rates only, and don’t give any indication of the true return on investment. For example, while The Deck has been our second best converter, it’s also more expensive than any of the other ad slots. Because of the rates we’ve managed to negotiate with some providers, I’m afraid I can’t share the costs associated with each ad spot, but most are easily found on each respective advertiser’s site.

Was it worth it?

Right now it’s too early to tell just how long it will take for this campaign to pay for itself and then turn a profit (don’t forget the cost of designing the banners and landing pages as well as the ongoing advertising fees). To date we’ve only recovered around 25% of all expenses in revenue from new customers. Having said that, a large percentage of our customers continue to use our software for an extended period of time. Looking at how revenue has been growing from these customers in the last few weeks, it certainly seems that in the longer-term this exercise will be well worth it. The nature of our business model means that it will be a few more months before we’ll really know.

To me, the most important element was actually testing everything as we went. By putting in a little extra work, we could quickly gauge which ad creative, landing page and advertiser was giving us the best results and react accordingly.

Our next steps will be to continue to refine the winning landing page using Google Website Optimizer to improve conversions further. On top of this we’ll be trying some new ad creative and throwing a few new advertisers into the mix. I’ll try and put together a follow up in a few months time with anything else we might have learned in the mean time.

Posted by David Greiner

56 Comments

  • Shayne Tilley
    2nd June

    Great write up Dave -  we’re about to embark on a very similar journey and your observations not only supported the direction we were heading, but gave me some extra things to think about.

  • David Greiner
    2nd June

    Thanks Shayne, great to hear you might have found some of this useful. Funnily enough, we’re hoping to include SitePoint in our next round of advertising spots.

  • Kay Smoljak
    2nd June

    This is great stuff, thanks for sharing!

  • James Young
    2nd June

    Very interesting write-up. I was wondering about the use of targeted ads using services like the Deck and it’s nice to see a bit more detail about your methods.

  • Wayde Christie
    2nd June

    Great write-up Mr. G. I’d be interested to know how many clicks you got from Deck ads in Twitteriffic. Any?

  • Wayde Christie
    2nd June

    Also, was it possible for you to weight the display of ads in terms of frequency, or was it an amount of click-throughs per month kinda thing? Did you have any control over how often, and when particular ads were displayed?

  • David Greiner
    2nd June

    Wayde, I’m afraid we couldn’t track referrers as granularly as that with The Deck, at least not the way we had Google Analytics set up. I can defintiely say we saw a nice spike from Fusion Ads when Tweetie launched.

    Each ad spot was based on a particular time-frame, and not limited to a specific number of views or clicks. Some sites rotated through our ad and a number of others, while some displayed our ad on every page of their site.

  • noel runkle
    2nd June

    wow. thank you so much for this. it’s really nice to see a company be so open with its practices. i really appreciate the insight.

  • Mitch
    2nd June

    Outstanding write-up David—and a fantastic showcase of that awesome design talent you work with.

  • Rob Enslin
    2nd June

    Hi David, it’s a facinating and extremely insightful post - thanks for sharing your campaign with us. This is one of the reasons I point people to CM when they ask.

    The usefulness of this exercise is you now have valuable data with which you can jump straight into your next ad campaign with. I’d be interested to learn whether further targeting your ads would have any impact on your results? For example, contextualising the publishers content so if the publisher posts content about email marketing lets say, your ads appear making them more relevant to those users?

  • David Greiner
    2nd June

    Couldn’t agree with you more Rob, this has provided a great base to build on. I’d also be very interested to see how things like contextual ads will impact the conversation rate. Definitely something for us to consider for the future.

  • Steve Jackson
    2nd June

    Hi David,

    Good read and well run campaign.

    However I think Marketing with banners, TV, Video and other attention media is still in the 90s. http://bit.ly/12mQlo

    Thanks for sharing.
    Steve.

  • fodcj
    3rd June

    One of the best articles I have read in quite some time.  Thanks for sharing your research.

  • Chris
    3rd June

    Very cool to see you sharing your results Dave—I appreciate your openness. We’re always interested about the conversion rate on the other end of an ad. We can see the clicks and how many people we’re sending over, but I’m always curious about the number of people who turn into paying customers.

    It’s also very exciting for us to see how we perform against heavyweights like the Deck. Thanks for the post.

  • Samuel Lavoie
    3rd June

    Thank you for sharing all these info, you guys really know how to get me hooked to the service. BTW its a ad in The Deck that get me now you at first.
    The modal vs the modal-free landing page experiment is very enlightening.
    Best.

  • Simon
    3rd June

    This is EXCELLENT!  Thank you for all the detail - this is exactly the right way to go about scrutinising ad spend.  I will be using some of your own techniques in my next campaign!  Thanks.

  • todd g @ BuySellAds.com
    3rd June

    Awesome to see a post like this David, really cool that you shared this info with everyone.

    I was excited to see that if you group together the ads you placed with us at BuySellAds.com, you actually have your top performer with over 4% conversion at a lower cost than your top performer ;)

  • Mike Gowen
    3rd June

    Great post as always, thanks for this!

    Could it be possible that the modal landing page gained an edge due to the fact that it was topic for discussion on Twitter (and the URL was passed around)? Were you tracking any visits to that page that converted (regardless of the source), or visits to that page specifically from one of the banners (and not from Twitter)?

    Just a thought.

  • Ash Davies
    3rd June

    Your ‘Are you a designer’ campaign fascinates me. Linking to your competitors if you don’t think your customer is right is so credible.
    Well done!

  • David Greiner
    3rd June

    @Mike Gowen, that’s definitely possible, although it was the best performer in the first week or so before people started talking about it and has stayed at the top since, so I’m not sure if those mentions unnaturally inflated it too much.

    Usually when people tweeted about the landing page, they include the GA querystring which identifies the source and banner, so that certainly would have had a small impact on the numbers.

    @Ash, thanks for the compliment. We’re always happy to point customers who don’t suite us in the right direction.

  • Tom Buchok
    3rd June

    Nice job reporting on the metric that actually matters—conversions—versus the meaningless CTR we so often read about.

    On that note, curious if you guys saw a jump in conversions via your ‘Direct’ and ‘Search’ Traffic Sources during the reporting period?

    I recently signed up for CM, but not through an ad that I clicked.  However, don’t discount the effect of your *impressions* on the other conversion through the reporting period.

    Then again, maybe this data was left out deliberately—which is cool.

  • David Greiner
    3rd June

    @Tom, good call, we deliberately left these kinds of referrers out of this study to measure the performance of the banners alone. No doubt impressions go a long way to increasing signups, even if the banner itself isn’t the final source of the referral that leads to the conversion.

  • Patrick Kennedy
    3rd June

    Interesting. I wonder how many people returned to the “model” landing page and converted, after hitting “Nope” and being taken to away to other sites? That is, did this “ballsy” and “credible” move convince those who didn’t self-identify themselves as a designer?

  • Yann
    4th June

    Thanks for sharing. Very interesting info in there…

    I can’t say I’m surprised about the results of the landing page with the signup form… There’s not enough info on that one single page to entice potential users to signup and there’s no obvious way for them to get more info from there… they’re locked into a “signup or leave” choice… And we all know how people react to that dilemma ;)

    The modal window experiment’s great! Thanks again…

  • Wayde Christie
    4th June

    @Yann - I agreed with you initially, but when I thought about it I remembered several services I’d signed up for based on one page of info. It was very surprising to me that not one person signed up at that point.

  • Vance Bell
    5th June

    Seriously top-notch post.  Would love to see a follow-up at some point on the optimization process of the landing page if you all are up to it….

    <—-  Appreciatively

  • Gary Levitt
    11th June

    Extremely good post David.

  • NotADesignerAndProudOfIt
    11th June

    The thing I don’t get is the “designer” bit. I’m a developer, but I still appreciate well designed tools built by companies that have a personality (Panic and 37Signals come to mind.) Campaign Monitor, Mailbuild, Freshview, and any other names you guys go by, always fit into this category of companies I like, aspire to be like, and would theoretically have a beer with.

    I’m actually just offended by the “nope” outcome… the idea that if I’m not a designer I somehow _shouldn’t_ use your product deeply bothers me.

    What if I’m a shitty designer? What if I designed this?
    http://web.stcloudstate.edu/aoolagunju/

  • Loren Klein
    11th June

    super interesting read that everyone can learn from. thanks for sharing!

  • Martijn
    11th June

    Best article I read in months!

    I must say you haven’t earned a thing trough me yet although I have signed up and set up my account and even have my own subdomain linked to it.
    I think there are a lot of people out there like me. We check out services that could help us when we ever start on our own but untill we aren’t on our own, nothing happens. Now, I can tell you I will start working for my own in a couple of months so ...

    Good job anyway :)

  • Amanda Webster
    11th June

    This is a great write-up! Gives me lots of ideas for our own advertising. Thanks so much.

  • Danny Foo
    11th June

    Great to see and read about optimization even for marketing besides only talking about CM and the newsletter side of things. :)

    Keep up the great work, people!

  • Beth Cole
    11th June

    Thank you, this is a seriously marvelous article, so helpful.

    Love your stuff, keep up the great work!

  • Jill Low
    11th June

    Great sharing - it’s always interesting to find out how testing can affect conversions, especially in a slightly ‘niche’ market like this.

    Possible follow up post in the future? :)

  • Vince
    11th June

    You are to be commended.
    just one thing, please add me to your ‘other email service providers’?
    Thank you :-)

  • Martijn
    11th June

    @ NotADesignerAndProud

    Man that panda on that website is awsome! lol

  • Christoph Janz
    11th June

    Great post, thanks for sharing!

  • Jonathan Tillick
    11th June

    Thank for the interesting write-up.
    I tend to consider advertising a “feature” in the free Twitter clients. The Fusion and Deck ads are all generally so well designed and targetted I don’t mind seeing them. I don’t click through so much in Twitterrific for iPhone as the built in web browser isn’t a great way to read about new stuff. Click a lot more in the free Tweetie Mac client though…

  • Yalcin
    11th June

    Trust you guys to share such valuable insights .. thanks !

  • Adam Howitt
    11th June

    Terrific example of how you have to put your ego aside when it comes to this stuff and let the numbers dictate the way you promote your projects!

  • Kain Tietzel
    11th June

    This is easily the most useful post I have read about using online banner advertising. I’d be really keen to hear about the cost per click and costs per conversion, as well as a final wrap on whether you’d do it again.

    Thankyou again. I’ll be forwarding this to a lot of people.

  • Belinda
    11th June

    It’s interesting that the best converter was the one that doesn’t mention anything about making money. People are immediately wary of ads that claim to make them rich, even if they are well designed and not flashing. This was also reflected in the fact that nobody signed up on the page that claimed to make them money.

    Thanks for a great article, I have been using CM for about a year now and the features just keep getting better for both designers/developers and our clients.

  • tim
    11th June

    Nice read. I’m curious about how many impressions/clicks each of these campaigns delivered to you and over what time frame? Are you happy to share that with us or is it sensitive information too (understand that you’re not keen to discuss costs, which is fine). Thanks,

  • Robert Lincolne
    11th June

    Thanks for the write-up and sharing your process.  Enjoyed reading it! Would be keen to see a 3 and 6 month figure on conversions *will stay tuned*.

  • James
    11th June

    Geeeeez, I’m trying to get some work done! Stop being so damn interesting and relevant! :P

  • ck
    12th June

    Very helpful - thanks for sharing.  There’s a website called marketingexperiments.com that has similar write-ups.  It’s worth checking out if you’re interested in this kind of thing.

  • grica
    12th June

    Many thanks for sharing. Your experience has been very interesting.

  • Luc Pestille
    13th June

    Very interesting reading - I’d like to think my quote at the bottom of the designer’s landing page helped a little bit. =]

  • James
    13th June

    Great stuff all around—the original post and the comments. Thanks for the generosity and sharing.

    Here are the 5 suggestions I’d make for next steps:

    1. More ad creative and more detail on the distribution of that ad creative so a tighter correlation can be made between the ad creative performance and the context where it appears.

    2. Faster iteration and experimentation with ad creative. Think of this as ‘tempo.’ The faster your tempo the faster you can learn and the more you can learn and the better your performance will be. Impressions are cheap! Waste them and learn.

    3. A much tighter focus on A-B and split variable testing to figure out what landing page elements work. Google Optimizer works well for this purpose and ties in with Analytics.

    4. Linking up the ad campaigns with conversions to paying customers. You can do this pretty well with source codes.

    5. Tracking average revenue per user (ARPU) back to the customer acquisition source.

    I pointed to your case study as a great case study for our community.

    There’s more here if you’re interested:
    http://blog.adhack.com/2009/06/12/campaign-monitor-banner-ad-case-study/

  • Derek E
    19th June

    Great article.  I’m curious about the Conversion Rate for the banner ads.  Don’t the landing pages have the most impact on your conversion rates?  I’d think they have to work in tandem.  I’d be interested to see how the pairings converted.

  • Alex
    25th June

    Very thoughtful! Thanks for sharing the stats. The conversions rates are surprising.

  • Nick
    14th July

    I was swindled on usfreeads by some crook using a cell phone line.  Jerkwad was stunned when I got her addy info and came calling lol!

    Phone Search

  • Avery
    17th July

    Geeeeez, I’m trying to get some work done! Stop being so damn interesting and relevant! :P

  • Kyle Racki
    30th July

    Thanks so much! I am just getting into AB and multivariate testing, and this is my go-to tutorial.

  • Lucas Tadeu
    12th August

    Nice article!It’s gonna be really useful for me (:

  • Shane Hayes
    15th August

    Anyone who found this article interesting might like to subscribe to a cranky email / blog letter from Denny Hatch who is a direct mail guru.

    His most famous article (or at least the one that went viral and that I came across) is about the first direct marketer of all time and the greatest direct marketer of all time. The former rebuilt the cathedral in Chartres round about 1197 and the latter generated $1.5 billion in sales from one direct marketing letter.

    The story is here http://www.targetmarketingmag.com/article/the-holy-grail-direct-mail-44098_1.html

    An interesting point that Denny makes very well is that the things that make people buy (or click through in the case of the web) are the seven deadly sins plus patriotism. IE “Lust”, “Gluttony”, “Greed”, “Sloth”, “Wrath”, “Envy”, “Pride” and “Patriotism.

    I particularly noted that the “pride” sin seemed to be the most effective on this occasion..

    “Are you a designer?” certainly addresses the pride issue.

    I sent a note to Denny asking him to comment on this article in the context of these “sins”.

    Shane

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