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Responsive Display Ads Versus Image Ads – Is Less Really More?

The 20th Century New York abstract artist Ad Reinhardt once said:

"The more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is. More is less. Less is more."

And Ludwig Mies van der Rohe used "less is more" to describe his minimalist style of architecture.

But does this same "less is more" philosophy apply in the 21st Century when it comes to digital advertising with Google Ads? To find out, I've been comparing how responsive ads perform against image ads (banners) on the Google Display Network (GDN).

What Are Image Ads?

For many years, the GDN only supported basic text ads like this:

or image ads. The image ads had to created in one or more of a number of standard sizes such as the banner (468 x 60), the leaderboard (728 x 90), the skyscraper (120 x 600), etc.

The number of available ad formats increased over the years and, at the time of writing, there are 18 different ad sizes available worldwide, plus additional ones which are only available in certain countries.

To make life easier for advertisers, Google provided tools to help them create basic image ads. But if you really wanted to do the job properly you needed to get a designer to create your banners for you. And to give your ads the best chance of appearing on as many different websites as possible you needed to make sure that you created them in all of the standard ad sizes.

Here are some examples of professionally designed image ads from a client I worked with a couple of years ago. Note how there's the option to have animation in your ads as well as text and pictures.

They look pretty good, don't they?

What Are Responsive Ads?

Just like a responsive website, a responsive display ad will adjust itself to fit into the space available on the website where it is being shown. This means you don't need to spend ages creating ads in each of the many ad sizes that exist for image ads.

Instead you just give Google a selection of images and a choice of headlines and body text for your ads and it will create responsive ads for you.

Here's an example of a responsive ad for one of my mortgage broker clients appearing alongside some stories on the Evening Standard website:

Google has constructed this ad automatically. All I had to do was go to the client's Google Ads account, create a Display campaign (in this case a remarketing one), type in a variety of headlines and ad copy, and then let Google scrape the client's website for suitable images.

Clearly the responsive ads win in terms of being much simpler and quicker to create. They also make it easier to test out different ad copy and images.

But are they actually any good at attracting attention and getting people to click?

Testing Responsive Ads Against Image Ads

When responsive ads were first introduced, I assumed they wouldn't perform as well as professionally designed image ads. After all, image ads tend to be more eye catching and less prone to blending into the rest of the website.

But the reality is that, whenever I have tested image ads against responsive ads for a client, I have always found the responsive ads perform better.

Here are the figures for an experiment I ran in December last year. The client had some existing image ads that they were using for a remarketing campaign. The ads looked good, used eye-catching colours, and had been created in four of the most popular banner sizes.

I kept these image ads running but added a responsive ad to the campaign too. After a few weeks I compared the results:

A​d

Imp

Clicks

CTR

CPC

Conv

CPA

728 x 90

81,380

66

0.08%

£1.74

2

£57.50

160 x 600

102,653

62

0.06%

£1.79

5

£22.20

300 x 250

107,894

52

0.05%

£2.25

3

£39.00

120 x 600

6,113

1

0.02%

£2.00

0

N/A

Banner Total

298,040

181

0.06%

£1.91

10

£34.50

Responsive

75,120

356

0.47%

£0.55

10

£19.50

Let's look at the combined figures for all four banner sizes and compare them to the numbers for the responsive ad. Several things jump out:

1

Highest CTR - Responsive ad wins

The responsive ad got a much higher click through rate (CTR) than the image ads. Despite being potentially less eye-catching it proved more "popular" and attracted more clicks per impression than the banners. 

The fact that the image ads stand out more may actually be their downfall. They look more like adverts than the responsive ad does and may therefore be getting less clicks as a result of banner blindness.

2

Lowest CPC - Responsive ad wins

The average cost per click (CPC) for the image ads was nearly 3.5 times higher than for the responsive ad. This is despite the fact that all the ads were in the same ad group and sharing the same maximum CPC bid.

It is likely that the greater flexibility of the responsive ad means it was able to appear on a wider selection of sites, including some where the CPC was much lower. Also, the higher CTR of the responsive ad probably helped improve the Quality Score which, in turn, would have lowered the CPC.

3

Lowest CPA - Responsive ad wins

Both the responsive ad and the set of image ads generated ten conversions each.This means that the image ads actually had a higher conversion rate than the responsive ad. 

However, the significantly lower CPC of the responsive ad means that its cost per acquisition (CPA) was 43% lower than the CPA for the image ads.

Conclusion

As you can see, the responsive ad was clearly the winner in this experiment. And similar tests with other clients have also shown that responsive ads outperform traditional banner ads.

In addition to giving better results, the responsive ads are also quicker to deploy, easier to update, and give you greater exposure by being eligible to show on a wider range of websites.

Less, it seems, is still more.

About the Author David Miles

As a digital marketing consultant, author and trainer, I specialise in helping businesses in the financial services and healthcare sectors use the internet to get more enquiries and increase profits.

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