Graphic Design AdviceGraphic, Design, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2016

How to Design Effective Advertising


For any type of business, advertising is one of the most crucial investments a brand can make. But for small businesses, it's an investment that often goes overlooked. Beyond communicating that your business exists, advertising can have a profound effect on how the public views your business. Advertising makes up a large facet of your brand's public image, and an effective campaign can help you to grow as a brand by allowing you to have a degree of control over how your audience perceives you.

In my freelance and agency experience, I've worked on advertising for small businesses, large companies and everything in-between. I've found that there are a few solid guidelines to making effective advertising regardless of the budget or industry. Taking time to make sure your advertising follows these steps will help you to make better ads which communicate a message to your audience in a meaningful, memorable way.

Be intentional

Advertising should be treated like an investment for your business, but in order to track your return on that investment, you need to first set measurable goals for what you want your ads to achieve. Goals can as broad or as specific as you'd like—for example, maybe you want to increase overall sales by 15% or you want to increase your web traffic to a particular product. Regardless of your goal, having an idea of what exactly it is you want to achieve will help you to make ads that are focused on achieving that goal. The best part about setting goals is you'll be able to see how close you came to meeting your goal, and you'll know if you need to try a different approach for the next ads you run.

Let's say you own a small bike shop, and you want to sell more bikes. In order to do that, you'd like to broaden your audience and communicate that you sell all different types of bikes for every type of rider. So, when crafting the message of your ad, you'd want to focus on the fact that you sell bikes to suit anyone's needs and provide a simple incentive for someone to visit your shop or website. Taking a few extra steps to make sure your ads are truly aimed at achieving your goals will be much more effective in the long run than taking guesses to see what sticks.

Keep it simple

A common mistake when it comes to advertising is trying to cram too much information into a single ad. While you may have a lot to say about your brand, consumers are already being inundated by advertising everywhere they look. Whether your ads are in a newspaper, on a billboard, or online, you'll likely only have a few seconds to communicate your message to viewers before they move on to the next visual in their environment. So, keeping your message simple and to the point is crucial if you want to make a solid connection with a viewer.

This is true for the visuals of your ad, too. While you may be tempted to fill up the ads with as many photos and graphics as you can to take advantage of your ad space, this can create ads that are overwhelming to look at. The environment that your viewers will be seeing your ad is probably already crowded with visual information, so a simple ad will stand out better from all the noise. Limit the number of colors and fonts you use, as well keep your ad cohesive and easy to read no matter how it appears—whether on black and white newsprint or on screen.

For our bike shop ad content, let's start with the copy—keep text minimal and communicate your message as succinctly as possible. Pick imagery that feels original and engaging. I strongly suggest avoiding most clip art or generic-looking stock photos, as these are overused and probably won't do much to help you to communicate your message. Sites like Noun Project and Pexels are great resources to find free or inexpensive imagery if you don't have any of your own.

If you're not sure what you want your ad to look like, don't be afraid to look for inspiration—a quick Google search can be a great place to start. Looking at your competition's advertising can also be useful in deciding how your business can differentiate itself through its ads. Think about the context your ad will be seen in and how you can make your ad stand out. Keep the layout flexible enough that if the content needs to be reformatted for a different size or medium, it'll be easy and quick to do so.

Sample bike shop ad 1
Here's a list of content we might gather for our sample bike shop. Notice that the copy is limited to a few lines and gets the point across quickly. The entire ad, from the copy to the imagery, should be focused on the same message.

Create hierarchy

One of the simplest things you can do to make your ad effective is to create a clear sense of hierarchy. Not only does this help create a solid focal point, but it will draw the eyes of your viewers through the whole ad and help them to process the presented information faster. Hierarchy is another reason why it's important to limit the amount of content you put in an ad—without a clear structure, viewers might have trouble processing what it is you're trying to say, meaning they probably won't remember the message or take any sort of action.

There are many different ways to create structure, but let's use our bike shop ad as an example. Here, the heading and background imagery are the most prominent parts of the ad, as these will grab your viewers' attention and direct them to the supporting information below. We'll make sure that the heading is significantly larger than the supporting text and that everything feels balanced and easy to read. Putting contact information at the bottom of the ad will help anchor your message so that a viewer can easily take action if they decide they're interested.

Sample bike shop ad 2
A sample ad for our bike shop, with each element sized to create clear hierarchy.

Call the viewer to action

Communicating a message is important, but it's hard to tell how effective your message is if a viewer has no way to take the next step and interact with your brand. Beyond just listing contact info, provide a simple, specific action viewers can take that requires little effort or investment on their part—whether that's visiting a website to learn more, calling for a free quote, or signing up for a mailing list. Providing an incentive for a viewer can also be effective, like offering coupons, free shipping, or a free service for first-time buyers.

It's a good idea to keep CTAs ("Call To Action") and incentives as simple and easy as possible—the more barriers to interaction users face, the less like it is that they'll participate. For digital ads, a simple click to a landing page is the easiest way to engage a user. Emphasize that the user can click by placing the CTA in a button or using an arrow. For print ads, coupons can work in the same way to draw viewers to the ad.

Be consistent

The number one mistake I see with small business advertising is a lack of consistency across advertising. I've worked with business owners who will show me their recent advertising, and the style and tone of each ad make it look like it belongs to a different company. This can create a disjointed view of your business as a whole and makes for a lack of visibility with your audience. Keeping your fonts, colors, imagery, and tone of voice as consistent as possible will help you to develop a stronger visual brand that your audience will begin to recognize and become familiar with. Not to mention, it'll also make your life easier because you won't have to start from scratch every time you need to create a new ad.

If you're running several ads across medium at the same time, taking a campaign approach can help you to reinforce your image to the public even more. Once you have a message and a design developed, use those same elements across all your concurrent ads, regardless of if they're print, digital, or out-of-home. This approach has elicited the same response from a lot of the businesses I work with—"But won't a viewer get bored of seeing the same ads?" While that's a valid concern, consistent messaging and visuals help viewers to form a stronger impression of your brand each time they see the advertising, especially across different mediums. Your business and message will become more memorable to viewers, making them more likely to interact with your brand over time.

Think about the most memorable ad campaigns you've seen over the years–giant companies like Geico, Coca-Cola, and McDonald's create consistent, effective campaigns by taking the same content and showing it across TV spots, billboards, direct mail, and more. The same can be done on a smaller, more local scale for a small business. In the case of our bike shop—as a small business owner, you may not have the budget to run an extensive campaign, but even being consistent across a few ads will help to reinforce your message.

Be accurate

This last point is a bit obvious, but it's an easy one to forget—make sure your advertising is free of errors and typos before sending it off into the world. Any accidental misinformation or confusing statements you present to a viewer can quickly undermine your credibility and quality. Triple check everything, from the copy to the contact info, making sure it is clearly worded and spelled correctly. Have multiple people check over the ad as well—fresh eyes may spot something you missed. Make sure you have the correct ad specifications as well, so that your ad is sized correctly, contains the correct bleed, and is submitted in the correct file format and resolution. Doing this will ensure that your ad runs on time and looks the way you intended it to.

While advertising can seem daunting, keeping these basic principles in mind can make it a little easier for you to create effective ads and take advantage of the ad space you spend money on. Advertising is a valuable opportunity for you to make an impression on potential customers and communicate why you deserve their attention. It's ultimately an extension of your brand, and it should reflect the tone of voice and persona of what it is you sell or do. Don't be afraid to take risks and try something unconventional, as long as it makes sense for your brand. Put yourself in your audience's shoes and think about what would catch their eye or make them stop and engage with your ad.

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