Online advertising is everywhere.
Some love it, some block it. Some click on it, and others create it.
But most importantly, some of the world’s biggest, most frequented websites run on it. Facebook, Google, TikTok, YouTube—virtually every website you visit daily has an online advertising model to support it.
If you run a business (any business), online ads can put your products and services in front of a larger audience—and for a fraction of the price traditional advertising still charges.
How to make online advertising work for you?
Let’s take a closer look at:
A. What Is Online Advertising?
B. What Are the Types of Online Advertising?
C. What Are the Benefits of Online Advertising?
4. Flexibility and scalability
D. Challenges in Online Advertising
E. How to Advertise Online: Best Practices
The simplest definition of online advertising is “any form of promotion delivered through the internet.”
Unfortunately, the simplistic definition of online advertising doesn’t serve us well these days, as the industry has evolved into multiple branches. After all, content marketing, email marketing, advertorials, and websites themselves can also be considered “tools that promote products and services.” And yet, they’re not considered “online ads”, but marketing branches.
So a better, more comprehensive definition of online advertising would be “the practice of using the internet to deliver promotional, interactive, and measurable ads to consumers, using platform-specific and industry-wide best practices to ensure laser-accurate ad targeting.”
Compared to traditional outlets, online advertising is:
- Less expensive
- Easier to track
- Capable of reaching wider audiences
The first online ad went out in 1994 and it changed…everything.
Until then, many weren’t sure what to make of the internet. As a technology developed initially for academic and military research, the early 90s internet wasn’t the Wild West just yet. But it sure showed promise.
Some eCommerce had happened before the first ad that changed the World Wide Web. But when Hotwired published the first online ad (for AT&T), the internet suddenly made business sense.
Online ads kickstarted the dot-com bubble—and are also among the few remnants of that era to survive it. They lie at the very foundation of how modern internet works: every pixel, every cat video, and every silly little game you play online, they’re all driven by ads. Ads get you to buy things, ads run the sites you go to most often. The internet’s a playground for various forms of online advertising—and we love it.
One way or another, online advertising has grown to be the fuel of the largest database of knowledge, network, and entertainment hub humanity has ever seen.
So, it should come as no surprise that the numbers speak for themselves:
- Many have prophesied the demise of internet advertising, but it looks like it wasn’t really in the cards: according to eMarketer, online ad spend has been increasing at a steady, healthy rate and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
- Mobile advertising isn’t falling behind either:
- The total global advertising industry is estimated to reach $786.2 billion by 2026. By comparison, the retail and consumer goods industry will reach $158.3 billion by 2026.
It took nearly 30 years to get here, but internet marketing advertising is now bigger, fiercer, and more agile than ever.
From thereon, it’s all history. Internet marketing advertising continues to evolve alongside some of the biggest digital platforms and technological developments. Many things change along the way:
- Data privacy regulations start to appear, making hyper-targeted advertising more ethical
- Specialized programmatic advertising platforms develop
- Cookies take a hit and are being phased out
Not all online advertising is created equal and not all of it is equally efficient for everyone. To get started with internet ads, you must first understand the different types of digital advertising available:
Native advertising refers to publishing ads meant to resemble the publication’s editorial content. For example, if a famous website (say, searchengineland.com) runs a sponsored article about how to spot new search marketing opportunities using specific tools, that would be an example of native advertising. Likewise, if you see an ad in a publication and it looks like all the CTA boxes on the page, that can be considered “native advertising” too.
Search advertising places text-based ads next to search results on major search engines such as Google and Bing. These advertising campaigns rely heavily on keyword targeting and bidding to be successful.
Online display advertising uses visual graphics and messages to promote products and services on third-party websites. Most often, this is done through display ad networks (such as the Google Display Advertising Network, built through Google AdSense, for example). Display advertising targeting is usually made with the help of demographic and cookie data.
Social media advertising displays ads (usually visual ones) on social media channels. Every social media channel has its own advertising model and rules, but generally, ads are displayed in the user’s feed or on the sides of the feed.
Video advertising refers to online ads displayed on video platforms and (in some exceptions) on social media. YouTube ads and TikTok ads fall in this category, for example. Targeting for this type of ad is similar to that of display advertising (focusing on demographics and specific traits).
Mobile advertising is a type of advertising run on mobile devices, through apps. Mobile ads can be targeted in a veriety of ways. For instance, when you play a free game on your smartphone, you might be interrupted by a quick ad either promoting a different app, or trying to upsell you into buying the paid version of the same game you’re playing.
Retargeting ad campaigns are not always platform or channel-specific, but tactic-oriented. To be more specific, a retargeting campaign aims to serve ads to people who’ve already interacted with your brand (e.g., visited your website or liked your Facebook page). This is possible due to pixel technology (a piece of code you install on your website to track who lands on your website, so you can retarget them with ads later on).
Email advertising is not to be mistaken with email marketing. Although both fall in the same general communication channel, email advertising refers to highly-promotional emails users agree to receive. For example, a Black Friday promo email from your favorite retailer can be considered email advertising, but a welcome sequence you receive when you sign up for a software app wouldn’t be actual advertising.
Likewise, email advertising can also refer to paying for email mentions in different newsletters and email-based publications. Although this is a bit cruder than running targeted advertising on, say, social media, email mentions like these can have a high conversion rate because people trust the email sender to only promote/recommend products/services they believe in.
Last, but not least, some may refer to display ads shown in email clients as well. These ads are set up through display networks, and they are shown to people according to the selected target audience criteria).
Two-thirds of businesses advertise online. And there’s a good reason they do: it works. Online advertising provides you with a lot of advantages, such as:
Unlike traditional ads, online ads can be targeted at a particular audience. For example, if you sell women’s shoes, you can target your ads at women who are in the market for buying shoes or have already made a purchase from you. This way, your ads will be shown to people likely to buy, rather than everyone.
Online ads can be tracked and measured. Once you publish your ad, you can track how many people saw the ad (impressions), clicked on it, and went beyond the landing page and bought something. This can also help you determine your return on investment.
Compared to traditional advertising, online advertising is a lot more cost-effective. To begin with, running an online ad through Facebook, Instagram, Google Ads, or any of the other digital marketing platforms is cheaper than placing your billboard on a building.
What’s more, as mentioned above, you can measure what happens with your money and whether or not your ads are actually efficient. This is not the case with traditional advertising, as you can’t really measure how many people stopped at the supermarket after they saw your ice cream billboard on the way home.
Online ads allow you to try different approaches and strategies. You can experiment with different platforms, audiences, and creative pieces without investing much money. You can target people based on their demographics, or based on their interests. And if your ad isn’t efficient, you can stop your campaign and replace it. Moreover, you can also A/B test your ads to see what works best, so you can double down your efforts on that.
Unfortunately, nothing is ever perfect, not even in online advertising. In fact, online advertising is plagued by its own demons and sometimes, they’re pretty complex. For example, the following challenges online advertisers face don’t have clear-cut solutions.
Still, being aware of them helps you avoid and mitigate them as much as possible, so you can still reap all the benefits of running ads online.
It is estimated advertisers will lose $100 billion in 2023, all due to ad fraud. Although this issue is not as frequently discussed in mainstream media, it’s obviously a very stringent, painful, and costly one.
Ad fraud comes in many forms:
- Ad stacking is when multiple ads are placed on top of each other, so people won’t be able to see the original ad;
- Domain spoofing is when an advertisement is shown as coming from a legitimate source but it’s being used for malicious purposes;
- Non-human traffic is when bots or fraudulent users click on your ad and generate fake clicks on ads;
- Invalid traffic happens when website owners (e.g., website owners enrolled in Google AdSense) urge their readers to click on the ads on their site so they can get paid.
The most challenging thing about ad fraud is that it cannot be prevented completely and it cannot be taken to a legal court either.
On the one hand, bot-driven fraud is becoming incredibly sophisticated, with bots mimicking human behaviors down to the smallest details, which makes it hard to spot ad fraud without the right tools.
On the other hand, if your ads are frauded, and you want to take the matter into a court of law, you will find it very difficult to prove the intent of the malicious actions, which also means you won’t have an actual case.
Ad fraud prevention tools can help you minimize the impact of click fraud, as they use automated systems to spot, block, and prevent future clicks from fraudulent sources.
For a long time, people have been bombarded with ads everywhere. Pop-up ads, banners everywhere, Google Search getting increasingly more focused on advertising—there’s a whole world of online ads out there, and sometimes, they can feel intrusive.
Ad blockers were developed to help people protect their attention and time. They basically block ads, allowing users to browse webpages advertising-free. However, this is a real challenge for businesses and advertisers, as you cannot actually make anyone turn off their ad blocker. What you can do, however, is:
- Prioritize quality content;
- Make sure your ads are creative and entertaining, so people won’t have the urge to put up a blocker;
- Be mindful that people don’t always want to see ads—some may appreciate them, while others will not. Respect their decision by giving users the option to opt out of ads.
The reason ads can target users so well is that websites collect a lot of data on those who visit them. Although not nominal, all this information is used to create target groups based on a variety of factors, such as age, gender, location, and even preferences and online behaviors. Cookies lie at the very foundation of internet ads, but with rising privacy concerns over how data is collected, managed, and used, some online advertising platforms are moving away from cookie-driven advertising.
For instance, Google will phase out cookies in the second half of 2024, and replace them with Privacy Sandbox APIs, a more user-friendly way of supporting online advertising. Although at this point (February 2023), cookie replacements aren’t all ironed out, they will sooner or later come into effect.
Ad fatigue is another challenge modern advertisers have to overcome. Essentially, ad fatigue happens when people see your ads too often. Instead of being drawn by these ads, users start to ignore them altogether, developing a form of “ad blindness” that makes it hard for advertisers to get their attention.
The key to overcoming ad blindness is to keep the messaging fresh and interesting. That way, users won’t get so tired of your ads that they ignore them completely. Experiment with different ad formats and creative elements to keep things interesting for users.
All of these challenges in online advertising may seem daunting and even insurmountable, but they don’t have to stop you from running campaigns. With the right strategies and tools, you can overcome each challenge and run ads that yield the results you’re aiming for.
Online advertising can be complex, but not impossible. Although every online advertising platform has its own algorithm, rules, and settings, it all boils down to several best practices. Some of the most important ones include:
Knowing your target audience is essential to running advertising campaigns that work. The reason behind this is easy to understand: if you don’t know who your ideal customer is, it will be hard to:
- Create targeted campaigns
- Write copy that speaks to your ideal audience
- Create ad designs that get their attention
To really understand your target audience, you should:
- Research their interests, pain points, needs, and wants
- Create buyer personas to get a better idea of who you’re targeting
- Use quantitative data to find your demographics (e.g., data in Google Analytics and other analytics tools)
- Use qualitative data to understand your audience’s triggers, how they speak, and what they want (e.g., run customer interviews)
- Run recurrent surveys to understand why people buy from you (and why they don’t)
Essentially, you should know your target audience like someone you met personally, as this will help you devise ad strategies and build ad creatives that get your ideal customer’s attention (and make them click).
People are busy. They don’t like very complicated things, particularly in a world where instant gratification is the de facto mode people use the internet. As such, your advertising messaging should be clear and concise: it should tell people what it’s in it for them if they buy your product.
That doesn’t mean there’s no room for creativity in your advertising campaigns.
On the contrary, using emotion, humor, pop culture references, and power words can help you stand out from the crowd (and thus, increase the efficiency of your advertising efforts.)
Your ad creatives matter as much as your targeting and copywriting, so invest in high-quality, engaging designs that cut through the noise and grab people’s attention. People may not always read every ad they stumble upon, but if the ad design attracts them, they’re more likely to stop scrolling (and start paying attention).
For example, here are some tips on how to make your visuals more engaging:
- Use high-quality images that align with your ad’s message (but make sure they adhere to the policy of the ad platform you’re using)
- Incorporate bold, attention-grabbing colors and vectors to make your ad pop
- Use easy-to-read fonts and typography to create an information hierarchy in your ad
- Use negative space effectively to make sure your ad design is uncluttered
- Create a focal point in your ad using contrasting colors or typography
- Incorporate motion graphics or animations in your ads
- Incorporate social proof elements (such as customer reviews or ratings)
It’s unlikely you’ll get your ad settings right from the get-go. Many claim pay per click online ads are a quick way to get customers, but the reality is slightly different. It is a faster method to get your products in front of the right eyeballs but only as compared to organic means (like search engine optimization or organic social media).
Testing and continuous ad optimization are essential to reaching your goals. The more you test, iterate, and double-down on your successful campaigns, the more efficient your online advertising will be so don’t be afraid to experiment with different:
- Messaging strategies
- Copywriting techniques
- Ad design options
- Targeting settings
- Advertising platforms
- Online ad types
Like it or not, online advertising changes. A lot. What works today may not be available tomorrow, but next week might bring something entirely new and exciting into your life as an advertiser. Rules change, algorithms get updates, and markets shift so you need to stay on top of everything to make sure you’re up to date with industry trends and changes.
Here are some resources you can use to stay well-informed on PPC advertising-related topics:
- Ads of the World
- The Ad Contrarian
- Social Media Examiner
Online advertising has a very enticing proposition: it allows you to be where your ideal customers are for a fraction of the cost traditional advertising used to entail. It’s not without challenges, but once you overcome them, online ads are a very effective way to reach your target audience and help them find your products.