Design for the End Goal: Customer Action

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No matter how cool the tool -- from banners, buttons and badges to opt-in copy, HTML e-mail, text ads, pop-ups and interstitials -- creative types design online ads with the end goal in mind: customer action.

Unlike in the offline world, where advertising can effectively strike a distinct branding/positioning pose, we online denizens face a more complex calling in some ways. The great opportunity to combine branding and direct response presented online also poses a huge challenge to devise creative that will do both. Like everybody, we want to be pretty, we want to be bold, and we want to be creative. But online, creative has to mean strategic, too.

Offline, millions of ad dollars are built into brand-building initiatives. Animals, cute kids, beer-spewing partygoers -- it's all in the name of branding and recall. There's room to tell a story. In a banner, or even a text ad, there's less room and less story. And because of its inherently interactive nature, online advertising demands more concrete results from each dollar spent. The ability to report clicks, views and actions can make our jobs as online advertisers/marketers simultaneously harder and more rewarding.

Focused on the realities, I recommend devising creative that gets the best results. The hard part to stomach is that these are not always the best-looking or most beautifully designed ads. But they are the smartest. It's not always about superficial good looks.

It's about copy, ingenuity and interactivity.

A good, direct offer or call-to-action can still stop a qualified customer in his tracks. A great free offer, the promise of valuable information or something funny -- all the traditional lures work. Or ask the visitor to get involved; take a poll, enter his e-mail address for more information, ask a question. But don't let the offer get lost amid fancy design tricks and flashy graphics.

Success does not always succeed, however. A genre of "trick" ads stands, unashamed, on their own duplicity. These ubiquitous "warning" banners are daunting, look interactive but are not, and get good click-through rates. But do they achieve results or result in frustration? If interaction is the goal, why not design something truly interactive? Additional layers of technology must be in place to accomplish this, but the technology is available.

So a results-based approach to creative demands that form truly follows function. Make the creative look great, of course -- but first make sure it works. In this philosophy, design for its own sake takes on less importance, and believe it or not, technology for its own sake does, too.

A year or two ago, when "push" applications were all the rage, you could download any number of desktop toolbars for the delivery of news, stock information, weather and more. Yes, the technology was fun, but the applications have had to race to keep up.

It's still important to deliver what people want, but the great online masses are fickle -- their tastes and desires change weekly, daily, and even hourly. A great new technology will impress briefly, but unless it's based on content people want and need, interest will quickly fade.

That's why testing and flexibility are paramount. Don't let vanity get in the way. A willingness to try something less "pretty" but more pragmatic can lead to great results. See what creative assets reach your objectives. Try something new. Use what works.

Mark Grimes is president/CEO of online advertising agency eyescream interactive inc., Portland, OR. Reach him at

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