Marketing | 05 MIN READ

Back to the future: What digital ads can learn from print

Digital beats print every time. That’s what we hear day in day out, year after year, infinity times a thousand, right?

Not quite, it would seem.

It appears digital could learn a thing or two from its centuries old cousin, especially when it comes to ad viewability. In fact, on the surface, there can be only one winner, and here’s a hint, it’s currently not the all singing, all dancing upstart that Tim Berners-Lee helped spawn twenty-five years ago.

So why the sudden love for print? It just so happens a survey conducted by Meetrics for Q3 of 2016 concluded that 51% of all online ads in the UK were not viewed, while internationally it was somewhat lower at 44%. Meaning a large percentage of all digital ads are in fact never viewed.

In the UK alone this equates to lost revenue of £615 million – which was definitely not on the agenda when any of those campaigns were signed-off. Of course two valid explanations for this statistic could be the slow loading of pages or ads appearing in less than ideal spaces on websites.

But backing up the somewhat astonishing Meetrics data is a report by eye-tracking marketing research firm, Lumen Research, which earlier this year published findings showing that less than 9% of all digital ads are viewed for more than 1 second.  To make matters even more complicated according to the same study, “for an online ad to be looked at for just one second it needs to be viewable for at least 14”.

Which considering that the International Advertising Bureau (IAB) standard for digital ad impressions is just one second is somewhat problematic. Complement this trend with increasing ad block tech adoption, the browsing speed of most users, let alone superfast millennials, just getting your average banner ad in front of its intended target is becoming more of a challenge.

The lesson for advertisers and agencies is clear – and it’s not all doom and gloom – what has to be taken away from these studies is that the adoption of less invasive and more valuable advertising is key to engaging users of online media.  And yes, there is swift salvation, and it comes in the form of embracing the best practices refined over the decades by that friendly grandaddy of online advertising, print media.

And how do we know this? It turns out Lumen conducted the same eye-tracking research with print media too. And the results? It turned out that “on the whole, almost half (40%) of press ads [were] viewed for more than one second, compared to just 9% of digital ads.” Over 300% better, a massive difference and a sure sign that print media’s analogue DeLorean is hitting 88 mph on a regular basis.

A car travels in time

Plenty of room for improvement then, but being agile and adapting is what digital is all about. For a start, less intrusive ads are strongly on the agenda but avoiding cramming too much information in is just as critical. This in particular was strongly implied when Managing Director of Lumen Mike Follett elaborated to Marketing Week: “You don’t put a TV ad’s worth of content into a poster so why try to in digital channels? Digital marketers need to start thinking in terms of attention economics or they will just keep on failing.”

What do the best digital ads have in common with print ads? As you might guess quite a lot. “The best digital ads do get looked at – but they tend to be simple, elegant, beautiful ads that a creative department would be proud of, rather than moving direct mail pieces,” Mike Follett also detailed. You only have to look at one of the all-time great marketing campaigns for the VW Beatle to know that great design transcends media. If it can enrapture Don Draper then it has to be good.

A scene from Mad Men

Making better digital ads and banner campaigns is the only way forward. Here’s three things digital could learn from print:

1.     Remarkable visuals

One important facet of print that digital can learn from is its use of the visual. It’s been proven that the use of vivid images helps potential customers to remember a particular product. Make use of the greatest sense that digital can manipulate and use it to your full advantage. Inspire a target audience with stunning visuals that capture their imagination. Remember unlike print you’re not stuck using an unsuccessful image, make the most of whatever analytical tools you have available; consider using A/B testing to score the effectiveness of different images.

A picture representing A/B testing

2.     Calls to action

Use a call to action that’s simple and uncomplicated. You have barely a second to grab that visitor’s attention and make them want your product. It can be a button or a phrase, but whatever it is, it must be an imperative that engages immediately. Think about this, when Nike first used their monumental call to action “Just do it” back in 1988 Reebok sold more trainers, and Nike had just $800 million in sales, by 1998 it was $9.2 billion in sales and global dominance. Oh, and by the way, the original Nike print campaign now hangs in the Smithsonian.

3.     Winning copy

Sounds easy doesn’t it? But think about how many times you’ve come across copy that is just (and I’ll use a technical term here) meh. Don’t bombard them with useless gibberish, be clear, and straight to the point, know your audience, tell them why they need your product. The legendary David Ogilvy said this of writing copy: “When people read your copy, they are alone. Pretend you are writing to each of them a letter on behalf of your client.” And of course he’s right. There are only seconds to make a connection, if that first phrase or clause fails to connect then it’s game over. It’s worth spending half-an-hour browsing the internet and reading the copy of some of the best print campaigns of all time – it’s superb.


The lessons from print are hardly rocket science, but they’re a good reminder, along with the viewability studies, that bad digital advertising doesn’t get results. Sadly, for the Biff Tannens of this world there is no Grays Sports Almanac for digital but it is possible to learn from the past and make digital ad campaigns that are just as successful, if not more so than the print campaigns of years gone by.

Want to buck the trend of bad banner ads? Want to put the lessons of print into action?  Why not check out our blog entry on how to use Bannerflow to create, duplicate and scale remarkable banners for your digital campaigns.

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