Attention! Five Techniques for Creating Ads that Engage

"Half my advertising is wasted. I just don't know which half." This was the lament of 19th-century retail pioneer John Wanamaker. If you can relate, then take heart because you're in good company. Wanamaker is considered by many to be the father of modern advertising. Fast-forward more than 100 years to our modern digital era. We now have ability to measure consumer activities and ad engagement at a level of granularity that would make Wanamaker drop a lot of those "wasted" advertising dollars. But if we're honest, many of us will admit that in spite of the powerful analytics tools at our disposal, measuring ad engagement is still a bit of an art. Fortunately, there's another side to Wanamaker's story – and ours. He made up for his lack of metrics by investing in creativity and hiring the now legendary John Emory Powers to write ads for his stores as the first ever full-time copywriter. And Powers delivered, doubling Wanamaker's sales from $4 million to $8 million in just a few years – a few 1880s years. Dollars have always been the best kind of metric, right? So find encouragement in the stories of Wanamaker and Powers. Just as the search for better advertising analytics continues today, so does the reality that really creative, wonderfully executed ads still impact brand growth and sales. Here are five techniques for approaching advertising in a way that will engage your customers and increase your sales:

1. Get their attention.

When asked the secret to advertising, John Powers famously said, "The first thing one must do to succeed in advertising is to have the attention of the reader. That means to be interesting." Well said, John. The art of getting readers’ (or viewers’) attention begins with understanding them – what they like, what keeps them up at night, what motivates them to act, etc. While gaining such audience insights sounds like the stuff of psychics – or at least large ad firms with big analytics budgets – in actuality, we all have everything we need to get attention built right into our brains. It's human nature. We know exactly how to get the attention of other people in our lives: a romantic interest, a child, a coworker, a family member, a friend. We don't use the same tactics in every relationship but instead match our approach to the nature of the connection and what we know or intuit about that individual. I can vouch for these intuitive analytics from my own experience in the early days of dating my wife. The first time she laughed at one of my very nerdy jokes, I knew that more were sure to follow. Similarly, a parent's voice often changes in tone when addressing a misbehaving child. A friend knows just the right way to start a conversation when asking for a big favor. We just know how to get people in our lives to listen. Now consider your best customers. What characteristics define them as a group? What kind of values draw them to your brand? The answers to these and similar questions will help you identify what types of headlines, images and ideas will get their attention.

2. Tell a story.

Storytelling was the primary method of Powers. He didn't just say a product was great; he explained why it was great in credible terms that the reader could understand and embrace. Consider this ad he wrote for Murphy Varnish Company: best-goods Photo courtesy of Wikipedia. Skillfully told stories are timeless and make for great advertising because they get past our suspicion that we're being sold something. They communicate brand messages in human terms that viewers can relate to. So whether you're writing copy for a Google AdWords campaign, a full-page spread in a magazine, a banner ad or a TV spot, look for an opportunity to tell a story. Ram tapped into this power of story with its recent and very popular Super Bowl ad "God Made a Farmer." The ad very acutely associates the truck brand with the toughness and tenacity of the American farmer.

3. Create a content experience.

Great advertising does more than just tell us something about a product; it delivers a brand experience that will stick with us much longer than facts and features. Connecting ads with content is nothing new. Sponsored radio programs, advertorials in newspapers and product placements on TV shows have been around since the early days of those media. Now, interactive advertising, both online and mobile, is taking advertising content experiences to new levels by utilizing technologies never before available. It should come as no surprise, then, that digital publishing organizations are pioneering this content-driven ad future. Say Media's AdFrames placements let brands create experiences without the viewer having to leave their current web page. To promote its Mad Men collection, Banana Republic used this AdFrames approach to deliver a micro-magazine experience, complete with video about the collection and miniature articles about Mad Men style, all with the click of a sidebar ad. banana-republic-1 banana-republic-2 banana-republic-3 banana-republic-4 banana-republic-5 Screenshots courtesy of Say Media and Banana Republic.

4. Be relevant.

By tapping into a trend that's already popular, you can capitalize on people's interest in the topic to get eyes on your ad. But don't just regurgitate what others are doing. Add your own twist to bring something new to the conversation. Tide leveraged the meteoric popularity of Betty White and the trend of placing the lovable actress in slightly sassy situations to promote, quite cleverly, the detergent's ability to "Break the Rules of White." By tying in other pop-culture trends, like giving a nod to popular reality series Jersey Shore, Tide created the ultimate pop-culture mashup that positions the decades old brand as still relevant to new, younger audiences. tide-white-1b tide-white-2

5. Be smart.

There's a common maxim today that says marketing content should be simplified to an eighth-grade level. But while your choice of words should always be accessible to the widest possible audience, the core idea of your ad should never be dumbed down. You can communicate clearly without underestimating the intelligence of your audience. Brilliant ads are loved because they are brilliant. They leave us wondering, "Why didn't I think of that?" I had a such an experience recently. My city is filled with billboards for a colon screening campaign. The campaign brings some positive, even light-hearted vibes to the often uncomfortable topic of colon screenings. The logo for the "Love Your Colon" campaign very simply and very smartly flips the heart symbol to resemble, well, you know... colon-screening