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Google Responsive Display Ads – How they really work. 4 Format Remarketing.

This is part one of Conversion Path’s Remarketing Demystified Series.

Summary – It’s not about responsive sizes or magical native ads. Google has figured out that a variety of low-quality creatives drives click-through better than a few high-quality creatives.

In the Summer of 2018 google simplified display advertising with “smart” and “responsive” display campaign types. Google made this new format mandatory. It became the only way to make dynamic remarketing campaigns within the interface. Gone were the template ads of the past. The new format is to upload a couple of logos, a nice promotional image, and some value proposition text. Those simple elements tied to the output of an ecommerce merchant feed will magically create all the ads you need.

The result does not look great to everyone, but in practice, they are pretty successful. Google’s internal testing has proven that very few creative inputs are required. As a company, Google decided that to scale display spend they should take away options. Google’s mentality has always favored performance over brand presentation, in this case, it’s the only realistic way the display platform could expand without an army of dedicated designers.

The problem is that if you take away thoughtful brand design, there has to be something else to drive the clicks. What is the trick that the data scientists at Google figured out? It turns out that people respond better to varied messaging. This is not exactly a revolutionary idea. It’s as old as advertising itself. The new piece of knowledge seems to be that variety is more important than ever in the over-communicated age of banner blindness. If the same person views different ads in different styles from the same company the propensity to click goes up.

To keep this secret from getting out Google doesn’t tell you which formats showed or how they performed in terms of clicks and conversions. The only reporting they provide is for the whole slew of ads lumped together as “responsive”, and in new campaigns, as of January 2019, Google has released asset level reporting for headlines and images. How many times they show each of their different formats or variants is part of the secret sauce.

Google asset level reporting scrubs all detailed performance data. Only qualifiers like “Good” or “Low” are used. No impression or click level data is provided:

Google’s Responsive Formats

Google names these as the six automatically generated creative formats. Behind the scenes, each format is generated in multiple IAB approved ad sizes. Having multiple sizes for each format is what makes them “responsive” to the placement.

  1. Dynamic Image – Pulls images from feed and populates them in a variety of templates including carousels and grids for multiple products.
  2. Dynamic Text – Often a product title and description from your product feed served as text but in a size that would be common for display images. 300×250 is most common.
  3. Dynamic Native – Simple images of your product and title without styling. In theory, publishers can change fonts and colors for these ads, but in practice, they are usually a very simple presentation of a single product.
  4. Image – A lifestyle or hero image in combination with your manual headline and description.
  5. Text – Your headlines and description that you have manually entered formatted into ad sizes for the Google Display Network.
  6. Native – the same as the lifestyle or the hero in “image ads” without colors or motion. Simplified with fewer styles.

These ads all look rough. They don’t have the feel of something that is finished or well thought out, but in most cases, these ads formats will get clicks.

The promise of responsive ads is that they can be any size and therefore work in more publisher spaces, thus increasing performance, but ad units seem to have settled over the years. Sizes are IAB standard across all publishers with the most common 3 sizes making up the bulk of the ad units. There is something else at work here that’s driving CTR. That unknown factor is variety. It may be why Google does not break down reporting on how each of the 6 formats performs. With that data, anyone could reverse engineer the formula for variety.

For some brands, this is perfectly adequate. Google’s automation of the creative, it’s AI sequencing of creative, and segmentation by device can drive CTR to good results. The manual approach may be more than it’s worth for some brands. However, if your brand cares about its presentation, wants transparency into performance, AND wants good CTR for your 2019 remarketing we recommend the 4 format remarketing method.

The 4 Format Remarketing Method

Using this method we’ll make 4 campaigns with custom creatives under a shared budget and targeting the same audiences.

  1. Lifestyle / Hero image campaign – This campaign is primarily about brand imagery and brand level messaging. Adgroup level creatives should contain various ads that illustrate the identity of the brand but still contain a strong Call To Action.
  2. Product campaign – Static or Dynamic ads that utilize the carousel or grids to primarily feature products. Adgroup creatives should have variants of short text for value prop, but primarily product based with a CTA.
  3. Text campaigns – These can be high performing search ads but run on the display network in display ad units. Adgroup variants should showcase the value prop in this format with a CTA.
  4. Native – Very simple product with title / short description and price with a CTA.

The advantage of the 4 format approach is that you can use thoughtful creative and optimize that creative for the device it’s likely to run on. All 4 campaigns should be set to drive impressions to the same audience. The audience will still get variety, which drives CTR, and the brand will be able to curate the presentation which is important for brand loyalty.

To utilize this approach you’ll want to build out a variety of static, text, and dynamic creatives for each campaign. Variation within the campaigns themselves becomes a force multiplier. Customers exposed to multiple formats and variants within the formats are a more likely click.

The difference between high touch custom dynamic creative and template produced creative is incredible. The following is an example of a product campaign that mixes a simple grid and a custom dynamic creative. These two ads have very different feels. Both can resonate but on different levels.

All of us have become increasingly blind to banners. In our present state of over-communication, we’ve all become very good at ignoring information that doesn’t pertain to what we are interested in. It doesn’t seem to matter how loud or intrusive a banner gets we are capable of blocking it out. It’s especially easy for us to ignore something that is repetitive. Those things can pass by us without ever registering. The counter principle is that while we don’t like things that are repetitive, we do like things that are familiar to us. We are far more likely to engage with brands that we know. The human factor at play here seems to be that variety builds some familiarity without being too jarring for our brains to process or too repetitive for us to easily ignore.

Variety gets people to pay attention. Creative control makes brands happy. Transparency into performance yields a better return on ad spend.

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