Inside Display Ads for Account-Based Marketing: From Specs to Creative to Production

When B2B companies ask themselves if online display advertising may be a good way to strengthen their account-based marketing, they are likely to face dozens of questions.

This post tries to answer two:  

  • How can do companies create effective display ads for account-based marketing?   
  • What creative skills do you need to get started?

The answers are organized into three topics we’ll address in order:  

  • Ad specifications
  • Creative strategy and execution
  • Production

Your ads must conform to industry standards

Specifications for online ads are set and maintained by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (or IAB).

IAB’s standards establish consistent ad formats for both advertisers and web publishers. The IAB Display Advertising Guidelines and the IAB’s detailed style guides define dozens of ad specifications.  

IAB’s specs address factors as ad dimensions, file types, file sizes, frame rates (for video ads), acceptable uses of audio, and so on.


The four most common ad formats for B2B display advertising are known as Standard Ad Units:

  • The Leaderboard (728×90)
  • The Banner (468×60)
  • The Medium Rectangle (300×250)
  • The Skyscraper or Right Side Rail (160×600)     

The dimensions appear in parentheses. Units are pixels, with width stated first.

For details on these and other ad specifications, visit the IAB website. Or try The Online Advertising Guide for simpler, more interpretive explanations.

Most ABM display ads use one of 3 common image formats

Three file formats dominate B2B display advertising, says Mani Iyer, CEO of Kwanzoo. They are JPEG, GIF, and PNG.

To help ensure fast load times for publishers’ web pages, IAB limits ad files to 20 kilobytes for primary image and text files. When you include background image, text, call-to-action button, and I-frame images, and so on, the maximum file size is 50 kilobytes.

Bitmapped (BMP) files don’t work for online ads, Iyer says, because they are too big.    

Plenty of talk about mobile ads, but not much activity

Use of mobile devices is exploding, and mobile advertising is getting a lot of coverage in the trade press. Nevertheless, Kwanzoo sees little demand for mobile display ads for ABM.


“We may add a few mobile ad sizes to the mix if we find a decent number of mobile device IDs in the cookie pool we’re targeting,” Iyer says.

“The number of mobile devices in the targeted cookie pool depends on which accounts an advertiser is going after. Some accounts and cookies have more mobile browsers than others.”

For B2B, desktop web browsers are still the primary ad inventory and delivery channel, Iyer says.

ABM advertisers mostly ignore ‘exotic’ ad formats

In addition to mobile ads and the four Standard Ad Units, you can also create video and audio ads, high-res ads, and animated or interactive ads in HTML5 code. 

But such ad formats are not often used in advertising for account-based marketing.

Why? Iyer gives three main reasons:

  • The inventory of ad space is limited. Some web publishers are unwilling or technically unable to accommodate the newer, less conventional ad formats.  
  • Creative capacity is limited. Many of the additional ad formats require higher-level creative and production skills. For example, you probably need storyboarding and animation skills to create an animated ad. You may need music and voice talent. Many B2B organizations don’t have such skills internally. And most Kwanzoo clients have been unwilling to pay agencies or freelancers for them.
  • ABM advertisers tend to stick to the basics. They’re eager get their feet wet with display advertising. They want a fast start. So simpler is better – at least at first. For the limited volume of advertising they do, they think it’s not worth the money and effort to get more sophisticated.   

For ad effectiveness, creative is (almost) everything

So far, we’ve covered the technical specification for your display ads. But the more important element, by far, is the creative spark that engages the people you want to reach.

What magical mix of message, image, type, color, and other design elements will help you achieve that goal?

To answer that question, seek help from people with solid experience on the creative side of B2B digital display advertising.

Digital display advertising is a species unto itself

B2B digital display is different from B2C digital display. It’s also different from other forms of B2B digital advertising.

Don’t confuse ABM display advertising with B2B corporate advertising. The main goal of corporate ads is usually to raise awareness or to burnish a brand. It’s hard to measure their effectiveness.

In contrast, digital display advertising usually prompts some action you can measure. It’s an online form of direct-response advertising.  

Digital display ads are the opening steps in a carefully choreographed dance of seduction. But the seduction mustn’t feel too overt.

Together, the steps are designed to encourage the view to make incremental progress in the direction of a sale.

Effective online display ads always contain a call to action and an offer.

The offer is an exchange of something the reader will receive for responding to your call to action.

The reader must see your offer as providing enough value to overcome the effort or perceived risk she may see in requesting it.

The success of your call to action depends on the strength of your offer.

Online display ads attract your viewer into a system of persuasion

With online display ads, a click on your call to action usually takes your viewer to a separate landing page. Alternatively, your ad may expand to show a name-capture form and a miniature landing page.

Your landing page must persuade your visitor to take another small action. The next action you want him to take is another step down a path. The path leads to ever-increasing engagement with your sales and marketing content.

You move your reader from distraction to states of increasing receptivity. When he’s ready, you encourage him to engage directly with your sales team.     

An expert in pay-per-click may be a bust in digital display advertising

Has someone on your team has mastered the nuances of pay-per-click advertising? If so, is your PPC expert also likely to be good at online display ads?

Not necessarily.

It’s hard for one person to master more than one or two communication channels.

Although online display and pay-per-click ads are both digital technologies, they use different psychology.  

Search ads redirect attention and interest

Pay-per-click ads aim to catch the attention of people who are searching on keywords.

You know – or you can infer – what a searcher has on her mind when she enters a keyword phrase.

An effective a pay-per-click ad creates an intriguing connection between what the searcher is looking for and the offer you present.

Like jiujitsu or judo, PPC ads redirect momentum where you want it to go.

Unlike display ads, pay-per-click ads use only tiny images or no images. They are typographically spartan.

Your copy is short, almost  like a haiku. In its brevity, it must accomplish a lot.

Successful display ads hijack attention

In contrast, display ads interrupt a web viewer while she’s pursuing an unrelated interest.

You can’t control or anticipate the context in which your ad appears.  

At the moment your viewer sees it, she has no intention of learning about your company, your solution, or your offer.

You distract her on the trail of a different scent.

To be effective, your display ad must first win her attention and then her interest.

To do that, your ad must appeal to some strong emotion or a latent desire that’s more compelling than whatever else she was pursuing.  

You must make an educated guess about what will move her to act. You must state your offer in terms that are hard for her to resist.

That’s expecting a lot from an ad that doesn’t contain much text.

But unlike pay-per-click, display ads use typography, color, images, and sometimes motion in a well-crafted design that moves the viewer to click impulsively.

You can hire the expertise you need

If your company has no in-house expertise in online display advertising, you can acquire the next best thing through agencies or freelancers.

But be careful.

People with the right knowledge and experience can be hard to find, even in well-established digital agencies.

Referrals are your best bet for finding qualified professionals. Kwanzoo can help point you in the right direction.

Kwanzoo’s clients are split about half and half between doing their creative in house or through an agency, Iyer says. Kwanzoo can also help get your creative done for you.   

Data insights enhance ad effectiveness

On the creative side, Kwanzoo’s main contribution is insight. They help you understand what kinds of ads work best and why.

The Kwanzoo ad tech platform collects and tracks data about the performance of every ad it runs. Kwanzoo evaluates and correlates the key traits of the most successful ads. The ad traits may include copy or design elements, offers, calls to action, ad sizes, and so on. 

Kwanzoo protects the confidentiality of its clients and guards the details of individual ad performance. The company shares only generalized learnings with clients and their agencies.   

Photoshop is the most common production tool, but good alternatives are plentiful

Most organizations use Adobe Photoshop to create their display ads, Iyer says. For anyone other than a heavy user of Photoshop, the software is big, complex, and hard to learn.

Fortunately, many other graphics tools are available through affordable, easy-to-use SaaS offerings.

Online software such as Canva may not be as flexible or as full-featured as Photoshop. But for occasional users, the SaaS alternatives can produce excellent results faster and with less effort.

Canva created several of the text-plus-image graphics in this post.  

For companies that want to experiment with HTML5, several online tools can generate ads without the user having to write any code.  

Your essential contributions: account insight and messaging strategy

At this point, you should have a clear, high-level idea of what’s involved in creating online display ads.

For any company just getting started with online display, the mechanics of ad production should not present any big challenges.

As you’ve seen here, you have many good alternatives at almost every decision point.

Whether you create your ads in house or through an agency, you must think hard about your account-focused messaging and your creative strategy:

  • To what degree will you tailor your messaging for various account, jobs functions, and industry segments?
  • How will you capture attention?
  • What offers will motivate a first small step in your direction?

This is the fourth in an ongoing series of articles about the use of online display advertising in account-based marketing.

To be sure you don’t miss any articles in this series, share your name and email address. We’ll notify you as future articles appear.

You can find the first three articles here:   

Online Display Advertising for Account-Based Marketing: What’s in It for B2B Sales Teams

B2B Display Advertising: Targeting the Exact Groups You Want to Reach

ABM Display Ads: How to Reach Your Ideal Customers Before Your Competitors Do

About Dave Vranicar

Dave is founder of Redwell B2B, a company that provides consulting, coaching, and content-creation services at the intersection of Sales and Marketing. Redwell’s goal is to help business-to-business companies accelerate revenue growth by helping Sales and Marketing work together as members of the same agile revenue team. Most of Redwell’s clients are tech firms that engage in complex sales involving multiple decision influencers. Content created by Redwell supports both inbound and outbound prospecting, including social selling and account-based marketing and sales development.


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