Display Ads

Have you ever been to a party and sat next to someone who spends the whole time talking about themselves?  It gets old really fast and (if you’re like me) you try to find the exit as soon as possible.

What if I told you that many non-profit organizations make this same social with their display ads?

Sometimes a local newspaper, community publication or neighborhood magazine will offer non-profit organizations dramatically discounted prices to place display ads in their publications.  It seems like a great opportunity to raise awareness and expand the donor base.  It can help if done well, but it can also be a waste of time and money if done poorly.  So, I thought I’d write a few words about best practices as well as what to avoid.

Be focused on the community with a simple clear message

When developing a print ad, speak to the needs of the community (and how you’re meeting those needs). Focus more on the community you are serving than on the non-profit itself.

When a display ad has too much text and too many pictures, it is probably because the non-profit is trying to say too much about themselves.  They are being like the boring person at the party.

Instead, use a headline, a nice picture and a simple call to action.  Some NPO’s go on and on about their services, they add too many pictures and, as a result, their ads just get ignored.

So much of what I see in ad design is the equivalent of watching an advertising car crash.  It’s like paragraphs of words were on a collision course with each other and spilled out all over the page.

Highlight only 1 thing and then direct people to your website.

On your website, you can take donors through a compelling journey and spent time with them explaining your products and services.

Common print advertising mistakes

I’ve been designing ads for a couple of decades, and let me let you in on the thought process behind many of the ad layouts you see.  The CEO or development director calls me and says:

  • We want you to make us an ad. So… start with a huge version of our logo in the corner…. No no no make it big…. Ummm…. Still bigger….
  • Now, in a 6 point font, list out these 25 services that our organization does.
  • Then add our tag line, “The Best in Northern Arizona.”
  • OK, now put these 27 pictures from my phone on there in a collage, but don’t make it look too busy. We need to make sure to show all of our volunteers.
  • Make sure to put on our phone number really big and we are pretty sure people will call up and donate.

Instead of using their outreach assets all together in a unified way, they try to make each and every advertising piece tell the entire story of their organization.

These organizations are hoping that a potential donor opens up the magazine, sees a bunch of tiny pictures and a long description in a tiny font and then immediately gets their wallet out to make a donation.  You could call this approach, “Donations through clutter,” but it’s far from effective.

Personally, I prefer the “Charity with Clarity” approach.  Keep it simple, clean, and clear.

Here’s the rub, the clutter works sometimes…

Sometimes by throwing together a messy ad, a non-profit will pull someone away from the crowd and they will make a donation.  Then the director is usually left wondering why that approach doesn’t work all the time and, in the end, they often spend more money on these cluttered campaigns than they make in donations at the end of the month.

They don’t want to miss the occasional drip and dribble of donations that results from the ads.  However, if you can’t track $3-4 of revenue for every $1 you spend on outreach, then either your display ads or your tracking isn’t working properly.

Questions to ask before design your next print ad

Before you take out your next ad, you need to ask 2 vital questions:

  1. What is the single purpose of your ad?
  2. What 1 thing does your ad focus on?

Nine times out of 10, the purpose should be to highlight 1 service that impacts lives in your community and then to direct people to your website to tell the whole story.

When most non-profits are asked about their objectives for any 1 given advertisement, they usually spout out a list like this… The ad is for

  • Creating awareness
  • Gathering donations
  • Promoting services
  • Recruiting volunteers
  • Announcing an upcoming event

You can’t accomplish all these objectives in 1 single ad.  Choose 1 thing to focus on and communicate that thing with clarity.  First let’s start about a misconception about simply building awareness…

Clarity is also not over-simplification – Your logo isn’t enough

First of all, huge companies have huge budgets and they can afford to spend untold thousands of dollars on branding campaigns.  You might see a logo of a large company by itself in an ad campaign.  Does that work for non-profits?  If people simply see your logo in enough places, will they be more likely to donate? Unless you have a huge branding budget, a few logos placed around town in various publications is not strategic enough to make a difference.

In fact, a logo-driven, branding-only strategy is usually a waste of donor resources. Most small organizations need to stop focusing primarily on branding and start focusing primarily on positioning themselves as experts.  The best place to talk to your donors and to establish yourself as a trusted voice in your community is on your website!

But you can ask for an article.  When taking out a print ad in a local publication, ask the publisher if you can provide copy for a featured article.  Many magazines are glad to let a non-profit write content if it follows the following criteria:

  • Relevance: Write the article so it is relevant to the local community. Focus on topics that align with the magazine’s target audience, cover issues relevant to the community and talk about how your organization is engaged in those issues.
  • Unique perspective: Provide a unique perspective or angle that will capture the attention of the magazine’s readers. This could involve sharing a success story, highlighting an ongoing project, or discussing a relevant issue from your organization’s expertise.
  • Engaging content: Create content that is informative, interesting, and engaging. Use storytelling techniques to capture readers’ attention and make the article compelling and memorable.
  • Credibility: Support your article with credible data, research, or testimonials to enhance its credibility. Provide evidence to back up any claims you make.
  • Conciseness: Keep the article concise and to the point. Magazine articles typically have limited space, so focus on the most important and impactful information. Usually they want content that is 3-400 words.
  • Call to action: Include a clear call to action at the end of the article to encourage readers to get involved or support your nonprofit’s cause. This could be donating, volunteering, or signing up for your organization’s newsletter.
  • Collaboration: Reach out to the magazine’s editorial team and collaborate with them. Seek their input on potential topics, ensure you meet their submission guidelines, and consider any suggestions they may have for improving the article.

Remember to tailor your article specifically to the magazine and its readership. By following these criteria, you can increase the chances of having your article accepted and published in a local magazine.

So don’t try to maximize every square inch of a display ad.  Allow some white-space.  Use the ad to direct people to a website.  Ask the magazine to run a featured story. Be strategic in using your ad space as a sign to push a potential donor to other sources with long-form content.

Consider using a Z Layout

Z Layout

The Z layout is a graphic design principle that guides the arrangement of visual elements on a page or screen. It follows the natural movement of the reader’s eye as it moves from left to right and top to bottom in a “Z” pattern.

The main idea of the Z layout is to start with the focal point (#1), place important elements along the top of the Z (#2), capture the reader’s attention with eye-catching content in the middle, Move down to the lower left corner (#3) and across the bottom (#3.5) for text, and end with a call to action at the bottom right(#4) This layout is commonly used in websites and print designs to create a visual hierarchy and guide the viewer’s attention throughout the content[1].

By utilizing the Z layout, you can create a clear and intuitive flow of information, making it easier for users to navigate and engage with the content. This layout is especially effective for print articles where the goal is to guide users towards a specific call to action.

Recap: How to Use Print Advertising Effectively

Here are a couple rules of thumb.

  1. Highlight one thing at a time
  2. Have a clear call to action. Typically, it is to visit your website.
  3. Take down every distraction from your message in the ad

You are in a crowded market and if everyone is shouting LOOK AT ME with their huge logos and their laundry lists of services.  If you do the same thing as everyone else, it all just becomes background noise.  As a non-profit, you should stand out!

An ad that focusses on solving a single problem in a memorable and compelling fashion will stand out from 99% of the other ad in the publication and is more likely to result in increased donations.



[1] https://webdesign.tutsplus.com/understanding-the-z-layout-in-web-design–webdesign-28a

Leave A Comment