Online advertisingGoals vs. message. I often find there’s an internal conflict clients need to overcome before advertising online to help them understand the difference between explaining their business and showing people the benefit of being a customer.

This is especially true for clients who sell experiences over products, but knowing the distinction is helpful for all businesses. Ultimately in advertising online, showing the benefit through good messaging is the way to reach the goal of the business.

I try to explain it as the difference between a branding exercise and a sales pitch. A lot of times, business owners think showing the benefit is too roundabout, when explaining the product’s purpose is clear-cut and direct. But potential customers don’t have time or interest in being sold features. They want to know, “how does this help me?” That means describing how the business improves customers’ lives in one way or another, not how their business improves an owner’s bottom line.

I recently had a discussion with a client who was interested in advertising a program and getting people to register to attend the program. In an effort to achieve this, we were going to inform potential customers of the program through social media and search engine advertising.

This meant developing creative graphics to generate interest for people to click on the ad and see the product, i.e. the program.

The company has its own graphics team (which is why the client didn’t need to use my completely excellent branding and design partner, Orange Hat — shout out). I described to the client what we needed, gave a list of image sizes, and proposed a deadline for when the images needed to be back in my hand so that the ad could be posted on media platforms.

Now I know the graphics team at this particular office, and it is extremely talented, so I was surprised that I got back four images with the name of the program on a dissolved background and a collage of people standing around talking to each other — imagine stock photos with a brand logo overlay.

Apparently, my description of the graphics requirements and the graphics team’s understanding of the purpose of the images got lost in translation — a telephone game fail, if you will. We were at a point where I was preparing to sell the benefits of participation in the program, and the graphics team was trying to convey who the company was that was offering the program.

If you’ve ever shopped online, you know that at the browsing stage, the store that sells the product is less relevant than the product itself. It’s frequently irrelevant all the way through the purchase except when the seller’s brand is integral to the sale. For instance, if you found a Halloween costume online that looked just like another one you had seen, and one was cheaper than the other, you’d probably buy the cheaper one, unless you knew the company selling it was using the money to pay for creepy clowns to mill around schoolyards.

Call it the puppy mill difference. If you’re against puppy mills, and you see two totally adorable puggles for adoption, one from a shelter and one from a puppy mill, then the choice of your product supplier becomes obvious. You go to the shelter. But let’s say you’re just thinking of adopting a shelter dog, could be a puggle, could be a mutt, doesn’t really matter, you just really want to get a dog. When you find the “one,” the adorable little guy you are just in love with, the decision comes down to when you can go get him and bring him to his forever home, not whether the shelter’s visiting hours are inconvenient.

Now, granted, it is an investment for a customer to register to attend a program, which is generally at a specific location during a specific time featuring a specific host or guest. Learning the details of the program — how much does it cost, what is the process to sign up  — all become variables in the decision-making process, but not at the point when the customer is browsing for interesting things to do.  In fact, it’s not until the customer is about to submit the registration form that he or she really begins to start planning the logistics of attending.

So, if you’re designing creative to let people know of a new event on the schedule, don’t tell customers about the venue and the parking, sell them the attraction.

To this end, it’s important to follow some guidelines for building a great ad, whether for a product, an event, or merely a page view. These are some of the ones I think about when I’m designing a sales pitch:

1) An Appeal is Not a Court Summons. These days, potential customers are extremely hard to impress. Why wouldn’t they be? They’re constantly blasted with digital stimuli. But customers are not automatons or lifeless entities. They want to be enticed and intrigued. That means you need to encourage, not coerce someone’s interest. If you are targeting college students, for instance, show why they would give up their valuable and limited time to participate in an event. Is it fun? Is it a way to blow off steam after finals? Is it good for their resume? It’s certainly not because the host’s internal business goals are to interest more college students to attend a program. In every case, ask yourself what’s the compelling aspect? Show them what’s appealing to them, not why it’s important for your business that they be there.

2) Show, Don’t Tell. Be descriptive, not prescriptive. People don’t want to be told to take their medicine. They know they have to take their medicine. They want to be shown that when they take their medicine, they get to leave their house and go on a great adventure that isn’t going to make them feel worse afterward. When consumers experience a persuasive feeling from an ad, instinct takes over, and they enlist enough trust in the advertiser to want to learn more.

3) Match Expectations to Outcomes. Did you ever fall for a bait and switch? Once. Yeah, only once because once you’ve seen how that scam works, you don’t fall for it again. We’re all too sophisticated for that. So, don’t suggest pizza and beer when you’re going to serve coffee and donuts. That said, a bit of surprise will certainly keep people’s interest if the surprise is better than the tease.

4) Keep it Simple. Oh, I know, “KIS” has been mentioned in every marketing book ever written, and yet it needs to be repeated over and over again. You can show real people doing real things as long as people can figure out what they’re being shown. Make sure audience members can understand what they’re seeing and give them one good reason why they want to see more.

5) The Destination Is Only As Good as the Journey. An online ad is going to take a prospective customer somewhere, but where? If you want sneakers, you’re not going to click on an ad showing boots. If the ad is tailored to a specific search and the destination takes you to a general information page, the buyer journey is done. You won’t get a buyer back if they know the ad takes them to a place they don’t need or care to be. If you’re an HGTV fanatic like me, you’ll get this analogy: Everybody loves the big reveal, but it’s a long journey for the pay-off. Unless you’ve got Chip and Joanna Gaines or the Property Brothers hand-holding your customer through the motions, they will abandon you if they know your front door and your interior don’t match.

6) Get Creative Then Try Again. I’ve never met a perfect ad right out of the box. That’s why marketers test, test, test, which means having multiple options to choose from when creating ad copy and graphics. Sure, branding needs to be cohesive, but just showing the same three images over and over will make people lose interest. Think of the relevancy score in Facebook advertising. What is that? That’s a measure used by Facebook to see how many times people see your ad before they click on it. When a viewer clicks after seeing an ad just once, that’s a creative win. If they see it a few times before taking an action, that means they are mostly immune to your charms. Keeping it fresh is as important in advertising as in relationships so don’t treat your customer like the worse half of an old, boring couple.