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A guide to planning & designing digital adverts

If you need practical help designing digital advertising as part of your public sector communications campaigns, give us a shout. We can produce cost-effective creatives, alongside the scheduling and technical expertise we provide through Citizen Reach™.

The dos and don’ts of digital advertising design might surprise you.

At CAN, we have had years of experience working with public sector communications teams to get their campaigns seen by target audiences in ad spaces online and on social media. And often the sort of creative designs that might make a campaign stand out in print, on out-of-home channels and even in regular social media timelines, do not work for digital ads.

In this guide we have pulled together information to help communications teams incorporate digital advertising into their campaigns: from the initial research and planning that will make all the difference to outcomes to the technical specs, and from the sort of creatives that work hardest to the things you shouldn’t waste your time on.

There is a short PDF version of this guide created specifically with designers in mind.

What is digital advertising?

In short, digital advertising refers to the ads you see amongst regular content as you browse the internet and social media. These ads have standard formats and positioning on a webpage and are clearly labelled in social media feeds.

Someone – whether from a big corporation, a local business, or a government body – has paid the publisher of a website or social channel to show you their ad.

AT CAN, our job is to buy digital advertising space for public sector campaigns in a way that ensures the messages reach the right people through the programmatic bidding process (where the highest bid gets the space).

The job of a communications/design team is to make sure the campaign creatives for the ads – both their design and message – cut through the “noise” to take full advantage of the moment the ad is in front of a viewer.

The sole goal of digital advertising for public sector campaigns is to get the viewer to click on the ad so they can read more information and be part of anonymised data collection that tells you more about where to direct messages and resources in future.

We’ve written a comprehensive gallop through digital advertising for the public sector in the form of a Q&A and also explained some of the jargon used.


Digital advertising checklist

Below are the steps we think you need to take to create successful design for digital advertising.

  • Put together a campaign communications plan.
  • Identify your audiences for digital advertising.
  • Map out the customer journey.
  • Creative ideas for digital advertising.
  • Draw up a brief design plan.
  • Tick off the technical bits and make sure ads are accessible.


Put together a campaign communications plan

Before you can decide if digital advertising is a good fit for your campaign, you need to produce an overall campaign communications plan.

Campaigns are about problem-solving. You have a problem – say, your electoral registration numbers are lower than average in a few postcodes covered by your council. In your campaign you want to help solve this issue for the chance of a more democratic vote at the next local election.

You need a robust campaign plan to get your ducks in a line: to make sure you do adequate research and come up with the right objectives, set realistic goals for your budget, and choose the most appropriate channels. It needs to be well thought out, but it need not be overly complicated.

There is a brilliant, downloadable, one-page guide to comms planning from comms2point0 here.


Identify your audiences for digital advertising

The most important factor in deciding on the mix of channels to be used in your campaign is to identify and research your audience.

Going back to our example of an electoral registration campaign, once you know which postcodes have low rates of registration, you can then find out what sort of social groups live in these locations and how best to communicate with them.

One useful resource is the Experian Mosaic classification of all areas of the UK by consumer type. This introductory PDF outlines all the different social groups and provides information on which media channels each uses. Council performance teams might have access to the main paid-for database which tells you in which postcodes each social type is prevalent.

If you use this information in tandem with local demographic detail like age and ethnicity, you’ll get a good picture of the audiences you need to target with your communications.

With digital advertising, this social profile and demographic information is vital. It means audiences can be closely targeted based on anonymised digital profiles collected from browsing habits, as well as by location.

If you are locally targeting a public health or another national campaigns – there is more specific information here.


Map out the customer journey

It is always important to put yourself in your audience’s shoes to test each stage of their journey towards taking the action you want to be the result of your campaign. This is even more vital with digital advertising.

Getting a single creative in front of someone who will potentially engage with your campaign is only the start with digital ads – they can do so much more. Here are the three stages of the journey:

  1. Initial digital adverts with a range of different messages

This is to test which ones work best with audiences and channels. CAN monitors and measures campaigns as they are running so we can get the creatives with the most engagement out to more people.

  1. Campaign landing page

Where will it take your audience when they click on your campaign ad? What information and support are you providing? It could be a page on your website or a video on YouTube which is explanatory or human-interest. Make sure it includes a clear call to action (sign up for alerts, download a pack). Will there be a different landing page for those who click on retarget messages (see below)?

  1. Retarget adverts for those who show an interest

People who have clicked on one of the initial ads obviously have some level of interest in your campaign. But if they haven’t yet taken the next step, they need a nudge. In fact, digital advertising works at its best when people are on the cusp of taking a course of action.

Recruiting foster carers is never easy. As this case study from the London Borough of Hackney shows there was greater success gained by first putting out messages to a general audience and then nudging with a powerful video. The team got to find out who they should be targeting in future through this method. The idea behind this – part of behavioural science – is often called “nudge theory”. Persistence is key!

These are the key customer journey points you need to figure out in advance for digital advertising:

  • Creatives for initial digital ads (multiple versions with different messages)
  • Landing page or video with information & call to action
  • Creatives for remarketing
  • Secondary landing page (if required)


Creative ideas for digital advertising

Once you have nailed the customer journey, your design plan of action needs to be:

  1. A creative concept to run through the whole campaign.
  2. Initial advert designs to the correct technical specs (see below) featuring a range of messages, plus an ad design for remarketing to “nudge” those interested.
  3. Landing page(s) content, with design that references the overall creative concept, whether this involves video and/or written information, plus call to action (form? Download? Email sign-up?).

To get your creative juices flowing, you could try searching a resource we created in partnership with comms2point0 called COMMS:FILES. It includes hundreds of award-winning examples of public sector campaigns to give you an idea of what has worked well in the past.

The imagery and messaging you use should be firmly based on your campaign plan. Who are you trying to engage? What has your research told you about this audience and what they respond to? What action do you want them to take? What are the benefits for them? And what are the barriers to them taking action?

The Government’s Behavioural Insights Team has developed a tool that identifies barriers an audience might have to engaging with your campaign – useful to help you shape your messaging.

This campaign case study shows how CAN worked with a number of London borough councils to identify smokers in the capital (anonymously) by featuring a number of different positive outcomes quitting would bring – around such things as saving money, fitness and personal hygiene.

The designer doesn’t need to spend time on:

  • Animated adverts – the ones that turn through three different messages in sequence. For accessibility reasons, these ads go round once and stop on the final message. So, your message needs to be expressed on one slide anyway. You may as well save time by making ads static.
  • Searching for lots of different images – the range of messages is more important. Obviously if you’re using images of people these need to reflect your different communities.
  • Overly complicated graphics – these could obscure the message.

DO spend time:

  • Discussing which imagery, colour palette and fonts that ensure the design concept is bold enough to cut through the other content on a webpage or social channel and will work in different contexts.
  • Developing a range of simple messages that speak to the audience(s) you are targeting. Think about what might encourage someone to find out more – maybe some messages will set up a question, some will set up intrigue, and some will be more direct.
  • Producing the designs to all the required technical specs and keeping to a set naming convention for them (see below).

Draw up a brief design plan

It will help the designer if you set out all the info they need for the campaign in a simple document. A line about welcoming discussion/clarification is also worth adding – this may throw up alternative (and better) ideas.

Suggested headings for your design brief:

  • Campaign title and overview
  • Deadline date for draft creatives
  • Campaign run dates
  • Outline of creative concept and suggested imagery
  • Detail of design work needed: initial ads, retarget ads, header for webpage, video slides, downloadable material, form
  • Technical specifications for web ads and social media ads (see below)
  • Copy for each format / each audience (if applicable)
  • Naming convention for files (see below)


Tick off the technical bits and make sure ads are accessible

All the technical specs needed to design digital adverts are on a separate page. But, in summary, if supplying static* ads, they need to be as jpgs and each different design needs to be output in these four formats:

Leaderboard: 728 x 90 pixels

MPU: 300 x 250 pixels

Double MPU: 300 x 600 pixels

Super Skyscraper: 160 x 600 pixels

*We caution about the use of animated digital ads (see above) but if you do want to supply creatives in this format they need to be in HTML5.

Social media advertising specs (for Facebook and Instagram) are subject to change. Sprout Social is great for keeping up to date with the changing specs, but it is even better to check with the social channel’s own guidelines.

Website accessibility guidelines and advertising

On 23 September 2020, the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018 came into force. Most public sector websites and intranets – including local and national government and NHS – need to adhere to these regulations.

Adverts on public sector websites are not subject to the regulations as they are classed as third-party content, as it is not under the control of the publisher of the website.

However, in keeping with the spirit of the legislation, it’s good practice to treat digital ad design (as far as possible) in the same way as design for any other web content in terms of accessibility. You can help all web users access all your content.

The Government website has a comprehensive section on web content design.

The main advice is:

  • Do not use colour as the only way to distinguish something.
  • Do use text colours that show up clearly against the background colour.
  • Do not use images of text.
  • Do work with the comms team and external agencies to make sure alt text is included for campaign adverts if possible.

Alt text for ads should ideally be no more than 125 characters (including spaces) and begin by flagging up the nature of the content. There is an ultra-simple guide on how to write advertising alt text by

Just before the new regulations came out, we produced a comprehensive blog to explain what the website accessibility legislation means for the way web content is produced.

A word about naming your artwork files

As with everything about digital advertising, the “what it says on the tin” approach works best. So, stick to a naming convention that means it’s easy for us to trace your campaign ad as it works its magic across the internet.

For example:

[Campaign name]_[shortened version of specific ad message]_[channel]_[ad type if appropriate] = FosteringFirst_LGBT_WebAd_MPU or FosteringFirst_Older_Facebook