Online Display Advertising Grows Up

Online display ads (a.k.a. “banner ads”) have been seen for most of their short existence as a kind of marketing table scrap of the modern age, an unloved byproduct created alongside the explosive growth of websites. It took about a day (circa 1997 or so) for the initial novelty to wear off of seeing something whirring or flashing on the corner of your screen while you were trying to read an article, after which banner ads simply became part of the online landscape that we grudgingly learned to live with. Their value in the marketplace limped along accordingly. Frequently, publications would bundle display advertising as part of their print sales (i.e. buy a print ad in our publication and we’ll also include you on our website) in order to move otherwise unwanted online advertising inventory.

For many years, Google offered the option for businesses of all sizes using Google AdWords (pay-per-click advertising on its search engine results pages) to also run those same small text ads on what was originally called the “Content Network”. The Content Network was a large group of websites that had offered up space on their sites for Google-generated advertising. Just as with your ads on Google’s search engine, Google would match the keywords you were targeting to the content of specific pages on its Content Network, so that your car-related ads would appear on car-related web-pages for example, or your lawyer ads on law-related pages, etc. However, in the early going, choosing to advertise on the Content Network was a binary yes/no option, and if you did opt-in, there was essentially no insight or control over what sites your ads would appear on. Additionally, click-through rates were generally lower than for search advertising. Logically, these clicks were also likely to be of lower quality for a lawyer seeking to generate direct business via their ads, because someone typing “Toronto divorce lawyer” into Google is much more likely to be on the cusp of picking up the phone to retain counsel than the person who inadvertently encounters your ad because they were reading an online news article that triggered your keywords. For all these reasons, online display hasn’t played a significant role in legal marketing before now.

Times change, however, and so has online display. As the world has gone digital and audiences have moved predominantly online, the value of online display has increased. And as in so many other areas of online life, Google has played a central role in disrupting the online display advertising economy, by opening up to small and mid-sized businesses advertising options that were once exclusive to large corporations. What was once the Content Network is now known as the Google Display Network (GDN). And whereas in the past you were limited to those small three line text ads, and could only choose to turn the Network on or off, you can now create a wide array of different ad types (text, static banners, animated banners, video) and precisely target specific sites via the GDN as well as specific geographies within which your advertising will run (called “geotargeting”). Google Canada reports that the GDN currently includes over 1 million individual websites and reaches 85% of the total Canadian online audience. Further, Google provides you as the advertiser with detailed reporting about exactly how your ads are performing on each site you choose to advertise with, enabling you to empirically test and compare results on different websites. It also fundamentally changes the nature of online display media buying. Instead of locking into a prescribed media buy with a specific website or group of websites, you can advertise with a large number of sites, test and alter your advertising formats, your content, and the destination websites your ads appear on, all on the fly, in response to real, live data. You can also pause or turn your campaign off at any time (try that with a traditional media buy).

So what does this all of this mean in practical terms for a typical Canadian law firm then? Well, for starters it means that a small business-focused law firm in a regional market such as New Brunswick or Edmonton could realistically buy a noticeable geo-targeted advertising presence on the and/or websites, meaning that their ads would only appear for readers of these websites in the firm’s local market area. It means that a personal injury firm in Ontario could test a campaign targeting readers of the region’s major daily newspapers, and obtain concrete data on the relative performance of different papers, or test the performance of two different ad concepts inexpensively online before committing to a major print campaign. It means that an immigration lawyer in British Columbia can run a campaign along the U.S. West Coast. In short, it means that display advertising has grown up. It is now targeted, data-rich, scalable, and measurable. Those are attributes that will inherently appeal to law firms looking to grow their marketing presence in strategic ways in the years ahead.


  1. I very much like the case you make for using geotargeted online display ads for regional advertisers such as law firms. I completely agree that it does create a big shift in approach for buying media. One comment I would add, is that at Vantage Local, where we specialize in geotargeted display, we have found that using just one network like the GDN may not be as effective in achieving adequate reach within a narrow geographic region.