Driving Effective Digital Holiday Advertising

Jon Brand is SVP, Consulting, Senior Practice Leader at GfK. He can be reached at [email protected].


For advertisers, the holiday season is one of the most difficult times to engage consumers. The intensely cluttered ad environment can make the task of messaging effectively even more challenging.

To provide some clarity and guidance, GfK used its Ad Fitness Optimizer testing system to help identify drivers of the most effective advertising during the recent Christmas holiday period.

Focusing on Black Friday/Cyber Monday ads from technology and retail–two of the biggest forces during the holiday season—we came away with sometimes-surprising “do’s” and “don’ts” for marketers.

Put your best foot forward

The very best holiday ads, in terms of overall assessment, do not try to do too much–focusing instead on a core brand strength to drive interest in learning more. While clutter increases during the intense Black Friday/Cyber Monday period, so does consumer interest in holiday shopping. This causes a 5% increase in engagement with seasonal ads, and a 15% lift in desire to learn more about a brand/product, compared to the rest of the year.

Go beyond sales and discounts

Consumers are 26% less likely to see holiday ads as being differentiated, compared to ads during the rest of the year. The holiday focus on discounts plays a major role in this fall-off. Our findings suggest that the best holiday ads go beyond the sale message to communicate core store or brand equities. Discount-centric ads can be effective, but only if they reinforce the brand’s equity by emphasizing why consumers love the brand.

Be fresh

Differentiation–something that holiday campaigns struggle to achieve–is also highly correlated (.81) with interest in seeing an ad again in the future. This suggests that ads designed for Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend have limited shelf life and require frequent refreshes during the remainder of the holiday season.

Focus on one brand at a time

It is common to see promotional holiday ads that are dual branded, including both retailer and product brands. These ads can create a branding challenge, as linkage can be diluted and hence not optimize the ad’s impact for either brand. When branding is clearly associated with the retailer, the product brand often struggles to break through. Products tagged at the end of another well-communicated message have brand impact reduced by 50% compared to ads focused on a single brand. So when engaging in these types of ads, be sure to pay close attention to the value that secondary brands are deriving.

Tie emotional appeals to brands

It is widely recognized that ‘cuteness’ (e.g. pets and babies) attracts attention, especially in video ads. Using of this type of imagery during the holiday season, when messages typically focus heavily on emotional themes, can be even more powerful. But be careful–highly engaging creative elements can also be a distraction from an ad’s desired message. The most effective use of high-empathy creative occurs when the creative devices link intrinsically to the message and brand.

Gap between Best and Worst Holiday Ads

  Like Style  Brand Better  Message Clarity


Remember the 1.7-second rule

Retailers often have a number of messages they want to communicate to consumers around holiday sales. However, for display advertising, consumers typically spend just 1.7 seconds looking at banners. When animated banners have a number of frames, with each designed to communicate a separate message, it is unlikely that consumers will see or absorb it all. Strive to limit the number of messages and frames to make sure consumers are hearing all you want to say.

Animated Banner Ad Attention Example
Viewers’ behavior when first move Spotlight over ad and how long stay on ad.
Aggregated results show when most eyes are looking at the ad on the web page.

It turns out that best practices for holiday advertising could be seen as a primer for smart creative and planning throughout the year. So keep your holiday attitude in high gear for the other 11 months, and ad effectiveness will be the gift that keeps giving for you in 2018.