The Ultimate Guide to Maximizing Your Media Spend with Performance Ad Creative
January 25, 2023
Over the years, we’ve seen the classic pitfall again and again: ad creative as a means to an end. For years, the status quo has been to either outsource creative production to a creative/branding agency, tweak assets that were originally designed for organic social, and otherwise relegate ad creative to a place on the totem pole that falls far below audience identification, budget allocation, and campaign setup. And most of the organizations sitting ahead of the ad-creative-testing curve are honed in on nuanced details like button colors and headline choice.
But here’s the deal – putting your ad creative under the critical lens it needs allows it to become a powerful contributor to growth. Depending on the channel and the industry, it can contribute up to 50% of a campaign’s effectiveness. Creative needs to be beholden to data—just like every other aspect of your growth marketing strategy.
The additional (and juiciest layer) here is that storytelling happens through creative BIG time and those who prioritize it are reaping the benefits. How our ads look sets us apart or blends us into the timeline noise. Blending in is pricy and ultimately counteractive. Developing and testing ad creative can help us stand out, drive performance, and draw broader implications about positioning, messaging, and improving user journeys every step of the way.
At the end of the day, it’s never been easier to get the word out. It’s also never been harder to be heard. Ad fatigue is an old concept, but dramatically accelerated and amplified due to infinite scroll and endless content.
So what do we do?
All marketers are intensely focused on proving their advertising works with empirical evidence. When we implement a feedback loop, integration, or accountability between creative and performance teams, answers the most important question: “how’s the creative working?” After launching hundreds of assets and analyzing the results of countless campaigns, we’ve seen that creative has the power to drive real revenue, conversions, and growth. But only when it answers to data.
It’s imperative to adopt/design a process that incorporates feedback loops, integration, and accountability between creative and performance teams so you always know just how well the creative is working.
1. Create assets quickly with heavy diversification of look, feel, and messaging to validate value.
Explore low-budget ways to test new types of creative, so that you can validate that it resonates with your audience and drives performance before you expend more time and resources.
Lean on your campaign managers to create effective environments in which to test creative. Whether that’s using Facebook’s A/B tool or isolating the variables and measuring the data manually, it’s important to draw on the experience of an expert to ensure you can generate statistically significant insights without harming performance.
3. Measure performance
Depending on your level of spend, the size of your audience, and how quickly frequency climbs, you’ll want to pull a full creative analysis anywhere from two to four weeks post-launch. The KPIs you lean on to measure success can totally depend on your hypotheses, your campaign setup, your product, and even the state of your website (for example, you’ll want to hone in on click-through rate if you’ve yet to validate you can generate a strong conversion rate once the traffic hits your site). Here’s an example of a creative audit that we pulled for a Tuff client:
4. Assess big-picture trends, strategize new creative to test, develop A/B tests, etc.
This is where the real magic happens. When you create a flight of creative assets that have heavy diversification of look, feel, and messaging, there’s no definitive, clear-cut answer to “what exactly is driving performance?” BUT, the insights you can generate from asking questions like the following can help unlock powerful business-level insights that have the potential to affect growth so much more meaningfully than button color.
5. Rinse, repeat
At Tuff, we like to talk about the “T-shape approach” in which with every fresh round of creative, we attempt to…
While it’s not imperative to have AS robust a squad as the one you see below, the most critical part of a well-rounded performance creative team is that it’s well balanced with people that are deeply familiar with managing campaigns on the platforms you’re planning to leverage and creatives that are hungry for data and have a proven track record of producing compelling, brand-perfect ad creative.
But, if you’re looking to put together a dream team, here’s our performance-perfect lineup:
Big-picture growth strategist/dot connector
This is the person that’s got a bird’s-eye view of all of the components of a healthy, well-balanced growth marketing strategy. They’ve got the ability to survey the full plane of growth marketing activities and ensure the full team of experts are aligned, centered on the right KPIs, and moving synchronously in the right direction.
This is the person that can design a solid environment for testing ad creative, is boundlessly curious about how to find new audiences to text, can set up an airtight A/B test, and checks in daily.
This is the person that can get deep into the accounts and pull and organize performance data that tells a clear story about what is working and what’s falling behind.
This is the person that takes a step back to observe all of the common threads among the top performers and generates theories behind the creative elements driving performance. They’ll also then translate those insights into a fresh brief that further investigates hypotheses about performance and oversees the production of the creative so that it aligns with platform-wide trends, maintains brand integrity, and generally hits the mark.
Copywriter + creative designer + motion designer
These are the people that make the magic happen. The further you bring your creative production squad into the conversations about performance data and creative strategy, the more effective and valuable they become.
Here’s where it gets a little nerve wracking: no matter how perfectly your campaign is set up, balanced your budgets are, or talented your data teams, people aren’t going to watch your ads. Not based on these factors alone.
Just because your ad hits the right person at the right time doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll give you even a millisecond of their attention. And even if they do, the chances are next to none that they’ll watch your 45 second video all the way through.
**People aren’t going to watch my ads** (say it aloud, it’s okay you can whisper it).
Wasn’t that empowering? Like you’re sending a shockwave out into the universe!? Now, how do you change that?
To do these things, you need to think about the intent of the person on the particular platform. People go on Instagram and FB to kill time, same with TikTok. People on YouTube are purposeful; they’ve got blinders on it. Think about it, people look to YouTube to learn something—so they’re looking at YouTube as a means to an end. Plus it’s owned by the largest search engine in the world, so the search capabilities are strong.
How might this information change an ad you’re making for a company that provides online courses? What about LinkedIn? It’s a social network for working professionals. These are people that are seriously into their work. But does that mean everything needs to be boring? No! It just needs to fold in nicely with the experience they seek when they choose to hop on one platform over another.
The natural next thing to tell you is to make your content look native to the platform on which you’re launching ads, right? Yes. But not always.
A trend we’re seeing that’ll help you boost performance is to make an ad that looks like something native from another platform like a video pulled directly from TikTok that’s run as a Facebook or YouTube ad. People are inherently curious (hey, this is soo good that someone decided to pull it from platform X and use it on platform Y).
When thinking about trends across platforms, it’s important to think about humans and human nature. What gets people going? Intriguing questions, hacks, workarounds, slice-of-life see-what-happens-next type of content. And this hasn’t changed, think about Candid Camera, that’s essentially what these social platforms have been turned into: ways to view humans in their raw form. Now think about that from an advertising perspective and you’re starting to have the makings of a powerful ad.
This past year alone, we’ve launched hundreds of ads across dozens of social platforms. And we’ve put each asset under a microscope. Here are some of the platform-specific trends we’re seeing.
ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) has said on the record that the sole purpose of the TikTok algorithm is to serve you up videos that are going to get you to stay on the platform longer. That’s scary but also very powerful from an advertising perspective. It means that your content must be dialed in. It just won’t perform if it isn’t.
Here’s what we’re seeing on TikTok right now.
Viral sounds are key
TikTok is built on viral trends and sounds, which is fundamentally different than Meta where 80%+ of users watch content without sound. The catch here for advertisers is that many of the viral sounds are copyrighted and you’ll get slapped on the wrist for using them commercially. That said, there’s a deep library of commercially-licensed sounds that closely mimic the trending sounds within the platform. Use them!
Follow trending conversations
TikTok has a propensity to start global conversations and make everyone feel like they need to add their two cents. Find a conversation into which your brand fits and offer your two cents. For example, creators on TikTok LOVE to talk about coffee—how to make it, which kind of ice cubes to use, why matcha is better than coffee—you name it, someone has a hot take. Even if you’re not a coffee roaster, if you exist in a peripheral industry, add your voice!
Tell your designers to sit this one out
UGC (user generated content aka videos from people who help to explain your brand) still works but it’s not the polished flashy UGC that works on Meta with tons of motion graphics and fancy editing. It’s raw; it’s stripped down; it can be basic, just like a lot of the other content you’ll see on TikTok.
Most brands that look to activate TikTok assume that only young twenty-something creators will drive any sort of performance for their brand. In reality, TikTok’s user base goes far beyond Gen Z. We’ve run creative tests with 18 year olds, 25 year olds, 40 year olds, and 50 year olds. And guess what? The older creators can be just as effective.
Never stop researching trends
Check out the TikTok ad library. It can be a little bit clunky to navigate but there’s no better way to check the pulse of what people are consuming. It gives you the top performing ads, via various metrics, for all sorts of different industries. See something awesome in your vertical? Imitate it! Think about how many times you’ve seen that dance performed by different creators on the app. Imitation is all-go on TikRok.
Slap it on Meta
Another important thing to do is to take content that’s working on TikTok and spin it up into a Meta ad. You’ve already created it so you might as well test it on other platforms. Hooking people in the first few seconds is as important on TikTok as it is on any other platform. Make sure your hook is not only visually compelling but conveys important information about your brand. That way, if people only watch that, they’re still left with something powerful.
Oh, and don’t create an end card. We know that seems crazy but trust us. The ads that perform the best feel native. And remember, the average TikToker won’t have the requisite graphic design skills to whip up an end card.
We’ve given you a LOT to consider but no matter who you are, even if you’ve never used TikTok, before you dive head first into advertising, spend some time on the platform. Even if—especially if—you’re working with an agency partner. You’ll know things about your brand that will resonate on TikTok within a few minutes of being there.
Now, let’s move onto Meta aka Facebook and Instagram. You know, that platform that nobody uses anymore, right? WRONG!
Together, both platforms record billions of users every day. Meta continues to reign supreme when it comes to user base.
Importantly for advertisers is the fact that people are used to engaging in commerce on these platforms because they’ve been doing it for a while. TikTok is still new and not as entrenched in our ways of buying, whereas Meta has an unconscious form of trust already baked in.
Test, test, test
If you talk to any rep, they’ll tell you to try as many different ad formats as possible (stories, feed, carousel, static vs. video). Even if you spot your competitors consistently producing one type of asset, or you continue to hear “video, video, video!” it’s important to employ a scientist’s mindset when developing your first rounds of creative for the platform and investigate what your users will resonate with.
While video is reigning supreme—especially as businesses put more and more into TikTok—(a video only platform) it’s a better time than ever to try static ads and carousel ads. Our theory is that carousels stand out because they’re simply different. And we’ve got the results to prove it! Across numerous accounts at Tuff, we’re seeing great results: lower CPMs, CPCs and higher conversion rates.
Consider ad fatigue
The short story: folks have been watching UGC ads on Facebook for 7+ years! Consumers grow tired of seeing the same ad format, and in general we see this starting to lag a bit on Facebook. Let’s be clear, we’re not telling you to stop using UGC in your ads, but try making them more simple and stylized. Give viewers a reason to look and stay around to keep watching.
Think “hook first”
We’ve been seeing a lot of traction with simple and stylized motion on Meta. The hook is still ultra important. For video ads, you almost need to be designing two ads, the hook and the rest of the video. For statics and carousels, you still need to hook people in with something compelling.
Think “sound last”
The vast majority of Facebook and Instagram users keep the sound off. So it’s imperative to optimize your ads for sound-off viewing (which we theorize is a contributing factor to the lagging performance of UGC videos. At least the ones that feature people talking).
Get your TikTok videos in here!
We’re also seeing success testing TikTok native ads on Meta. Even if people aren’t on TikTok, everyone is talking about it, so taking something under the guise of “it works here, let’s try it there” provides this subconscious validation for viewers.
Because of TikTok, people are getting used to the idea of watching ads with the sound on, especially on stories. That might give you a leg up in differentiating your ad with a little bit of clever captioning and sound “want a tip for doing your taxes? turn on the sound or you’ll miss it”.
Some of these trends might feel obvious and some of them might not. What’s important is to always study what the competition is doing and to ask yourself what you like vs. how you can be different AND the intent of the folks on the platform. If you keep intent as your north star and put yourself into the shoes of the customer, you’re sure to get some great data and likely, solid returns.
YouTube is an interesting one for spotting trends because it’s such a massive platform but still doesn’t get the spend or scale for most brands the way Meta does. Intent is especially important on YouTube because so many people go there with a purpose in mind and are keen to just skip your ad and move on.
Make it feel VERY native to the platform
Making sure your ad feels native to the platform should always be top of mind. Selling accounting software? Make a YouTube ad that feels like an accounting hack video where an accountant is giving you her top 5 tax tips.
Get your aspect ratio right
Like we mention above, you can certainly repurpose what’s working on other platforms but the toughest part about that is the 16:9 aspect ratio used on YouTube, which is widescreen and seldom used on Meta or TikTok. If you’re in a pinch and don’t have the time or resources to create a YouTube-first asset, an easy and effective workaround is to put a branded border around some 1:1 or 9:16 content and use that border for captions or other important info (captions are major performance boosters on YouTube). Ultimately, even if your creative isn’t perfect, we’d still recommend using what you’ve got to test to see if you can generate any traction. If so, there’s your sign to prioritize YouTube creative ASAP!
Hone WAY in on your hook
Unlike many other channels, YouTube offers skippable ads, which are usually more effective/less expensive. This means that the hook could be the most important part of your ad for YouTube because most people can’t wait to smash that “skip” button.
New! Hop on YouTube Shorts
The advertising capabilities are nascent but if you’re someone who’s doing big things on TikTok, you should try your hand at YouTube shorts. The required 9:16 aspect ratio makes it fairly easy to spin up your TikTok or story content onto a Short. TikTok is winning this short form battle for now but as YouTube thinks long and hard about compensating its creators in a way that’s fair and transparent, there could be people flocking to Shorts faster than you think.
Linkedin is a massive platform and as millennials grow older and firmer into their professions, it’s a platform you don’t want to sleep on.
Keep it SIMPLE
We see both statics and very simple animated videos perform well on LinkedIn. The most important thing to keep in mind is how quickly/effectively you can communicate your key message in a way that resonates. Most professionals have spent their careers sniffing out BS and poor sales pitches, so articulating your value clearly and simply can really help you stand out from the crowd.
Make it shareable
LinkedIn is a platform built on sharability. Think about it—there are very very few other platforms that will serve you someone else’s post simply because one of your connections commented on it. Creating content that feels compelling, inspirational, and shareable can really help generate some mileage. Like TikTok, an easy way to achieve this is to spend time following influencers and thought leaders within your industry and spotting any trending topics of conversation. Add your voice!
Although the audience targeting capabilities on LinkedIn are more sophisticated than many other platforms, there’s a high likelihood that your ad will be served to someone that isn’t the key decisionmaker. How can you help educate, enlighten, and move a less-authoritative audience to bring your solution to their higherups?
Consider the slower scroll
There tends to be a much slower scrolling cadence on Linkedin because of the intent (there’s that word again) of the folks on the platform. Think about that when crafting your creative. On Meta and TikTok you’re trying to cram as much info as possible into the shortest window possible whereas on LinkedIn, you can be more precise with some well crafted copy which is why statics tend to perform well. Another tip that we’ve also applied to Meta above is to take advantage of the various ways you can advertise on there. Different people consume content in different ways so be sure you’re thinking about that with your campaigns and the audiences in those campaigns.
Pinners are planners – meaning people who use Pinterest like to plan things and are likely organized – Intent! Why are people on pinterest? Sometimes to browse around but also to play for things and/or stay organized for something they have coming up.
Sharability is king!
Making sure to stay with the native theme, your content needs to look like it belongs on Pinterest. While we do certainly see a lot of success repurposing Meta ads, the creative that performs the best are the ones that feel like they belong on Pinterest.
Don’t shy away from video
Video outpaces static from a performance metric standpoint so always be thinking about ads you’ve made on other platforms that speak to those planning pinners! Interestingly, there can be a lot of overlap between what you might test as a YouTube video and what you might want to test on Pinterest. Remember our “top 10 tax tips” suggestion for YouTube content above? Try it on Pinterest!
Don’t be afraid to bend your brand
Pinterest is FULL of creatives. Is there a way to bend your brand rules to make a bold statement or call to action with a fun and interesting typographical treatment? How about simpler/colorful or image-heavy stories? Test, test, and test again!
As a growth marketing agency that has launched and analyzed hundreds of ads across dozens of platforms on behalf of organizations in many many different industries, the one thing we’ll leave you with is this: there is no golden goose.
We’re constantly asked, “what trends are you seeing right now across your paid ad campaigns?” While we have some strong insights across the board (like carousels are showing remarkably strong performance on Meta right now, and highly visual, ASMR-type creative is winning on YouTube) the ultimate answer is that it simply depends.
Organic trends across social platforms are constantly changing. So even if we were to tell you about what kind of content and creative formatting are working now, that very well might change next week! We combat this reality two-fold:
And, ultimately, if you’re like “cool cool cool this is WAY too much for us to handle here internally,” let us know! We’re eager to share what we know and develop ad creative that WORKS for you.