What's the first thing that pops into your mind when you think about marketing your business online? If you're like most other dealerships, the answer to this question is undoubtedly the banner and skyscraper ads that stretch across seemingly every website and aim to catch the eye of countless browsers.

As the foundation of the "display advertising" concept, it makes plenty of sense for these pillars of the digital marketing world to be at the forefront of your mind - and to claim a presumptive spot in your overarching approach to bringing in new customers without much thought given to the matter.

The only problem? Display advertising is a colossal waste of money and a massive drain on your marketing budget the vast majority of the time.

Such a strong - and most likely controversial to many of our readers - claim requires a hefty amount of evidence to back up, so set aside a few minutes of your day and join us as we lay out exactly why display advertising has become synonymous with bloated and inefficient digital marketing practices. From here, you'll have all the insight you need to make the right call when the time comes to flesh out your advertising budget and start connecting with potential customers in the digital world.

Understanding Why Today's Take on the Display Process Is so Wasteful

Since we're going to be delving into a plethora of concerns that revolve around display advertising for the bulk of this post, we've decided to avoid the temptation of hitting you over the head with a massive wall of text and instead break down these problems into smaller, more digestible sections.

The Push Versus Pull Dilemma

The first - and perhaps most damaging - issue faced by display advertising in today's online landscape is the simple fact that other, more effective strategies for promoting your dealership are already widely available. Specifically, search marketing is the main alternative that comes to mind.

"Search customers are coming to you. In most cases, they're saying, ‘I'm in the market for your product and I'm considering buying it from you.' Frequently, they are even saying, ‘I want to buy your product right now.' The consumer is pushing and the marketer is pulling. In display, users are rarely in that frame of mind at the time a marketer places an ad in front of them."
- Jeff Green, ClickZ

As this quote from ClickZ's Jeff Green highlights, display advertising tries to "push" content to uninterested viewers, creating an inefficient bond. On the other hand, impactful variations of the marketing process (in this case, search-based outreach) "pull" already engaged customers who are significantly more likely to make a purchase into the sales funnel.

This might sound like a lesson in semantics initially, but once you wrap your head around the "push versus pull" conversation, the underlying theme quickly becomes visible. Push tactics (display advertising) are all about throwing out a ton of ad content to target sites and hoping to get lucky, while pull tactics (search marketing) hone in on consumers who show an active interest in your vehicle inventory.

Inefficient Measurement Metrics and Unreliable Performance Standards

What actually counts as a conversion? How about an impression? Depending on who you ask, the answers to these questions can vary wildly. With so much of your marketing budget on the line, this kind of uncertainty and confusion simply shouldn't be acceptable or viewed as something that just "comes with the territory."

To give you a little perspective on this problem, Igor Belogolovsky notes in a piece for the Kissmetrics blog - appropriately titled "Are Display Networks Full of Conversions, or Just Full of It?" - that the following metrics and concepts are just a few of the ways that the various ad networks measure (not always accurately) display performance:

  • Click-Through Conversions - A click-through conversion denotes when a viewer clicks on an ad and ends up making a conversion. It is important to note that a click doesn't always equate to a conversion, despite what some talking heads might have you believe.
  • View-Through Conversions - The person on the other side of the screen visits a page where your ad made an appearance, but doesn't click on the ad itself. Later on down the road, he or she ends up engaging in a sale. Naturally, such an ephemeral connection is hard to quantify and measure, but that doesn't stop it from being a major selling point for many ad networks.
  • Impressions and Viewability - An impression is supposed to indicate that your ad has been fetched from a server and displayed to the end user. However, some networks inflate impression counts and "viewability" numbers drastically by including content that doesn't fully render - these are the ads that get cut off on the page or only partially pop into view while you're scrolling down a site - in their final numbers.
  • Last-Touch Attribution - The most straightforward metric of the bunch, last-touch attribution works exactly as the name implies. The last ad or channel to come in contact with the customer before they sign on the dotted line for a new car or truck gets the credit for the conversion.
  • Multi-Touch Attribution - Simply assigning recognition to the last point of contact doesn't really tell the whole story of today's consumer journey. In an effort to alleviate this problem and place more of the credit, rightly or wrongly, for this event on the display piece of the puzzle, some networks are now experimenting with the idea of a multi-touch attribution model that binds activity across multiple channels - email, search, etc. - back to the display ad sale.

Naturally, this is just a small sampling of the various terms and industry jargon a display network rep or affiliated sales professional might utilize when promoting their product and spinning your ad spend into a digital marketing success story. In other words, as long as proponents of display advertising continue to throw around numbers that carry no real meaning and metrics that come with flexible definitions, members of the automotive community will always end up facing down a scenario in which there is far too much wiggle room for what does and doesn't count as genuine and valuable consumer interaction.

Botnets and False Clicks

Even if the display advertising portion of the marketplace did place a premium on transparency and simplicity as far as conversions and campaign performance goes, that doesn't change the fact that these metrics often fail to account for the impact of botnets and other sources of false clicks. In fact, Media Post co-founder and all-around marketing expert Reid Tatoris explains that this seedy underside of the Internet is so destructive that less than 10 percent of display ads ever end up in front of human eyes - a stat that the champions of display advertising would rather never see the light of day.

"Botnets - also known as a ‘zombie army' - are computers that have been infected with malware that generates tons of fake clicks on advertisements."
- Will Heilpern, Business Insider

If you're not familiar with the basics of a botnet, Will Heilpern of Business Insider notes that this term refers to a network of hijacked computers that work as a sort of "zombie army" to generate tons of fake clicks on an advertisement. Depending on the scope of the malware infection behind the botnet, these legions of unsuspecting accomplices in display advertising fraud can span millions of computers and hundreds of countries. In total, online ad fraud generated by these networks will cost the entire advertising community about $7.2 billion in lost revenue and damages over the course of 2016.

Shady Advertising Practices

Of course, putting stock in the decency of the human element of today's display advertising marketplace shouldn't instill much hope in dealerships either. In fact, the propensity of display advertising advocates to get a little "creative" with how they present the facts during the actual management of an ad campaign is becoming a bigger and bigger issue with each passing day.

The truth of the matter is that most of these services do the bare minimum on your behalf, including running the same ad content without changeover for the entirety of the campaign, all while taking a hefty cut off the top (think 30 percent from even the biggest budgets) for themselves. Keeping you focused on banner clicks and raw impressions - not conversions and other indicators of authentic return on investment (ROI) - guarantees that these advertisers have an easy-to-maintain stream of income that comes with little (if any) real effort.

Seems like a pretty easy way to make a quick buck off of an unsuspecting dealership, right?

Realizing that ad agencies aren't being completely upfront and honest with customers is unfortunately just scratching the surface of the problems with this side of the display advertising equation. As Kimberlee Morrison's article for the Social Times points out, middleman agencies that receive kickbacks for funneling web traffic to ads, as well as supposedly "trustworthy" networks and publishers, leverage the very same botnets mentioned earlier to artificially boost ad performance and pump even more money out of their unwitting clientele.

Lack of Focus and "Banner Blindness"

The final reason why those who truly understand the nature of display advertising see it as wasteful comes from the team over at Infolinks. After studying ad content and viewer responses for several months, these marketing experts released a study that came to a conclusion that we probably all can relate to in some way: 86 percent of all consumers suffer from "banner blindness" and completely tune out ad content that appears on-screen.

What's the big takeaway from this finding? Even if your dealership can dodge the less than savory portions of the display advertising world and hook up with an ad agency or network that is trustworthy and transparent, it's still going to need to come up with ad content that goes beyond the basics and truly catches the attention of viewers that have otherwise tuned out.

Can Display Advertising Ever Find Its Way into a Successful Marketing Campaign?

Now that we've spent the better part of this post burning the very idea of display advertising as a viable marketing tactic to ground, this is the part where we tell you to completely cut this practice from your operations and leverage other, more effective strategies, right? Going a different way with the big finale might seem awkward a first, but there's actually a bit of a twist ending to this story.

Yes, there's no denying that kicking display advertising to the curb looks like the logical next step given what we've covered here. However, the reality of the situation is that even with all of the aforementioned problems standing between your dealership and its target audience, display offerings can still generate enough leads and ROI to be worth your while - but only if the conditions are just right.

The three factors that can make or break display advertising's spot in your overarching marketing strategy include:

  • Market Saturation - Are you the only dealership as far as the eye can see? Or is the local Google Maps page littered with competitors? The more rival organizations in your marketplace, the harder it is to make a splash with this outreach practice.
  • Dealership Budget - Display advertising isn't for the faint of heart - or those who aren't willing to open up the coffers and pour money into a campaign. Small budgets generally don't go very far on this front, so you'll either need to embrace this reality or seek out more wallet-friendly advertising options.
  • Local Population - No offense to the smaller cities out there, but population is a major factor in deciding whether or not display ads are worth your time. Don't believe it? Just take the previous findings from Infolinks regarding banner blindness and apply it to the populations of Jonesboro, Louisiana and Charlotte, North Carolina. Garnering viewership from 14 percent of 4,665 potential customers just doesn't have quite the same ring to it as getting your content out in front of 14 percent of a population of 792,862.

Fitting into these thresholds and finding yourself in the display advertising sweet spot isn't something that's afforded to every dealership out there. But if you do find yourself in this spot and you're willing to pair up this fortunate marketplace position with some impactful and engaging takes on display ad content, then actually generating value with display advertising isn't completely out of the realm of possibility.

Figuring out a Plan That Works for Your Dealership

As we start heading toward the finish line, the primary point we're trying to make in this article should be coming into sharper focus: Display advertising - just like countless other things in life - is far from perfect as it currently stands. From consumer bias toward other forms of media to a shady industry underbelly that would rather keep you in the dark regarding how things actually work, plenty of roadblocks stand between your dealership and a winning display campaign.

Despite all of this, if you're willing to honestly audit your dealership's marketing prospects and goals, as well as work with an advertiser that you can trust to help you safely navigate these sometimes murky and uncertain waters, then there's no reason why you can't say goodbye to the wasteful side of display advertising and have this tactic be a strong role player in your next outreach campaign.