Your intuition isn't as smart as you think. Neither, apparently, is Albert Einstein, a new study from Rocket Fuel suggests.

Einstein believed in intuitions and inspirations. "I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am," he told a reporter for  “The Saturday Evening Post” in 1929.

But in a study released today, Rocket Fuel suggests it's time to ignore what you think and follow the path of science and technology … at least if you want to create the perfect ad.

The programmatic ad tech firm claims it's uncovered the recipe for online ad success. A bold statement? Perhaps. But Rocket Fuel claims this is a data driven boast.

The company used big data analysis to evaluate more than 38,000 online ads, categorizing them to determine which elements played a role in engaging consumer response. And what it found was that things like the color red, male faces and animation statistically increase the response rate of digital ads.

"Who knew 'seeing red' could make a person want to open an online ad? And what is it about male faces that screamed 'buy it now' driving higher conversion rates than ads that featured women?" the company asked.

The Science of Creativity

To be fair, Rocket Fuel isn't suggesting that every agency disrupt its creative processes, nor is it claiming that it has the silver bullet for ad performance.

"Our intent was not to create a set of rules or hard-and-fast principles for design. After all, applying the data presented here will not guarantee greater performance," the study explains.

It is, however, pointing out some statistical data that shows controllable factors can have a major impact on performance in some categories.

And while the study is entitled "The Definitive Guide to Creative Optimization," it's probably more accurate to think of it as "an informative indicator of what has worked well in the past."

"The goal is to identify ways you might be able to improve performance when a campaign is struggling, or to increase the chances of launching a successful campaign by using creatives that are similar to those that have historically performed well," it states.

And if all those words are hard to wrap your head around, here is one word to make it clear: Blackjack. 

"We often liken the application of the results here to understanding statistics behind Blackjack: knowing how to play won’t guarantee that you walk home rich, but it will increase your chances of coming out ahead," the study notes.

So What Works?

Rocket Fuel researchers observed and categorized a sample of 38,151 distinct banner advertisements from 1,076 advertisers across 2,184 distinct marketing initiatives. These initiatives spanned 16 verticals served between November 2013 and June 2014, totaling 23,397,541,849 impressions served in the United States.

Researchers categorized advertisements according to a number of criteria, including:

  • Background color of the ad at load time
  • Whether the ad was “static” or had animation — for example, any moving elements
  • The wording of the ad’s call to action
  • The presence of an advertiser’s logo
  • Whether a special or limited-time offer was included in the ad’s messaging


The most important elements seem to revolve around the background color and the call to action. While there are also particular variables that greatly impact ad success in each category, these seem to be universally important.

Want to sell cars? Make sure you use the right vehicle color. (Spoiler alert: Blue)

Interested in promoting vacations? Focus on the precise length of the trip. (Ads with length of trip in their messaging averaged conversion rates 227 percent higher than those without that information, the study found.)

And if you want people to buy products for their homes and gardens, forget the great outdoors. We may all think the Grand Canyon looks pretty majestic, but we're more likely to buy a new refrigerator or a mattress if we see it in the context of indoor space. Ads with an indoor environment had a conversion rate 11 times higher than outdoor ads, the study notes.

Learning Opportunities

A Note on Methodology

The Rocket Fuel team looked at the aggregate performance of ads in each category to determine how specific categories performed relative to one another (for example, how animated ads in a vertical performed in relation to static ads in that same vertical).

To measure effectiveness, it calculated performance in terms of both click-through rate and view-through conversion rate for each vertical.

When determining performance for a creative category or set of attributes, it looked at impression-weighted click-through and conversion rate performance. It compared performance of one attribute (for example, “blue background”) to either the performance for all ads in that vertical or ads with different attributes within the same category.

Such a Pretty Handsome Face

Here's an interesting takeaway from the research. Generally speaking, people relate to people. With the exception of perhaps a caboodle of kittens or a litter of puppies taking their first swim, tossing a few people in an ad is a great way to attract potential customers.

Human-featured ads averaged 4 percent higher conversion rate lifts, Rocket Fuel found. But don't call casting too quickly. Men and women do not perform equally (in an ad, that is). Nor do children or combinations of any of these.

What do you need to remember? Get a man. Ads featuring men — the most common person type featured — averaged 102 percent higher conversion rates on average than those featuring women (which boosted conversions 25 percent). And cut the couples: ads featuring both a man and a woman tended to underperform (15 percent fewer conversions).


Other findings:

Show the product. Ads that displayed specific products averaged 6 percent higher conversion rates compared to ads that did not show a product

Add your logo. Ads featuring a company logo had 4 percent higher conversion rates than those without logos

Extend an invitation. Ads with the “Learn More” call-to-action averaged higher conversion rates


Anything Specific to B2B?

The B2B sample consisted of 128 marketing initiatives for which 1.4 billion impressions were served, typically covering software or tech products. What should you know about creating B2B ads?

  • Red backgrounds work
  • Include a price
  • Add a few people
  • Use a tagline
  • Don't bash competitors
  • Invite customers to “Shop Here,” take advantage of a "Free Trial” or “Click Here”
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License Title image by Francesca Gallo (Gipsy).