By Alexander Hiam

Banner ads (those brightly colored rectangles at the top of popular web pages) are the web’s marketing answer to display advertising in a print medium or outdoor advertising on a billboard. They’re good for building awareness of your brand, but not much more than that.

The goal of your banner ad is to get across a simple, clear, and engaging message, usually a call to action. Use only a single, brief headline, perhaps supported by a logo and a couple lines of body copy.

Alternatively, you can use a brand name and an illustration. In either case, the ad must be simple and bold — able to attract the viewer’s attention from desired information elsewhere on the screen for long enough to make a simple point.

Whatever you do, don’t let your banner ad get too lengthy; web viewers don’t want to read a ton of copy, and you’ll lose their interest in a flash if you use more than a handful of engaging words.

You can create your own banner ads by searching for and selecting any of the many banner ad templates that are for sale over the web.

Or you can hire a web design firm to create a banner ad that’s designed to fit your marketing program more exactly. A good web design firm often adds enough value because of its experience and expertise to make paying the firm’s fees worth it, so don’t be afraid to ask for proposals and consider the option of hiring a pro.

If you decide to use a banner ad for direct-action advertising, be sure to include a clear call to action in your ad. Typical web banner ads don’t give enough information about the product to stimulate an urge for immediate action. Nor do they make taking action easy.

After you design a good banner ad, you need to give even more thought to where it sends the interested viewer. Usually a dedicated landing page is necessary (see the earlier section “Using landing pages effectively” for more on landing pages). You also need to determine the best sites on which to place your banner ad.

The three criteria to keep in mind are traffic (favor sites with lots of visitors), a good fit with what you do (favor sites where your customers are likely to be), and cost (compare sites where traffic is high and the fit is good, and shop around for the best ad rates).

Check out advertising options on Facebook by going to www.facebook.com/advertising. The interface is simple and clear, with good examples to help you see how to optimize the results by targeting your ad effectively.

You may be able to reach a billion people through Facebook, but most of them aren’t prospects, so follow its instructions and narrow your audience as much as you can. Doing so keeps your costs lower and your response rates higher, which are the two key variables that drive return on your advertising investment. (Also consider advertising on Twitter; check out ads.twitter.com for details.)