So you've researched your target audience's technical sophistication, and you've decided which technology you can safely and effectively use in your banner ad. This is a great start, but there's still something more you should know about your audience: their sensibilities. What appeals to them visually? What lingo do they use? Do they respond to hard-sell tactics or are they alienated by them? Answers to questions like these will dictate the style of your banner ad, the wrapper around your carefully chosen technology.
There are plenty of ways to gather information about the stylistic sensibilities of your target audience. Start with your company's own advertising history, if there is one. Even if they weren't Web-based, previous ad campaigns can reveal what worked stylistically - and what didn't. As long as your target market hasn't changed, you can take cues from earlier successes or failures.
Whether you have a history of ad campaigns or are starting from scratch, gathering new data about audience sensibilities is relatively simple. You can use some rudimentary questionnaires before you ever have a banner ad design in mind. All you need is a group of test subjects that fits your target demographic. To pinpoint their sensibilities, show them various existing ads, font styles, layouts, shapes, phrases, and color palettes. Then use their preferences to guide you stylistically in your banner ad design.
If you don't have any existing data about your particular target audience's sensibilities, or you want to supplement such data with results from larger samples, you can turn to national or international marketing studies. These can be very persuasive due to the sheer numbers of participants. But because they might not reflect your ideal market, they're best used in conjunction with your own more targeted studies. Many market research firms offer demographic reports; most are for sale, but some are free. Check out the IAB's market research page for related links.
Finally, use the testing phase of banner ad development to assess stylistic preferences as well as technical effectiveness. Along with testing for usability, include a questionnaire that asks participants to elaborate on exactly why one ad worked while another didn't. These responses will give you invaluable information about how subtleties of style affect your target audience.
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