Canva Tutorial • Make Ad Images & Promo Graphics

One area where the bar has been raised over the last few years is that of branding. The savviest authors know that branding doesn’t just make you look more professional – although that is important too – but also something which acts as a tractor beam, pulling in your target audience.

I said in my book Strangers to Superfans, “If pacing is the secret sauce inside most bestsellers, branding is the equivalent outside of the book.”

As part of my research for Superfans, I spoke to one author who has stellar branding: Kit Rocha.

Branding is an extension of worldbuilding. My covers and my graphics and all of it combine to present an image that enhances what I want to say about my series.

Kit Rocha, in Strangers to Superfans

This is an area where I had to do a lot of catch-up, personally. One thing that helped hugely was discovering Canva (affiliate link), which is one of my recommended 12 Free Graphic Design Tools For Authors – in fact, it’s easily the best of the bunch, and the one I use most of all.

canva tutorial

Like… all the time. I love it, and hope this Canva tutorial can help you get the most out of it as well.

In case you haven’t heard a thousand authors raving about it, Canva is a free online design tool which allows anyone, even those with little artistic sense and no design skills, to create professional looking graphics with some practice.

Today, I’m going to try to give you some pointers on how to create effective promo graphics with this Canva tutorial.

Two important things first:

  1. If you are going to be spending serious money on Facebook ads or BookBub ads you should consider commissioning ad graphics from a design pro. Until you get good with something like Canva, graphics designed by a professional will likely convert much better. Over the long run this will save you money, rather than costing you. Plus it’s pretty cheap anyway.
  2. That said, it’s great to know how to put together something serviceable so you can make whatever ancillary graphics you might need – like an email header or website header or Facebook Page cover photo, or the million other things that tend to crop up around launch time. You might want to make a tweak to something you had designed already, to split test a variation or amend a price. It’s so bloody handy to know this stuff that I think every author should get to grips with the basics, unless you can afford to have a pro designer on call 24/7. (But even then…)

Like anything, the only way to get better with Canva is practice. But that’s hardly a chore as it’s such fun to play around with.

I’m not going to talk about what the core principles makes an ad which converts – that’s a topic all on it’s own, and one I covered with my mailing list last week.

Rather than the principles behind an effective graphic, I’m going to talk today about how to actually build one in Canva.

First I’ll mention a kind of cheat, where anyone with the ability to drag and drop stuff can make something really cool.

Then I’ll show you how to build something serviceable from scratch if that kind of cheat isn’t an option. And I’ll wrap up with some tips on how to pretty up those basic efforts to improve results.

The Cheat

If you look at the images on the right you will see two ads with a marked contrast in quality.

The top one was one of the first things I built in Canva and it’s awful! Even leaving aside the fact that the amount of text means it won’t work as a Facebook ad, it’s a decidedly amateur composition.

Below it is a more recent ad I used for the launch of an older edition of Let’s Get D, one which is worlds better. What happened in the intervening 12 months? Did I secretly take a course in graphic design?

No, I just asked a professional to make me Facebook graphics — and he bundled them with the cover for a nominal cost, as many designers do.
But that’s not the cheat. I knew that I would also want to make my own ad graphics and other promo assets so I asked him to give me the various elements too separately: background art, transparent PNGs, and 3D book images. Which means that by uploading those into Canva I can easily drag-and-drop and create my own pro-looking ad graphics — ones which actually convert! I can test minute iterations to my heart’s content, without bothering my designer.

And if other promo needs suddenly crop up, like the header on this site which took less than five minutes, I can pull something together. This amazes me! It’s a total cheat, because I genuinely have no artistic sense at all — I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler.

I’ll get into this cheat in more detail below. First, the basics.

Designing From Scratch

canva tutorial - david baldacci

What if you can’t hire a pro? What if all you have is the book cover and you need to make a quick BookBub ad image? Let’s go through it step-by-step, and hopefully the process will help you skip some of the early, ugly steps I made in Canva. You’ll still need to practice though!

To prove how easy this is, I’ve just plucked the first novel I saw in the charts, and I’m going to pretend it’s on a free promo today — but this is purely for illustrative purposes and no such deal exists, Baldacci fans. (I also hope the designer doesn’t mind me inexpertly butchering their nice cover in the name of design education…).

As I explained to my mailing list last Friday, I disagree with what seems to be a growing consensus to avoid using the book cover in ads. I always do, and my testing clearly shows that approach is more effective. In fact, I go further than that and often try to use the cover art as background, as well as having the cover itself in the foreground — a trick I pinched from Ernie Dempsey.

I’m absolutely convinced that having the ad match the landing page (your product page on Amazon in this case) helps with conversion. I think a mismatch causes readers to hesitate, and once they do that there is a chance of losing them — especially these days with over 200 other titles advertised on our pages and innumerable other ways for readers to click away.

Obviously, I don’t have the original cover art for this book, and only a very low-res cover to play with, so this is going to be a little rough, but you’ll get the idea.

I’m going to make a very simple BookBub ad using Canva, at this exact moment, as I write this post, to show that you can do it too.

The approach is pretty basic: I’ll zoom in on a section of the cover art, use that as background, and then drop a copy of the cover in the foreground. Then I’ll add a simple and eye-catching call-to-action in the form of a button, which endless testing proves is very effective on BookBub.

Here’s the step-by-step in Canva:

  1. Choose the size (for BookBub Ads that’s 300 x 250).
  2. Click “Uploads” in the left-hand navbar and upload your cover.
  3. Drag it onto your canvas and zoom right the way in until none of that lettering is visible. (The image will blur a little unless you are using a hi-res cover, or, ideally, the original cover art before the designer added letting.)
  4. Drag another copy of the cover across and place it to one side leaving room for a button or some other form of call-to-action or price offer.
  5. Click “Elements” in the left-hand navbar. Then select “Shapes” and pick the very first one you see, that big white square. The white square will now be covering your ad image. Click on it and drag the edges inwards until you have a rectangular button and move it beside your cover. Change the color to something eye-catching like red or yellow… if that fits with your palette.
  6. Click “Text” in the left-hand navbar and fiddle with fonts and sizes (top menu) until you have something you are happy with which fits nicely on your button.

That’s it! The whole process took me less than 2 minutes. Seriously.

I recommend you spend a little longer to make it pretty, of course, and with the proper file for the cover it will look much sharper and more professional. 

I’m just showing you something quick and rudimentary to convince you how easy it is to manipulate any book cover into a serviceable ad graphic in Canva.

Prettying Up

It’s much better if you have hi res files, of course, as well as a 3D version of your book cover — which your designer can mock-up for you very quickly (again, ask them to bundle these assets with your cover design, but it’s also extremely cheap to get done separately).

For the latest version of Digital, I asked my designer to provide me with the cover art without lettering, and a 3D version of the cover, and I was able to mock up these very effective BookBub graphics in about twenty minutes using the same steps above, just with a little more fiddling.

Social Media Branding

You can also get your designer to provide you with any ancillary promo graphics you might want, like email headers or Twitter cards or Facebook graphics, but once you have the basic building blocks like background art or icons or 3D covers, you can also build all these yourself – a very handy skill to have as you can’t always predict your needs, or what changes you might require.
Or when you might suddenly got roped into one of these:

Or when I realized that I needed a good graphic for my clickable reader magnet offer inside Digital at the very last-minute, just as I was about to upload and the clock was ticking! As a said, a handy skill to have…

Dealing With Tricky Backgrounds

Sometimes, however, your cover art just isn’t that suitable to use as background, and you’ll have to source something else, like stock art perhaps.

In the case below, that red cover was just bleeding into the red background, and getting lost, and the eye was being drawn to all the wrong places. To provide a little contrast, I used the map I had commissioned for that book instead.

Don’t get too frustrated with your first efforts – but also don’t settle for something mediocre. Ad venues like BookBub can be unforgiving and the images have to be top quality.

And test everything with small-budget ads first! Even the smallest tweak can sometimes turn a losing ad into a winner — something I learned from Phoenix Sullivan.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.