I had the opportunity to attend a conference on target marketing last month. There was the usual slate of vendors offering up solutions that cater to various aspects of ad serving, data management, campaign analytics, and other resources. However, what grabbed my attention was some of the suggestions that had less to do with the bells and whistles surrounding the technologies being used to find and track audiences online and instead had more to do with the fundamental philosophies behind why these solutions even exist to begin with.
If, as a marketer, you were asked to answer the question "why should you target audiences?" coming up with a suitable answer is pretty easy. At the core of any effective marketing campaign, online or off, the ultimate goal of any campaign is to get the right message (offer) to the right person at the right time. Good targeting allows marketers to better control campaign outcomes to make sure that they reach their goals.
Understanding the "why" is a no-brainer. What's a lot harder to broach is the "how" associated with audience targeting.
The following best practices will hopefully help you to gain a better understanding of the targeting landscape if you're currently unfamiliar with it. This is by no means a complete list of what digital marketers should know in order to most effectively run their digital campaigns. But this is a good starting point or foundation to better understand how these technologies can be approached and understood so that marketers can take advantage of many of the tools being offered today.
1. Audience targeting isn't a nice to have...it's a need to have. Not to sound too dramatic, but if you're running an online campaign and you don't know specifically who you want to talk to, where they are on the Internet, and what's most important to them, then you're already way behind. While pushing run of network (RON) or run of site (ROS) campaigns can definitely get a message in front of eyeballs, the question that should be asked is "are they the right eyeballs?"
The limitations of targeting in traditional media means that marketers often need to turn to reach and frequency models to reach as many consumers as possible in hopes of getting in front of the ‘"right" ones. In the online realm, digital channels have a huge benefit in that they are highly measurable, and this feedback can be used to identify target audience members through a number of different criteria. Bottom line: if you are still blindly trying to reach your target customers with your ad campaigns, you are doing it wrong. Even using simple targeting approaches like geography, time of day, and advertising contextually on relevant sites is a huge step up from just running ads across networks hoping to reach the right people.
2. Define campaign objectives before you do anything else. At some point in my career, I totally gave up on expecting this to be obvious. I've had more than one conversation with an advertiser where I asked what their campaign goals were and have received dead silence as an answer. My personal favorite was, "Wow, that's a good question. We haven't really talked about it."
The reality is that if you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there. If you can clearly identify your destination, then you can create a way to end up there. If you don't, then you have to be willing to accept the abstract campaign results you will get by, in essence, firing arrows in the dark and hoping that you hit something good. The odds are not in your favor.
It's worth mentioning that raising the specter of campaign measurement really scares some marketers. While campaign measurement can tell you if a campaign is doing well, it can also clearly indicate when it isn't. For some advertisers it's easier to be blissfully ignorant of a bad campaign than it is to measure it to find out that things are not going well.
Bottom line here is that you can't fix something unless you know it's broken. And without question, somewhere along the way any campaign you run will be broken.
3. Audience targeting isn't a magic bullet. Like any of the options available to today's marketer, audience targeting is just another tool. Having this tool at your disposal doesn't guarantee campaign success any more than adding a blog to your site suddenly means the world will find you and be interested in what you have to offer. Campaign targeting success comes as the result of good planning, hard work, and lots of persistence. Campaign optimization is the real key to any campaign’s success and it’s the rare marketer who hits their target audience dead-center the first try.
Be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. Be willing to look at the data that you collect and ask yourself the right questions about who is paying attention to your messages and why. As marketers, we often make huge assumptions that are based on some sort of correlation data and mistake it for causation. Understand the difference between a site visitor who saw an ad online and clicked on it because it met a relevant need and a site visitor who saw an ad online and clicked on it because it was bright and shiny. As anybody who has been in the sales trenches can tell you, there is a huge difference behind the motivations of "higher kickers" and real prospects.
4. Plant your targeting garden long before you get hungry. Audience targeting rarely offers an immediate payout. It's a very organic approach that is going to improve over time based on changes to the targeting parameters, a better understanding of who the true target audience for a campaign or offer is, and abstract things like time of year, day of week, time of day, etc.
In short, it's rare to find an audience-targeted campaign that gets a huge return on investment the first time out. Be willing to nurture a campaign’s lifecycle so you can identify areas where things can be improved as well as the things the campaign is already doing that meets set goals.
5. Expect everything that you know about targeting to continue to evolve. When I provide training sessions on audience targeting I am often loath to discuss specific technological solutions because we dwell in the middle of a raging river. Change is moving rapidly around the digital marketing realm. What was common practice just two years ago is often now just a footnote in history of how we can tame digital channels to better reach target audiences and to improve campaign results. This will continue to be the case. In the meantime, keeping an eye on targeting fundamentals and understanding how they apply to the marketing picture as a whole can get you a lot further in your campaign planning and execution than even the coolest, cutting-edge solution ever will.
Expect change, embrace change, and learn from it. The success of your digital marketing campaigns depends on it.
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Rob Graham is the CCT (chief creative technologist) of Trainingcraft, Inc., where he heads up development of customized training programs for a wide range of digital marketing, entrepreneurial development, and digital media clients.
A 20 year veteran of digital media, Rob has served as the CEO of a multimedia development company; an interactive media strategist; a rich media production specialist; a Web analytics consultant; a corporate trainer and seminar leader; and a chief marketing officer.
When he isn't on the road presenting training workshops, Rob teaches at Harvard University, Emerson College, and the University of Massachusetts - Lowell where he teaches classes on Digital Media Development, Web Store Creation, Software Programming, Business Strategies, and Interactive Marketing Best Practices.
He is the author of "Fishing From a Barrel," a guide to using audience targeting in online advertising, and "Advertising Interactively," which explores the development and uses of rich-media-based advertising. He has been an industry columnist covering interactive marketing, digital media, and audience targeting topics since 1999.