One of the serious, important words that we use here in Advertising Land is "target." It means, of course, the particular person or category of people to whom we intend to show our ads and engage in our experience. The "target consumer" is the model against which we build and we believe represents the greatest potential for actually making a purchase. She is our customer and when we identify a target, whether it is in media buying or in creative development, it means that we have entered into a state of heightened efficiency and effectiveness.
It is also, I believe, an outdated concept, because it is entirely too limiting and doesn't reflect the fundamentally changing nature of the mediums in which we operate.
The Funnel Is Fine
Let me start by making the argument that we need to move past the simple concept of targeting by going after what has become one of the favorite phrases of Internet marketers: The funnel is broken. Variants on this phrase include the funnel is "fragmented" or "flipped." It's all nonsense.
The funnel in question is the sales funnel, the process through which people move from first considering a purchase, to considering their options, to ultimately making a decision. This process is generally described as a funnel because the size of the audience diminishes at each step. If we get 100 people to consider the product, 80 will try it, and 20 will buy.
Certainly people move around inside of each of these steps in new ways. People get a chance to experience products in new ways and discover new options within new media channels. But the idea that people move through these steps is still valid. Because someone gains awareness of your product through Pinterest and not television is superficial (at least in terms of considering how people move toward a purchase).
Within our new world, however, where people mistakenly believe that the funnel concept is null and void, we have a desire to maintain some sense of structure around the marketing practice. This is why we have had such a new focus on targeting. If we can't feel confident in where our customers are (in the sales process), at least we can know who they are.
Clearly, this is a good thing. But like many good things, especially when latched onto as a solution to a new problem, we have become too fixated on it, blinded to the bigger issue at hand: the fundamental nature of media has changed.
The New Media Is About Connections, Not Channels
This is the second piece of the argument: media is different now. For a very long time, the media that we have worked within has been built around channels. We have gone from the print world, with the dozens of newspapers in New York in the early 1900s, through cable television with its specific channels for specific interests, all the way up to YouTube's latest iteration, which is (literally) built around an infinite number of "channels," built (again) around interests.
This presents itself as a marketer's dream. If you have a product for golfers, advertise on the golf channel. If you have a product for moms, there's a mom channel. And so on. We are digging ourselves deeper into the specific channels in which we believe we will find our audience and providing them with content and engagements designed to move them closer to a sale.
But amidst all this channel frenzy, we need to realize the other, truly revolutionary thing that has happened to media: connections. While channels gather content together, people are simultaneously organizing themselves into formally connected groups. The new networks - that hold the most value - don't look like CBS or the Fishing Channel. They are the roughly 120 people that any given person is connected to on Facebook.
And you can't buy time on those networks.
Targeting People for Relationships
The nature of these connections is what we should be most excited about when we consider who and how we place messages out into the world. The biggest breakthrough with the rise of these people-based networks is that it now makes sense for brands to advertise not only their products, but also a relationship with the brand.
What makes this all so amazing is that we don't necessarily need to target just the people who we think are absolutely potential buyers. We can expand our idea of who we are talking to, because it is possible that people will either come into the market for our product down the road, or (more likely) have someone inside that network they have built for themselves who are in the market.
Consider this for a moment. Maybe it makes sense for a car brand to "target everybody," not just those who are currently shopping for a car. That allows us to begin to open up the idea of what we are selling and, more importantly, the approach we have with talking with people.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
March 19, 2014