Cookies are losing their value as ad targeting vehicles, in particular when compared to custom audiences. Not only are cookies often deleted, synchronization of cookies across devices requires a permanent common login.
Custom audience targeting sidesteps the weaknesses of cookie-based targeting, using a hashed email address as the universal targeting identifier. This email address is one’s “passport” to the service environments provided by Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo, and Microsoft, among others.
The venerable HTTP cookie has been around for a long time (21 years). In fact, 10 long years ago, I wrote an article decrying its increasing obsolescence (“Crumbling Cookies Threaten SEM and Online Advertising“) in the pages of ClickZ.com. At the time, however, there was no usable replacement for it.
Today there is.
Facebook, Twitter, and (Maybe) Google Are Doing It
Facebook pioneered the concept of custom audiences, launching its product in 2012. Advertisers seeking to use Custom Audiences on Facebook simply upload lists to the service (for example, customer/subscriber email addresses, phone numbers, app user ID numbers, or Facebook IDs), target this group, or even use the data to target “Lookalike” audiences (groups of people whose characteristics are similar to the uploaded list). Such “lookalike” audiences can be built from users on Facebook, website visitors, or mobile app users. According to Adobe, using “lookalike” audiences led to a three times improvement in conversions against ordinary Facebook targeting for one advertiser.
In late 2014, Twitter released a product similar to Facebook’s called “Tailored Audiences” that included a “Lookalike Targeting” feature. In April of 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google may soon launch a similar service. If this happens (and Google has an enormous database of user logins, gathering them from every point in its empire, from Android to Gmail to YouTube), online advertising may undergo a quantum leap in terms of accuracy, effectiveness, and ROI. For example, it may now be possible for an AdWords advertiser to target search ads using keyword data, search history, and actual buying behavior, an awesomely powerful data triumvirate.
Five Ways to Get Ready
Custom audience targeting is the future, but marketers need to prepare themselves for this new era well in advance. Here are five things that I would do immediately:
- Examine and optimize your physical touch points with customers. Marketers with a physical presence can use POS offers to increase email signups. Incentives (discounts, points, etc.) should be promoted that can secure the necessary opt-ins. A retail presence may be a killer advantage in the era of custom audiences.
- Encourage email signups on your site. Email subscription forms are often buried in footer areas or other rarely-viewed areas. Make your email signup form large, legible, and give users a reason to sign-up, using incentives such as access to gated content areas. Also, consider promotions. I’ve got some ideas I’m working on and would value anyone’s feedback who has used contests or sweepstakes in the past. Feel free to contact me and if it makes sense to chat, I’ll happily make a donation to your chosen nonprofit cause.
- Ramp up the mid-funnel content on your website. As I wrote on ClickZ back in November, 2014, “mid-funnel” content is key to moving your prospects from awareness closer to conversion. This content becomes more critically important in the age of custom audiences, because prospects expect something of value in return for disclosing their (increasingly valuable) email addresses.
- Push email signups across your offline marketing. QR codes on print collateral can point users toward a signup form. Use a special offer only available through email signup. Provide incentives at trade shows for people to sign up. Create a custom URL for your video and radio spots that includes a signup form. Use every tool in your marketing arsenal to get opt-ins. This is an area that I’ve been experimenting heavily on. Results have been encouraging.
- Experiment with custom audience targeting. Getting experience with custom audience targeting now will give you a killer advantage as this new targeting methodology grows in importance. Set aside some budget to begin accumulating intelligence and a set of best practices.
Custom audience targeting is changing the game. While cookie-based targeting will be with us for the next couple of years, the cookie era is ending, and marketers shouldn’t cry about it. Instead, they need to get ahead of the big transition that’s just around the corner.
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