Audience Targeting: A Look to the Future

“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

There’s something about reaching the end of the year that allows us to reflect on the path that wound us through that year and to evaluate just where it is we’ve arrived.

When it comes to an assessment of behavioral marketing, we find ourselves at a crossroads of sorts. On the one hand, there are plenty of pundits willing to point out that audience targeting doesn’t live up to the hype, while on the other hand, there are plenty of companies that are using behavioral and audience targeting to dramatically increase campaign results. Like with most things, the real answer as to whether audience targeting works is, “It depends.”

I have long been critical about any one-size-fits-all campaign approaches, regardless of the targeting criteria being used. Assuming that I’m a prospective customer because of my gender, age, or Zip code may work well in some instances (think high-heeled shoes, the latest hip hop album, or need for a snow shovel), but in most cases a single point of targeting criteria is too little information to effectively reach “real people” who are definitely more multifaceted than a lot of marketers give them credit for.

The reality of audience targeting’s promise, from my viewpoint, is that too many marketers are still looking for some sort of simple “magical” solution that will allow them to just flip a switch and automatically reach the people they want to with an offer. And then I woke up!

At its core, audience targeting is about human psychology. It’s about understanding what motivates people to take action. It’s about understanding how people see themselves. It’s about giving them access to information that can help them make informed decisions, and, I think this is one of the most important things we have learned in the past decade; it’s about respecting your prospects and customers enough not to constantly interrupt them so you can force your message down their throats.

About a dozen years ago I sat down with a number of colleagues to discuss the value of allowing consumers to have a greater say in the types of ads they were subjected to. Back then we were thinking of TV as the center of this model and mused over how interesting it would be to flip on your TV and to see only ads for products and services you might be interested in buying. Great idea, but the show stopper always seemed to be, “How would you know which were the right ads?”

We discussed the idea of letting consumers control the advertising they saw via some sort of filter that they maintained. Something that would let them select more personally relevant areas based on needs and interest. But as we also quickly realized, this approach might negate the ability to get new brands in front of consumers who had no idea what they may want and need in the future. Also, because people’s needs and desires are always in flux, any consumer-controlled filter would most likely tend to inaccurately reflect those shifts.

So while it was an interesting scenario at the time, we eventually decided that it wasn’t a model that was very scalable nor would it be very accurate. As a result, we started looking toward models that could automatically start to determine a consumer’s area of relevant need by watching what they did while wandering around online and taking notes. Privacy concerns aside, this approach has led to plenty of generalized “low hanging fruit” audience segmentation (auto intenders, expectant mothers, college-bound teens), but doesn’t often allow marketers with more specific targeting criteria to easily find and talk to “their” prospects.

There is still a lot of evolution required to get the audience targeting platforms available today to better meet the needs of marketers and consumers. This isn’t to say that either they work or don’t work. They do both. Remember, it depends.

During 2012, I will continue to delve into the best practices, targeting tools and platforms, and the plain realities of audience targeting through this column. There will be times when we may agree and times where I will be entitled to my own opinion. In the end, my goal is to help shine some light on the potential that audience targeting brings to digital marketers and to allow these marketers to start meaningful conversations with prospects.

Will we be chasing after some lost ideal or be faced with one of the most powerful marketing tools ever conceived? And if it’s not lost, where is it? Is it already hanging out on the corner of “real people” and “Internet technology”? Maybe. I’m guessing that we still need to continue to ask the right questions so we can continue to create the right tools to find it.

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