Getting Past the Labels

Baby Boomers. Hispanic. High household income. Gamers. New Yorkers. Moms. No matter the label you apply to a person or a group of people, you are de facto lumping them into a group that has one common characteristic. They might have more in common or they might have nothing else at all in common. When that characteristic is controlling or highly relevant to your messaging or offer (like geographic proximity, where that applies), it might make good sense to take a broader approach, but too often marketers rely on the shorthand of segmentation alone when we have so many more impactful and effective ways at our disposal to find and establish interested people or subgroups.

Digital media planners have a tremendous opportunity to reach the right audiences based on what we know about them historically and in real time, how they behave, and the intent we can establish based on online behaviors and preferences. To do less than that is inefficient, old-school, and lazy.


Buying audience segments does improve the odds that you will reach some of your target, but the critical groups most marketers want to reach are usually the ones looking for product info, reviews, and other content that indicates a readiness to take action. Unless you have some indication of need or intent, then you have introduced a tremendous amount of waste in your program. Wasted budget, wasted time, poorer results. Intent is the key to driving results and creating efficiencies with your digital efforts.

Establish likely intent by focusing not just on labels but on behaviors and cues. Have they been to your site or signed up for an email list? Are they a fan of a key competitor? Have they searched for category, product, or brand info? Have they searched for relevant coupons, promotions, or deals? Can you further segment your audience based on the specific need or problem you solve?

Casting a wide net is not always a bad idea, however. New product launches or other efforts to drive awareness within a given population may profit from a broader audience approach because you are creating a new market and the available cues will be sparse. Sometimes we have to plant the idea or need as a seed to cultivate and create an audience.

Old School

Buying on audience segments alone is rooted in traditional media planning and is a red flag that your agency or buyer does not have deep digital experience. If they don’t have the experience to plan well, then you can be sure they won’t have the experience to negotiate or optimize well. Results will suffer without the digital mindset that runs far broader than digital media.

Effective digital media buying requires an understanding of all the digital destinations and consumer touch points in a much more integrated fashion than traditional media. Digital media reaches users at all points along the consideration and purchase path and does so across numerous possible environments and devices. Online behaviors vary in both subtle and overt ways from one digital experience to the next, and those differences must be accounted for in an effective buy.

A typical old-school approach might buy Moms, if that is the target, across a variety of environments, but Moms could be messaged digitally in a myriad of ways including within a social environment, a mobile game, while reading content, or listening to podcasts. To buy effectively across each of these environments and dozens of others necessitates a comfort level or experience with the unique opportunities and challenges of each within a very dynamic environment of changing technology, regulations, and audience adoption.


Digital marketing is a labor-intensive process when it is done well. It requires the integration of offline data inputs and a stratified approach across digital channels and tactics. It requires constant optimization and the testing of messaging, creative approach, offers, landing pages, bidding or buying strategies, and budget allocations across what could be a dozen different campaign elements. If you are only buying and measuring in broad strokes, it certainly reduces the work load but also reduces the opportunities commensurately.

All Moms are not alike and neither Moms nor the marketers who want their attention are well served by oversimplifying. The same is true of any broad group targeted with a broad approach. It’s just not how you get the most out of your digital efforts or your marketing in general. The minute you reduce a complex person and their needs down to something so broad, you reduce the potential impact of your digital efforts. In fact, it might be more apt to think of online consumers as having many labels of various importance, changing hourly or by season or as their needs arise or environments change. Those labels are obvious and useful to marketers if you know what to look for and how to look. Avoid broad labels by challenging your planners to use all the clues and triggers that consumers supply to their mindset and conversion readiness and by equipping your planners with all the tools, training, and expectations to help them create a best practice approach to your digital buying.

Image via Shutterstock.

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