Reaching the Target in Unexpected Places

As a marketing medium, the Internet allows for some pretty precise consumer targeting. The technology behind online advertising gives us the information we need to pinpoint our target markets, tag and track users to evaluate their interaction with the medium, and measure the effectiveness of our ad placements to the utmost degree. With all these heightened capabilities, one would think that we would have this discipline down pat. Yet it’s not uncommon for us to see conversion rates that just don’t seem to reflect the consumer response we should be getting. Formulating an online strategy should be as simple as reviewing some statistics and making our buys, but this approach doesn’t always yield extraordinary results, and many marketers are asking why.

As buyers, we employ various methods of targeting audiences online (we generally save untargeted placements for mass market branding campaigns or to promote products with a universal appeal). We target Internet users demographically and geographically via their Internet provider’s IP addresses; we reach them while they have our clients’ products and services in mind by purchasing search engine keywords or pay-per-search placements; and we isolate them by advertising on the sites and within the channels that cater especially to their interests and tastes (special interest sites, trade portals, etc.). This last approach has always been a popular one, appealing to advertisers who wish to target based on psychographic indicators or who offer industry-specific products and services. Purchasing a placement on a site that addresses users within an advertiser’s target industry (e.g., the Medscapes and PharmacyChoices of the world) is a sure-fire way to get in front of the company’s market.

However, there’s a theory about this approach to online targeting that goes against everything we buyers believe, and it could, if valid, force us to rethink our entire buying strategy. Some marketers believe that — though these sites do serve a purpose, particularly when it comes to branding — the specialized sites in which we put so much faith can actually hamper our ability to get high conversion rates.

The theory behind this unconventional principle is that your results will always be heightened if you stand out from the crowd. If you’re targeting physicians on a medical site, for example, then your ad is bound to be up against a heap of other medical ads, all of them likely featuring a similar look and message (especially considering that targeting this particular industry requires that advertisers follow some pretty strict ad guidelines). Although some of these ads are bound to pique a visitor’s interest — as they will all be related to the industry in which he works — the competition is fierce. The pressure on your ad to perform is intensified, because to get some attention it must rise above the dozens of other ads vying for the same eyeballs.

This theory does hold some water — after all, it’s human nature to notice and remember the unique. But what would the marketers behind this theory have us do to get around it? They would probably suggest placing our ads somewhere a little more unexpected. If our target market is doctors, for example, perhaps we would sponsor the golfing section of a sports site. If we needed to reach computer technicians, then the science and technology section of an online newspaper might be a sensible choice. The objective is to appear to your audience when, and where, they least expect it.

As logical as this may all sound, this methodology does have an inherent flaw: How does one know that she is in fact reaching her target market at all? Though one may assume that some doctors visit golf sites on occasion, or that computer technicians read their newspapers online, we can’t be sure that our ad impressions aren’t being wasted on an audience that isn’t remotely interested in our industry-specific products. As we’re responsible for spending our clients’ ad budgets wisely, and answering to them when response rates are low, we can’t risk throwing their ad dollars away on buys that are based on unsubstantiated theories and an optimistic outlook, especially when so many safe bets still exist.

In the hope of attracting more business, many mass-interest sites are already in the process of gathering more detailed data about their users, including job titles and industry descriptions. Until the majority of them are able to provide such thorough visitor profiles, however, media buyers are better off sticking with their traditional approach to targeting. While we wait for these sites to catch up, our ability to stand out from the crowd rests on the shoulders of the ads themselves. A little extra creativity during the ad production process might just give us the competitive edge we need.

Related reading