Data is at the heart of any successful marketing strategy. Decades of research have produced scores of theories and best practices on how advertisers can best reach their target audiences. Marketers have seen an array of targeting techniques, most focused on context, demographics and psychographics. With the explosion of the social Web, a whole new approach to building brand audiences that is based on the connections among people and between people and brands has been discovered. This new approach is called social targeting.
Social targeting is taking the old model of audience targeting and turning it on its head. The old model associated a brand with personal attributes -- age, gender, income level, various cultural attitudes -- and then targeted media that best matched those attributes. The new model, enabled by both social media and audience bidding technologies (ad exchanges and real-time bidding), uses social graph data to assemble custom audiences and reach them where they are most receptive to a marketer's message.
Theories about targeting based on connections among consumers have been around for several years. In research published in 2006, AT&T Research and New York University's Stern School of Business showed that the best way to find new customers for a given telecommunications service was through connections between prospects and existing customers. Evaluating a wealth of data to define cohorts based on personal profile and purchasing patterns, the research team found the best way to identify future customers was to target the people who called existing customers and were called by them most recently and frequently.
Social targeting has adapted this concept and delivered it at scale on the social Web. By analyzing anonymous social graph data derived from visits to micro-content, social targeting technology constructs custom audiences made up of a brand's current customers (brand loyalists) and their closest connections. And it does that without any reference to personally identifiable information, or any specific recognition of site content. From profile pages to photo-sharing sites to personal blogs, micro-content visits define connections that are predictive of shared brand affinity. How are those connections evaluated? That's where the real pioneering work is being done. A complex and evolving set of algorithms measures the efficacy of the various classes of micro-content to iteratively optimize the social graph, uniquely for each brand and each advertising campaign.
Social targeting is all about performance and scale. It has the potential to work for any brand, providing superior ROI for marketers that consistently exceeds results from other targeting methods. The early executions have proven particularly effective for marketers whose goals are online conversion events, such as retail, travel and financial services. In time, expect pure brand marketers to adopt social targeting as their preferred means of constructing audiences most receptive to their brand messages.