Targeting Is Not Engagement

With all the recent talk about targeting and making use of data, our industry is missing something major: Brands need to engage the right audiences, not just reach them.

Let me explain: Advertising data is the hot industry topic these days. Many advertisers believe they can effectively reach increasingly targeted audiences -- if only they can get their hands on the right data. The industry is focused on adding more and more data to demand side platforms (DSP) and using real-time bidding (RTB) to leverage that data. Which is great -- but insufficient. Study after study shows that the best performance for brands comes when they combine premium sites with compelling creative.

Engagement has been pushed to the back burner lately, but it's still critical for brands -- and successful engagement requires concerted efforts that go well beyond data and targeting. You cannot automate quality, creativity and engagement. The online advertising industry does need to make some wholesale changes to adapt to the insights and needs of our sophisticated advertisers. One of those changes is to emphasize what brands are doing to engage (and not just reach) the right audience.



I've heard many advertisers wonder why a brilliantly targeted campaign didn't generate the desired goal of brand lift, increased purchase intent, sales lift, and so on. Although current conventional wisdom is that the campaign would have worked if the targeting was just that much more precise, Dynamic Logic's recent study (covered in Online Media Daily last fall) showed that the single biggest predictor of brand impact was the ad creative itself.

Effective targeting can (of course) help people reach the right audience members, but that first step can give a false sense of confidence. Using data alone misses the value of both context and creative. Data have become a crutch that is, by definition, easier to quantify (and that much easier to justify to the client); yet data are unlikely to be the cure-all catalyst for a campaign that engages consumers.

Think about it this way: targeting identifies people who are likely to be interested in your brand. The offline equivalent would be hand-delivering ads only to the people who are hanging out outside your store or already inside -- they might be good customers but they are certainly not the bulk of your sales prospects. And if you don't have something compelling to say or show to the folks who haven't strolled near your store, they won't be interested.

If you over-rely on targeting, you are limiting yourself. Beyond targeting you need to look at whether your audience finds you memorable. Are they partial to your creative? Are you sparking the curiosity of new prospective customers? Are you building affinity and planting seeds for future purchases?

Then, as an industry there is the deeper issue that if we over-rely on targeting, it will reduce the efficacy of targeting. If everyone buys from the same data providers, then what do you have that's unique? And the more precisely you target, the more likely you are to miss valuable prospective and developing customers who fall outside the bounds of your over-precise targeting.

Context and Creative Matter

Every campaign needs to find a balance between the audience most likely to be interested in the type of goods you sell and serving the right creative to that audience in a context where they are most predisposed to engage with your offering. The media mix should absolutely reach known prospects and customers through targeting, social media and email marketing -- but should also be expanding the universe of prospects through contextually relevant, memorable campaigns. The probability of engagement is so much higher on vertical sites (according to comScore, which found that people reached by vertical ad networks spent at least 60% more time in those site categories) because you are presenting your campaign in a context where the audience is predisposed to be receptive to your message. On vertical ad networks you can broadly target the top of the funnel and begin engaging the audience before you move down the funnel with narrower targeting. Why start with one-to-one marketing (the bottom of the funnel --or the people hanging outside your store front)? You should move there once you've already found audiences willing to engage with your brand.

Brands can't overlook the creative that they deliver in their contextually relevant, targeted campaigns. Interactive marketing veteran Cory Treffiletti, in a recent blog post, implored the industry to, "not bypass creativity completely because creativity is what actually provides us with better access to data and can help us assume the top position for marketing dollars."

Yet when we recently conducted a survey of media planners, we found that a vast majority of agencies don't consider ad networks' creative capabilities as a point of evaluation. That's a problem because creative capabilities stand to make the difference in campaign impact and efficacy -- particularly when creative is served in the highly engaging and contextually relevant environments found on vertical sites.

Both publishers and advertisers have to find the right mix of both reach and engagement to be successful. But you'd be surprised how infrequently that happens. I believe that will change, but we need to start redirecting our focus to engaging audiences, not just reaching them.

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