Targeting is an industry-wide issue. GDPR and other less-regulatory repercussions on the use of data aside, the data and tools we have available today are moving us closer to the fabled promise of one-to-one marketing. Unfortunately, neither marketers nor brands to date have been able to properly unlock the power of targeting.
In the past few years, we’ve seen this backfire over and over. Most commonly, it backfires in small ways. Highly targeted ads are continually seen as creepy, overly promotional, annoying or simply irrelevant to the individual (no doubt you have experienced the infamous case of shoes you already bought following you around online). In fact, in a 2017 Rakuten advertising study, 80% of people surveyed felt that online advertising had not improved over time, on any platform. Eighty-two percent said advertising disrupted their online experience, and 79% saw ads for products they had already purchased.
But despite those sentiments, all is not lost for targeting proponents — 70% of respondents in that same study also felt advertising was okay when useful to them, and 80% when it aligned with their needs. And after years of complaints centering on “stop trying to sell me those shoes,” the conversation began to shift to “show me that job posting” — that is, until things became more complicated after endless lawsuits helped uncover examples of discriminatory targeting in areas like housing, employment and ride-sharing.
The Targeting Case Study That Changed History
As 2018 progresses, it’s clear that ad targeting has the capacity for extensive impact on its intended recipients. Perhaps the best example of this is Russia’s sophisticated interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Whether we like it or not, that foreign influence on social media actually serves as a case study for the power a successful targeting strategy can have.
Through data-mining, targeting and hyper relevant content creation, that foreign power delivered advertising and fake news designed to tap into the human psyche and ultimately amplify ideological divisions. This proves that when it comes to targeting, it’s not what you know, but what you do with that knowledge. Inevitably, it all comes down to intent.
Advertisers should ask themselves before each campaign: if we know about our audience, what are we going to do with it? What is our measure of success? Is our intent to manipulate, persuade or sell? Or is it to inspire, help and connect?
Despite regulations in place to impact the way we collect and use data, the ability to target isn’t likely to go away. Sure, ad blockers and changes to Safari or other end-user technology could dampen data collection as well, but targeted advertising is too profitable to fade away; instead, it will evolve.
Advertisers and Publishers Need to Change Their Mindsets
Facebook is making some sizable changes to its targeting tools, albeit after a lot of time and external pressure. Some targeting capabilities have temporarily been turned off. In a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the news feed algorithm has been retuned (again) to focus on actively engaging users with content from friends and family in an effort for “time well spent” on the platform, albeit without a direct nod to Joe Edelman or Tristan Harris.
Publishers are taking a big hit, but these moves arguably aren’t really going to impact advertisers, outside of making inventory more expensive and possibly rewarding more engaging creative. Ironically, it’s not really going to halt the spread of fake news. But that’s another story.
Some say this process forces advertisers to make more engaging content, but this isn’t the first time we’ve heard the call to ‘make more valuable, engaging content.’ Remember the IAB’s “We messed up…” statement in 2015 when ad blocking was really ramping up? Heck, remember when Target targeted a pregnant teen before her family knew?
Making an actual change takes more than just proclamations and being told we have to: it’s a mindset. It’s a skill. It’s an investment. And above all, it’s about asking questions around what you can accomplish with better targeting.
Paving the Road to Trust and Transparency
While it is not yet clear how much this bad behavior is impacting trust in social advertising and marketing, it is more important than ever to stop bypassing the problem by outspending it, and instead find ways to be respectful with consumers’ data.
Social, like all digital interactions now, is personal. It’s a community. It’s about connections. Treat it that way. We as marketers need to act like a friend, or at least like a human. Would you start pitching your product at a dinner party? Would you only talk about yourself on a date? Would you use someone’s personal information to manipulate or exclude them?
If the answer is no, then why doesn’t your advertising reflect that? And on the flip side, if the answer is yes, does what you’re doing in your marketing reflect that? These are the questions we have to consider in our next targeting endeavors.