Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Targeting?

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scottswanson“Data-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Scott Swanson, president of global ad sales at Opera Mediaworks

A few weeks ago, I saw on Facebook that a friend of mine said she was being targeted there for plus-size clothing. In the comment threads, others replied that they, too, were seeing ads for very specific things, such as substance abuse counseling, motocross and certain types of cars. One woman said she’d been seeing ads for a wrinkle cream, which quickly disappeared when she changed the birth year on her Facebook profile.

Since I knew most of the people who were commenting and could therefore gauge how accurately they were being targeted, the whole discussion was pretty amusing. But the point is clear: People are now more aware than ever that advertisers are targeting them –and they’re openly talking about it.

Are some ads too invasive and personal? There’s no doubt that Facebook has enough data about each user to really know who they are. Compared to regular desktop advertising, it does tend to be more on-target to the user, since those ads are based primarily on a user’s browser activity. Once those cookies or cache is cleared, or if he’s in  “incognito”mode, they are anonymous again and won’t be retargeted.

Mobile advertising, on the other hand, allows for more precision. The apps people download to their smartphones say a lot about them, as do the times of day they’re most likely to be using their devices. And because we’re conditioned to take our phones everywhere we go, GPS systems and Wi-Fi towers can track our locations, even if our phones are tucked away in our purses or pockets.

With the amount of data made available on smartphones, and the advanced technologies being developed to collect, process and analyze it, we’re fast moving toward a world where 100% of ads can be targeted more precisely to a consumer.

But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

If a person is only seeing content designed for her, there’s a risk that she’ll be missing out on a lot – and marketers will be missing out on her.

If I had to guess, I’d estimate that 50% of mobile advertising isn’t targeted at all. Take, for example, consumer packaged goods, such as paper towels and bathroom soap. After that, maybe 20% of ads are targeted in the most general way, for instance displaying makeup ads to women and diaper ads to parents. The 30% that remains is where targeting efforts are concentrated, such as identifying consumers that are in-market for a car, and figuring out the best time and place to serve them an ad – and what that message should be.

Too much targeting risks the kind of annoyance – or even paranoia – that I witnessed on Facebook, but it also means we risk stifling one of the oldest complements of the advertising business: word of mouth.

Word of mouth? What does that have to do with targeting?

Well, while not everyone who sees an ad for shampoo wants long, glossy hair, and not everyone who sees an ad for a Ford F150 is in the market for a new truck, it’s a safe guess that everyone who sees an ad for these products knows someone who is.

So if we neglect to show men ads for shampoo or don’t show coupe drivers truck ads from time to time, we also neglect the fact that people talk to their spouses, friends, family and business associates. If a man’s wife is looking for a change in her hair care regimen, or a friend in construction is looking to replace his old pickup, the opinions and brand preferences of their personal network come into play. Whether we know it or not, we do make product decisions based on what others think or feel.

Marketers need to be very careful not to fall into the targeting trap. For instance, it’s easy, but shortsighted, to target a campaign exclusively at 18- to 22-year-old girls who travel within one mile of a local Forever 21 store. Sure, they are the target demographic, but if you limit your message to just this group, you risk missing out on others, such as the parents, boyfriends or siblings who may not be the target audience themselves, but could be buying a gift for someone who is.

Mobile ad targeting is a great thing. But, as with any shiny new technology, it’s tempting to make it the only thing, and that would be a mistake. Honing in on one – and only one – audience means missing out on opportunities to spread messages through secondary audiences. Too much targeting can lead to too little “talking,” and, ultimately, cannibalize efforts for broader brand awareness.

Follow Opera Mediaworks (@OMediaworks) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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