Attention Audience Buyers: Stop Buying Demographics

Ad Agents“Ad Agents” is a column written by the agency-side of the digital media community.

Chris Tuleya, vp of Direct Response at Underscore Marketing, a boutique, digital marketing agency.

In order for audience-based buying to move forward, digital advertisers need to break free from the offline media shackles that come with demographic buying.

Audience-based buying is a model that will benefit digital marketers immensely by letting them discern consumer intent.  This advantage over other media has been a major driver of the success of search marketing since its inception. Search engines are blind to demographics – Type in a search query and websites have the chance to read the intent of the searcher and target appropriately, regardless of the searcher’s demographics. I have been saying for years that if Oprah searches on the same term as you, you will likely receive the same results (yes, I know this has changed slightly in the past years, but you get the point). Search is audience-based targeting at its simplest form. Someone using ‘purchase’ in their search query is likely looking to purchase, does their demographic profile matter?

Our end objective, regardless of the media channel we use, is to be blind to sex or age, as long as the prospect will be receptive to our message. I care about the end goal; not the demographics of who is raising their hand. With search it comes down to performance on terms – which ones work and which ones do not. Shouldn’t all digital follow the same approach?

At one point, Microsoft sold a product that prompted advertisers to pay more to reach searchers who fell into the advertiser’s target demo. When pitched on it, I responded by asking why I would ever do that. If they all searched on the same term, is it fair to say that one person, who happens to fall within the sweet spot of a target demographic, is more valuable than someone else? If they are both looking for the same thing, why should an advertiser pay more for this person? I say show me the data…

The adoption of this audience-based model is a long time coming for the advertising world. Demographics were always a surrogate for what an advertiser was really looking for anyway. And now that real intent information has arrived, it is about time digital advertisers start using intent data to execute stronger campaigns. Marketing has always been about playing the odds and audience-based buying improves these odds in advertisers’ favor.

For advertisers and agencies, this model opens up an infinite world of buyable impressions, many we would never have thought about buying prior to this capability. No longer do we have to focus ad dollars only on sites where a high composition of our audience can be found.  (And no longer do we have to pay a premium to do so, whether the audience is ready to purchase or not.) Instead we can plan around the objective of our campaign and make smart marketing decisions by being more relevant to our audience at the right time.

For publishers, audience-based buying increases the quality and quantity of ad inventory and boosts CPMs. It levels the playing field against the mindset that audiences must fit nicely into a demographic bucket and that only sites with a high composition of a demo target will get the lion’s share of budget dollars from premium advertisers. Performance will speak for itself, allowing publishers to better make a case for using them on buys. It flattens the world by boosting the value of placements that historically may not have been valued by advertisers. As technology improves, audience-based buying will not be limited to desktops. Mobile devices and tablets will surely prove to be viable channels for further increasing the value of ad impressions.

Follow Underscore Marketing (@_MarketingLLC) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. Pradeep Javangula

    Besides search keywords and SEM, and retargeting please elaborate on where else “intent” is to be found? If the author is saying – do search retargeting, and don’t care about demo overlays on it, of course that is obvious with some data expiration semantics. Beyond that, intent is hard to find in other channels. Social media is probably the worst. Marketing and advertising is about proxies and the voluminous data available now can inform buyers of better proxies. Demographics are NOT irrelevant even in extreme DR campaigns in display or e-mail or social media. Why would you want to waste impressions on Run of Network or Run of Exchange buys, when you know the product/service you are marketing is only for women or boys or old people? That’s point #1. Secondly, demographics have a huge rule to play in awareness campaigns, which is ignored here. This is just a provocative title, nothing more…

  2. Thanks, Chris, for a provocative and entertaining piece. While I agree with you that intent is helpful, it’s not a panacea or a full-on replacement for demographics. In the same way that demos only tell part of the story, so it is with other types of data – intent included – as well. I’d argue strenuously that intent and demos (and most other types of data that are available) are incredibly complementary and strengthen the value of each other. And that together, they strengthen the overall power of the advertiser to reach the best audiences with the best possible messages for each.

    The value of demos proves itself in three big areas: context, reach, and scale. With respect to context, demographic data enables marketers to take partial, but interesting information from search and provide context for it. As you pointed out, Oprah and I may very well get the same search results based on what we type into the search box. But I’d posit that that is a flaw, not a good thing. The odds are that Oprah’s buying habits and needs are different from mine, and what constitutes an effective message for Oprah is different from an effective message for me. Demographics would help for that.

    Search data is useful for establishing a specific need from an individual. But that’s for one individual, not for broad reach. Using it for large-scale messaging, demand-generation, and brand awareness requires a way to extrapolate intent-based learnings to a larger audience. Demographics can help here too. By using demos for look-alike modeling against prior buyers or those demonstrating intent, marketers can generate the scale they need for effective campaigns.

    Finally, demographics are more and more useful for cross-channel consistency. It’s not easy to reach intenders (or any desired audiences) across channels with consistent messaging. But by enhancing intenders with demographics and then doing media buys using those demographics (and look-alikes) across different media channels, marketers clearly can improve their cross-channel effectiveness.

    So while I agree with part of your premise – that demographics aren’t perfect as a stand-alone for ideal audience targeting –I’d argue that they still play a vital (and actually increasing) role in reaching the right audiences with the right messages online and in other channels as well.

  3. Dark Knight

    I wonder how long intent will be found on the web and therefore extracted for desktop based targeting opportunities.

    More and more now we are exhibiting intent via mobile, tablets and apps. All of which become more difficult to drop those cookies and retarget against. I think in a few years, Desktop based display advertising will be thankful for the so called old audience measure: demographic

  4. Professor Hulk

    Agree with you David that its the combination of these data points that would yield the greater return. If I can find women 18-25, with a site frequency of 3 in past 24 hours, with intent on my product, search keywords that reflect research and interest, behaviour that correlates across the vertical and in a location of interest to my advertiser – I’d buy it and the media alongside it.

    Wonder when this will ever reach the market in this form or another….

  5. Pankaj Shroff

    Isnt the real problem the author is identifying less about targeting and retargeting but from a buy side perspective, a problem of being able to buy against an entirely new set of criteria that groups audiences not just by demographics but also psychographics, geographies, and possibly time of day. In some sense the underlying message here is dont be shackled to the traditional set of criteria (i.e. demo), but go beyond to seek the powerset of all. Now I agree with some of the commenters that it is indeed non-trivial to succeed in finding the powerset, but the author’s point is also valid in some sense that the “true critical mass” is in pricing and buying against that “powerset” and subsets of the powerset of audiences.