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Why Wasting Impressions Is Good For Performance

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joel-nierman“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 Joel Nierman, marketing and media director at Critical Mass Chicago.

Improving the targeting of advertising has been a focus for the ad industry ever since John Wanamaker implied that it was a bad thing that he wasted half his money on advertising (he wasn’t sure which half).

This improved targeting movement has become hypercharged in the last decade or so because of digital ad tech. The problem with this march to waste elimination is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy – eliminating waste will eventually eliminate everything.

John Wanamaker probably didn’t realize the impact his musing would have on the advertising industry a century or so after he said it. While not knowing which half works is a clever talking point, in reality it instilled a maniacal devotion to eliminating waste in every advertising professional; now the vast majority of the ad industry creates value for clients by reducing waste through improved targeting.

All the standard practices for buying ads hold this ideal at the core: Buying media against indexes is designed to minimize the number of people not in the target group from seeing a particular ad. Gross rating points (GRP) explicitly do not pay for waste. And practically every company on the Lumascape is focused on using data to target ads more precisely or to ensure they are targeted more precisely, which, said another way, is reducing waste.

And this makes logical sense. Brands and companies know who buys their products and services, and finding more people like their current customers – and fewer of the people not like current customers – is a logical way to build incremental business.

But there is a flaw in that thinking: the previously mentioned self-fulfilling prophecy. As advertising becomes ever more focused, it also becomes less scalable. Repeatedly cutting away the half of the advertising that isn’t working means that over time the addressable audience approaches zero; everyone in the target either becomes a customer or is cast off in the not working half.

This problem is solved by actually having waste, which is antithetical to Wanamaker’s implication.

The opposite of Wanamaker’s philosophical waxing is this: “The best advertising is written for a very small group of people, and the rest of us just happen to overhear it.”

It’s the second part of that idea that indicates the value of waste. Writing advertising for a select group allows for focus, passion and a point of view to be addressed in the advertising – all good things, and things the ad industry (sometimes) does already. But the second part allows for people who aren’t in the intended group to assume the attitude and perspective of that group, even if only for 30 seconds. To wit:

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McDonald’s iconic “You Deserve a Break Today” campaign was written specifically for moms. But as non-moms saw those ads they decided that they too needed a break, and this propelled McDonald’s from a bastion of family lunchtime to the most popular restaurant in the world.

Apple’s iconic “1984” ad was actually written for early tech adopters and iconoclastic gear-heads. But then Apple ran it during the Super Bowl and a lot more folks beyond iconoclastic gear-heads figured they too wanted to get out from under Big Brother’s technological hegemony. That ad – specifically written and broadly distributed – laid the foundation for Apple to become the most popular consumer electronics company in the world.

These ads were so effective specifically because waste was unavoidable when these ads ran. In more modern times – with much less waste – these iconic ads would have been delivered to a much more precise audience, and McDonald’s and Apple would have needed a different watershed moment to build their business foundation, if that watershed ever happened at all.

Although the idea of measuring, understanding and maximizing waste is necessary, a century of advertising precedent has marginalized it. And with ad technology doing the bunny-reproduction thing, it is an idea that is not focused on by any of the emerging technology platforms, companies, agencies or clients that use these products.

This measurement and understanding does not necessarily have to be complex. We simply use the same depth of data and analysis with which we analyze our successful campaigns.

Instead of declaring unsuccessful impressions or users outside of the target as waste, we should look at that data, understand awareness, affinity and conversion behavior among the waste, and layer that against our “unwasted” impressions and in-target users. In this way we can understand the differences beyond the binary in/out dynamic, and address these differences with all the advertising tools we have at our disposal, just like we do with the successful parts of the campaign.

And then all our clients will become the biggest in the world.

Follow Joel Nierman (@FozzieBuyer), Critical Mass (@CriticalMass) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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