Continuity 1
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“Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.” Howard Gossage

Something has happened in the world of digital that has many just that little bit concerned – you know what we are talking about. Remember the last time you went to on a whim to check for last minute flight deals to Orlando and then found Orlando deals wherever else you turned on the web? Or how you started seeing ads for the latest cartoon princess just in time for your 2-year olds birthday? It’s clear that the world of digital advertising has figured out how to make ads much more personal and much more finely targeted to you and your individual personality, preferences and life.

Why this personal attention?

This greater degree of personalization has largely been driven by the application of Big Data and agencies everywhere are alive to this power. A 2015 survey by 2nd Watch of over 500 companies revealed that 66% of them were already using big data to support their digital advertising. The results from these campaigns are also not to be scoffed at – 47% felt that these campaigns were effective in meeting the goals set for customer engagement and demand creation. Perhaps not surprisingly the number of organizations slated to join this bandwagon is projected to rise – 50% of the surveyed organizations believed their use of big data in digital marketing would rise. There is a lot of intelligence at work here but let’s focus on two trends in particular.

Specific buyer personae

The first is the definition of highly specific buyer personas. With so much personal information about you available online and so much of your behaviour available to mine through things like your browsing history advertisers can create a much more specific identikit profile of you than was earlier possible. Whereas earlier digital ads used to be targeted at much wider target segments most platforms offer much tighter targeting options today to take advantage of such specific buyer personas. For instance, Pinterest allows advertisers to target mothers of children of specific ages (1 years old, 2 years, etc.) and there was the popularly quoted example of Lexus coming up with fully 1000 different video ads targeted at 1000 different hyper-targeted buyer types on Facebook.  This is one reason why ads that seem to match your needs find you more often these days.


The next evolution is retargeting. In essence, this is a cookie-based approach to tracking what products or offerings you viewed on a site and to then show you information regarding the same product as you move to other sites. This is where the ads become much more tied to your specific behaviour – this is why the Orlando deal seemed to keep following you on your web journey.

What do those being sold to, think?

So, agencies and companies everywhere are leveraging big data to make their ads more personal and there seems to be more than a degree of success too but what do those being targeted think? Well, an Ithaca College study among a group of students who were subjected to different types of ads had mixed reactions. Some of them reported positive feelings about the ad but among those that felt this was “creepy,” there was a 5% drop in their intent to buy for this reason. It seems there is a line that cannot be crossed but where to draw that line?

How not to be creepy?

Gossage’s pronouncement offers some clues. In essence, digital advertisers would do well to keep in mind that among the buyer preferences that have changed of late is that they don’t like being obviously sold to but they do like being offered help in their buying journey. The key for advertisers is to find ways to help their prospects by providing them information that is relevant – hence the suggestion to offer them something to read that would interest them irrespective of the fact that this was an ad.  The need is to also recognise the lines that should not be crossed because they relate to personal information. In the Ithaca College study referred to earlier the ad that drew the mixed response related to acne treatment – well within the personal domain as you may imagine.   

Like everything else, expect the practice of hyper-personal ads to lurch from one extreme to the other as things settle in but soon enough a middle ground will be found where the advertisers will be happy and so will the targeted customers. Philip Beeching and John Wood, Beechwood have written, “This is the model for the 21st-century advertising agency. Sitting upstream of the silos, agile, flexible, one touchpoint for the client, with the ability to understand and connect with the consumer, and ideas that rise above media schedules and engage with people in a way that has true mutual benefit and value.” That doesn’t seem creepy at all!