2019 didn’t get off to a great start for the public image of targeted advertising – and it only got worse over the course of the year. Following the release of the Netflix documentary ‘The Great Hack’ in January, which investigated its use in election campaigns, the spotlight has been on targeted advertising, with articles such as “Targeted ads are one of the world's most destructive trends” only fueling the distrust.
However, if we look away from the more sinister uses of these ads, can we still view them as improving the online experience of consumers?
For the purpose of this post, we will be using the Wikipedia definition of targeted advertising:
“a form of advertising, including online, that is directed towards audiences with certain traits, based on the product or person the advertiser is promoting. These traits can either be demographic which are focused on race, economic status, sex, age, the level of education, income level and employment or they can be psychographic focused which are based on the consumer's values, personality, attitudes, opinions, lifestyles and interests”
From its earliest days, advertising has been targeted. Adverts in local papers, billboards and flyers have all been targeted to some degree – although admittedly, location was usually as far as it went. Thanks to the internet, social media and cookies, advertisers now have millions of data points they can use to serve up the most relevant ads to the most relevant people. Let’s look at some of the benefits this may bring the consumer.
Every day we’re exposed to 5,000 adverts. Now imagine that not a single one of those adverts was relevant to you in any way. It would be like living your whole life in front of a TV ad break – a frustrating and confusing experience.
We now spend more time online than ever before. Adverts are inevitable, so seeing adverts that we may want to engage with has advantages over completely random advert placement. And from a marketer’s point of view, targeted advertising allows a much higher ROI that is far easier to track than traditional media.
Discover New Products, Services and Solutions
If marketers are doing their jobs properly, then the end goal is for consumers to discover new products and services that benefit them, whether in their personal or work lives. This could take several different forms. It could be serving up products that have been deemed relevant to you, driving you to make a purchase that enriches your life in some way. On a professional level, you could be targeted with ads that drive you to relevant online courses that allow you to further your career and personal development. My personal favourite experience of targeting is when you are searching for a product, can’t quite find the perfect one, then later on are served ads for exactly what you needed. It makes the entire journey to purchase much easier.
Health and Wellbeing
Possibly one of the most under-utilised but most important uses for these types of adverts is to raise awareness for the prevention of curable illnesses. Specific demographics are far more likely to get certain illnesses than others but may not know or think about it. By targeting these groups on social channels, health organisations can raise awareness for prevention and treatment, giving a real chance to make a positive difference to people’s lives. Because the costs of targeted ads are much lower than traditional out-of-home or TV advertising, they allow charities and organisations to make much more effective use of their budgets. With all the negative press that social media and targeted advertising receive, it’s reassuring to know it can make a positive difference.
One thing that is certain is that the scrutiny targeted advertising is under will only increase. There will be only more scandals, followed by more legislation put in place to limit the use of targeted advertising.
Does this mean the end of targeted advertising? I believe this is only the beginning. As the big tech firms begin to self-regulate and be more transparent about advertising on their platforms, consumer trust will increase and development in technology will allow marketers to get smarter and serve up an ever-better customer experience.
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