The Truth About Tracking Consumers Across Devices

Consumers React Differently to Ads on Phone, Tablet, and PC

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As mobile advertising dollars race to catch up with consumers' evolving behavior, a number of startups have emerged with a tempting proposition: target the same user across both his mobile and desktop devices. It sounds logical: one core driver of advertising performance is frequency of exposure, so increasing this frequency across devices should help. After all, a consumer doesn't undergo a change of identity when he closes his laptop and opens his smartphone, right?

Yes, but it's not that simple. Consumers do exhibit different mindsets and behaviors as they use different devices. Though a person remains the same person as he watches prime-time TV, searches for a product on Amazon or checks his Facebook feed, he has a different level of receptivity to advertising in each of these contexts. We can't effectively use cross-device advertising without taking this into account.

From a retention standpoint, it sounds intriguing to be able to identify the same consumer as he navigates from one device to another. Sending the wrong catalog to someone's house is very expensive. Accordingly, customer-relationship management uses purchase data and other information to improve return by cross-selling or upselling to identifiable customers across multiple channels (voice/call centers, in-person/customer service, digital/email and print/direct mail). Retention and win-back marketing tactics personalize different offers to high and low-value customers. This may require identifying the same customers across multiple devices, often with personally identifiable information.

On the other hand, acquisition marketing relies primarily on anonymous identifiers to attract new customers (since by definition these consumers don't yet have a relationship with the advertiser) and does not require identifying the same user across multiple devices. The only reason such a technical feat would be useful is if it drove down acquisition-marketing costs. However, since the reach is diminished and the cost increases with the technologies that try to stitch the same user across multiple devices, marketers should treat this new tactic with caution, beyond any concerns with privacy.

Tracking device-to-device activity for the same individual means you'll have to limit the size of the targeting pool to the specific audience that you can trace across these multiple channels (PC, smartphone, tablet, TV, radio or out-of-home). Imagine the Venn diagram showing the overlapping audience holding those devices. And imagine the smaller and smaller subset of those individuals who fall into the middle. Since there are techniques to target the people who closely resemble the very same people on all these devices -- but with a much wider net -- why pay more to reach far fewer?

Furthermore, much ad spending would be wasted using cross-device tracking to send a similar message to someone whose attention is very different, depending on which device he's using and his current activity.

Given relatively low call-to-action response rates on acquisition marketing, it stands to reason that the optimal approach would be to target advertising at a wide array of those who best reflect clearly observed behavior and interests that would most resonate with the advertiser's products and services.

To target consumers across devices, it is important to evaluate whether the reach and ROI of tactics are being applied to the right marketing goals. Because of limitations and privacy implications, tracking the same individual across devices is best for retention marketing.

Acquisition marketing can benefit from cross-device analytics and planning. However, given the different mindset with use of each device, and the huge number of consumers targeted by acquisition marketing, the best approach is to take advantage of the channel-specific targeting abilities of each device rather than trying to cobble together techniques to find the same user on each of his devices. Marketers should use techniques to analyze all of the channels at their disposal – and not be singularly focused on trying to connect the mobile and desktop experiences.

Joshua Koran is senior vice president of product management at Turn, the cloud marketing platform.

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