You'll Never Find Your Target Audience by Relying on Cookies Alone

Data from Old-Fashioned Print Publications Will Show the Attitudes and Behaviors of Those Most Likely to Make Purchases

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Audience targeting, the hot online advertising tactic, is being hailed as the savior of banner advertising. We hear not only about behavioral targeting, but hypertargeting and microtargeting. When the hyperbole extends to laser targeting, I start to wonder if I'm in an Austin Powers movie. What's next -- neutron targeting?

But before the enthusiasm goes overboard, we need to realize that the cookie-based audience-targeting method is based on assumptions that have hampered its effectiveness -- especially when it comes to popular categories like high-income households.

Data vendors build audience models based on browsing history gleaned from cookies. They then target an audience that they assume is high income, and very likely to spend.

Yet cookies are not readers. Several individuals often share one browser, and many people surf several devices, using several browsers. No wonder that , according to comScore, cookie-targeted campaigns hit their mark between 14 and 96 percent of the time. Not much of a laser, is it? Even when consumers do fall into the targeted financial bracket, the ads they see are not always relevant to their experience or mindset.

The primary goal of all branding campaigns should be to create a desire for the product. The secondary goal is to sell the product. Identifying "auto intenders with HHI 100k+" is one piece of the puzzle, but reaching the people who influence those people is much more important.

Most agencies will request detailed mindset and attitude audience descriptions when planning digital buys. Scanning a few recent RFPs, I found several profile types that you will never find revealed in a cookie:
  • Time -constrained, digitally savvy consumers who are used to taking info on the go.
  • Talented, confident, well-educated and intelligent individuals who create the businesses, technologies and lifestyles that have an impact on our culture.
  • Consumers continuously searching for truth and perspective.
  • Honest, sincere people to whom enjoying life and protecting loved ones are the highest priorities.
  • Consumers who seek risk and adventure and do things simply because they want to.
  • Consumers who thrive on the excitement of change and the challenge of doing something new.
  • Those who like to lead others and learn things that may never be of use.

    Audience targeting alone will not bring you such influencers, because they do not match any traditional demographic segment. They are defined more by attitudes and behaviors, and cookies fail to capture that context and mindset.

    Influencers are brand ambassadors, of course. As it happens, they also have a propensity toward having a high income. You need to define the curious, inquiring audience first -- and then look for editorial environments that appeal to their state of mind. Publishers, especially those tied to legacy print brands such as newspapers or magazines, have terrific data on their readers. They know what their readers find compelling. Antiquated though such an approach may seem, it is far more accurate than the third-party data sold in exchanges these days. Selecting publishers with affinity audience structure and relevant editorial content still makes sense when buying advertising online. It's what we used to call media planning.

    Stephane Pere is Vice President, Head of Ideas People Media, the ad network of The Economist Group.
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