Audience Buying Alone Cannot Succeed

Considering how much attention, from the press and venture capitalists, is paid to audience-based ad buying, you’d think it would inevitably rule the roost — at the expense of old-fashioned content-based buying. You’d be wrong.

The hype is a natural outcome of the fact that audience data has never had this scale and accessibility before. Buyers can now match their targeting criteria against huge pools if impressions. The concept is super cool: Displaying your message only to the exact group of desired consumers?
But the reality reminds me of the difference between a retailer’s merchandising and marketing. Merchandising’s job is to sell once a consumer is inside the store, but marketing needs to drive them there in the first place. There will always be more prospective buyers and influencers outside the store, than shoppers with wallet in hand. If you only merchandised, at some point soon the store would be a very quiet and lonely place.
Top brands know this, which is why brands are not buying audience instead of content, but rather they are buying audience in addition to content.  A recent Yahoo study showed that ads appearing in relevant content “elicit an emotional response that’s almost twice as high as those without relevant content…[W]hen the objective is centered around building awareness, contextual relevance can help build long term memory of the brand.” Content and context help with every marketer’s favorite words: engagement and memorability.
As I have always said, audience targeting works. However, it is not the solution to deliver the value that brands would require in order to bring massive budgets online. The reason is because the technology was just not there to help brands find their target markets online efficiently. The best they could do was to buy content as a proxy for audience. All of that is changing today with the advent of data and auction-based marketplaces. The problem now is that no guarantee exists that their ads will show up in the same environments as are guaranteed when buying the content directly.
Pete Longo of IDG Syndication and Networks said it best at last week’s DIGIDAY:TARGET show: “The right audience is great, but the right audience in the in the right context is better.”
In fact, relevance of the ad’s environment is a concept that has gotten lost in today’s real-time world of audience buying. Additionally, scale is a relative term because no behavioral data set is big enough to ensure that all ad placements are reaching the right people.
The Yahoo report goes on to state that “substantial majorities of brand marketers and agencies said they would increase their real-time bidding budgets if they had direct access to real-time bidding platforms at publishers’ sites (as it would maintain) the relationships and brand safety available at these sites.” Brands want to align their message and identity with content that shares the same ideals, standards and, yes, the same audiences.
This might not fit with the story of a revolution in ad buying that marks the end of content as we know it in favor of audiences. Audience buying will absolutely continue to grow—first, as a function of being in a growing market, and second, because there are a host of new tactics to increase cookie coverage. (For example, technologies that find like-minded consumers to increase the targeted pool). But the market size is finite and bound to level off.
Without getting into a debate on cookies and consumer privacy, I see four limiting factors:
1) Cookies are perishable, they get deleted. It’s not just the tech-savvy ones anymore.
2) Multiple users per browser. I can’t even imagine what my shared computer at home says about my targeting profiles.
3) Freshness of the data. Purchase intent only lasts so long. I wanted to buy a car last week and I did. I’m uninterested in your car ads now.
4) Audience targeting will always be a subset of digital media, not a stand-alone driver. It’s the sprinkles, not the sundae.
To reiterate, advertisers buying a campaign using audience data will have some success, but typically won’t be able to satisfy all of their campaign goals and objectives. User data is a classic bottom of the funnel marketing tactic that just can’t provide advertisers the scale they crave. Buying audiences is a proven, solid approach, but brands are not going to stop buying content. Audience buying alone cannot and will not succeed, content is critical to reach the necessary success thresholds for brands to thrive.
Andy Ellenthal is CEO of Peer39, a semantic ad technology company.
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