Stop confusing targeting with relevance


Advertising is not everyone’s cup of tea.

However, for most of us inside and outside the industry, advertising is seen as commercially vital, economically important and culturally essential – funding and subsidising vast tranches of the media and many other facets of our lives.

But there is a big if. And that is if advertising behaves according to the mores and laws of society. That it is legal, decent and honest. That it is not used to support morally reprehensible activities or organisations even if their activities are legal. And that the techniques it uses to sell don’t cross lines of intrusiveness, irritation or offensiveness.

And that’s the problem with Facebook. Or rather advertising on Facebook. Advertising may be vital in order to help deliver a social media service to its users for free but the desperation of Facebook to milk its user base dry before it runs out of time and rope often leads it to undertake advertising practices that clearly cross the line.

Most recently Facebook has been forced to withdraw a ghastly practice called Sponsored Stories. This is when you are served an ad by a company that claims your friends have endorsed the product being advertised when all they have really done is to ‘like’ a brand’s page at some point and for some usually completely unrelated reason. But even the humble newsfeed contains acres of junk advertising for brands we don’t know, selling products we don’t want in ways that we don’t appreciate.

It is easy to feel that the Facebook experience we once loved has been given a bad name by advertising but the truth is that it’s advertising that is given a bad name by Facebook. Or, in fairness to yesterday’s social media network du jour, advertising is being given a bad name by sharp practice across the online advertising world.

And to my mind the real culprit is the targeting myth of online advertising.

There are basically two ways to increase the effectiveness of advertising. The first is to improve to whom it is targeted so that it is more likely to meet a receptive audience. The second is to improve the quality of communication so that when it meets that audience they are more likely to notice and act upon that advertising.

Good targeting is therefore helpful and a strong element of targeting is essential to all effective advertising but it is not on its own the Holy Grail in the way that the online advertising fraternity would have us believe. And this is because people repeatedly confuse targeting with relevance.

Targeting is a quantitative and relatively mechanistic discipline in which enormous assumptions are made about people and their propensity to be interested in an advertiser’s message. And it is precisely because of these assumptions, now helpfully coded into countless algorithms, that a well targeted ad can still lack any relevance – because the second-guessing that goes behind those assumptions is just that, guessing.

You can collect all the data you like on someone but you simply cannot know why they did what they did and what frame of mine they are now in and this understanding is essential to creating real relevance. This is why cookie based contextual targeting is nothing of the sort, it knows something of your past but nothing of the reason for your actions nor the real context, the state of mind, you are now in, it has only one ingredient in the recipe that makes an ad relevant.

This is one of the reasons that the ads in the print mag you read on your way to work (that knows nothing about you) seemed more relevant than the ads your were served on Facebook just before you left (which claims to know everything about you).

Targeting and relevance are most certainly not one and the same thing. And blind faith in the targeting myth not only leads advertisers to over estimate its importance it leads online media owners like Facebook to develop new advertising products that are not only of dubious effectiveness but also irritate the hell out of people and give advertising a bad name. Of course what they do with their medium and their users is up to them but whether brand owner, media owner or advertising practitioner we will all depend on the public’s acceptance and approval of advertising long after services like Facebook have gone to internet heaven.

Image courtesy of Malavoda





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5 Replies to “Stop confusing targeting with relevance”

  1. Was searching for targeted advertising myth and found this site. Here is my complaint about targeted online adverts and why I do not believe they will work.

    a) seeing the same ad over and over again because they paid the most to reach the target I seem to match.
    If the ad did not work the first 5 times it popped for me, it is not going to work the next 50! Instead it will alienate me from that brand since it now feels like targeted harassment.

    b) seeing advertisements for a product or its competitor that I recently purchased.
    Well this is obvious. I already did my research, which is what feeds the hits for this target, and made my decision. I have moved on and the targeting is wasted on me.

    Advertising works best, IMHO, when it introduces someone to something they did not know they were looking for. It is a discovery, a surprise. If I am using the internet to find a product, to do research on the product, and maybe buy the product by the time the search aggregate decides to target me it is too late. Thus targeted advertising will always be playing catch up, cuts down on the variety of advertising a consumer is exposed to, and it therefore less effective, often totally ineffective.


  2. Another digital illusion beautifully captured. what started off as a war on interruption has ended up as intrusion on file selection at best and invasion of privacy in semi public spaces at worst. I’m being harsh of course but all of a sudden the interruption of the flow of TV doesn’t look like the crime it once was.

  3. I love the digital illusion phrase, going to find it hard not to find myself using that rather a lot.

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