Hypertargeting vs. Mass Reach vs. Bullshit on Paid Digital Channels

In the last few weeks, Heineken and P&G have made headlines (in the small digital media world) for altering their use of Facebook in their marketing mix. Heineken reallocated money from TV to Facebook and Google, signaling that the latter platforms have, at least to one brand, shifted into the fore as the mass marketing tools most effective today for their needs. If loss of viewership and ad money was death by a thousand papercuts to TV, this move, coming from a brand like Heineken, feels like more of a puncture wound. It wasn't that long ago that TV proponents, while acknowledging the targeting and engagement possibilities of digital, still held TV as the single best medium by which to reach a broad audience.

If we're treating this as a signal (and I am), it suggests that, to at least one brand, Facebook and Google have beat out TV based on some criteria between measured performance and anticipated efficacy (I haven't seen Heineken's numbers, of course). Enough people have adopted Facebook  and Google usage that it's presumably a wash in regard to audience volume. It also feels like we're acknowledging that active engagement with digital platforms fosters greater engagement and action than the passivity of TV. And that's worth noting. It's also pretty speculative on my part, but whatever. 

Meanwhile, P&G announced that it was shifting as much as $140 million away from digital ad spend, citing concerns about ad quality. From a strategic perspective, I really like this move for them, and it too should be seen as a clear sign in itself that there are still multiple elephants in the paid media room to address: bot activity, the mirage of hypertargeting, and questionable ad placements. Bullshit, essentially. 

So what's the common thread? In both cases, brands are looking for methods to better reach a wide ranging audience. Heineken's anticipating that it can do so better on digital channels than on TV, while P&G is shifting away from using digital channels to narrowly target consumers.

My real bone to pick today is with the (at this point) largely false prophet that is hypertargeting. I'd like to see more agencies and brands pull back from expectations about the capabilities of extremely narrow targeting. You can think of paid advertising as buying access to an audience for your brand and what it offers, to which you can then message (hopefully effectively). The allure of hypertargeting is that your brand is, in an ideal world, able to reach only an audience of people who are likely, now or at some point down the line, to purchase and try whatever you're selling. Hypothetically speaking, you'd be able to avoid wasted ad spend and maximize efficiency and impact, all of which are music to budget-conscious marketing managers' and CMOs' ears.

But there are a few problems: technologically and practically speaking, it just doesn't really work as well as folks would have you believe at this point. We'll surely see continued development of ad targeting capabilities and data collection & deployment, but for now it's simply impossible to have a clear vision into consumer interests and needs (the equivalent to your audience in a fishbowl), so there's naturally waste. Today's platforms frankly aren't nearly as capable of extreme precision and accuracy as vendors have asserted (which brands are now realizing). As a result, you miscue with things like messaging and the minutiae of hypertargeting, i.e. blasting a household's devices for Tide, but the people using the targeted devices who ends up seeing the ad simply doesn't have a say in the detergent purchase process ("He's too close for missiles, Goose. I'm switching to guns," and then you still miss). Or you've reached them with a message at a time when it simply won't make a dent, so your extreme targeting efforts have gone to waste.

Moreover, strategic overallocation of resources to reach audiences most likely to purchase your product ignores the fact that your brand needs to continue to reach new consumers (i.e. ever broaden your consumer base) to continue to grow. Putting blinders on and blasting consumers nearer to purchase with your message is a lot like sacrificing your bottom line for the sake of your top line. You can erode the health of your business in the long run by not developing a healthier balance of conversion-focused messaging with awareness level growth. If your base dries up or you exhaust your audience, it doesn't matter how narrowly you can focus your message if you're out of potential consumers.

In that case, for a business like P&G with a handful of iconic brands who can target the whole audience with messaging that emotionally resonates at the fundamental core of what the broad swathe of U.S. consumers share and believe, broad Facebook and Google targeting works just as well. Residual waste (people who see your ad but aren't in the market for your product) gets mitigated by reaching a lot more potential buyers than hypertargeting, swelling your messaged audience. I'm painting with a broad brush here, but my point is that targeting efforts should be dialed up and down based on who your brand is, who you're trying to reach and with what message, and the state of your market and audience development.

Upon reading these headlines about Heineken and P&G, what will inevitably come up for agency and in-house marketing teams alike is, "Should we be doing that, too?" And my response is...well, it depends. Take a step back. If you're an iconic brand that targets the whole market, give it a shot. And it could be advantageous if your product and audience reside at the end of either pole: if you sell commodities at very high volumes on the mass market, or you sell very expensive items to truly needle-in-the-hay-stack type consumers (think blow the hay away with a leafblower vs. straw-by-straw with tweezers) that would require targeting beyond the realistic capabilities of current capabilities, it's worth testing out. Keep your eye on performance and KPIs through the appropriate time windows, and see how it nets out. 

If you have a less widely consumed offering, or your brand's name isn't synonymous with the category name, you'll want to continue to maintain some balance of targeting and mass audience exposure. It's vital to your brand's and business' ongoing health.

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