A guide to audience targeting in the ‘cookie apocalypse’

It sounds a little blasé these days but a product can only ever be as good as its customer. So it makes sense that at the heart of any successful marketing campaign is a well-defined customer base and target audience because no matter how great your product or service is, it seems a little unrealistic to assume that it can just be sold to everyone.

I’m not suggesting these products do not exist – just that it’s very rare. Even the ubiquitous Apple iPhone is not owned by every consumer with market access – some refuse technology altogether. 

When marketing anything it pays to know your target audience well and I mean really, really well. It should be composed of multiple richly-detailed buyer personas. Without this, you’re simply wasting your budget and throwing money onto the proverbial fire, or out the proverbial window. 

That’s not to say, of course, that it’s easy to get to know your target audience. In fact, there’s a pretty good argument for it being one of the most difficult parts of any marketing campaign and this is all before we take into account that defining custom audiences is about to get even trickier.

That’s because Google is set to follow in Apple’s footsteps and ban third-party cookies.

You see, if marketers already struggle to use demographic and psychographic data and analytics from previous campaigns to define their target audience, when the so-called ‘Cookie apocalypse’ gets here, it’s only going to get even trickier.

Until now, one of the things that differentiated digital marketing from traditional marketing is that marketers can rely on their ability to intimately know users, as they can follow them across multiple sites and serve highly targeted ads due. A lot of this is about to change, and it’s likely to have a profound impact on the world of digital marketing and force marketers to look for alternative options.

Google is set to pull cookies from Chrome by 2022, meaning it’s time marketers get prepared for the inevitable. So today, we thought we’d put together a detailed guide to help you to really get your head around audience targeting in general.

We’ll take a look at what audience targeting is, how it’s used by digital marketing agencies as well as some of the more specific aspects, including demographics and psychographics. 

Then, we’ll look at what exactly Google and Apple’s war on cookies, and against each other, what user tracking is, and how this change will affect the marketing landscape.

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    Audience targeting without cookies. Doesn't sound so yum, does it?
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    Audience targeting without cookies. Doesn't sound so yum, does it?

    A quick introduction to audience targeting

    Audience targeting, when done successfully, makes users feel as though websites really get them – whether they’re being served organic content or advertising material.

    YouTube and Netflix are pretty much industry leaders when it comes to consistently showing their users organic content they want to see. 

    In advertising, this can sometimes be done so creepily well – especially when audience segments are properly defined – that users feel they are being ‘watched’.

    Ooo, scary.

    As we said, in any sort of marketing at all, whether traditional or digital media – you cannot run a successful campaign without considering who your audience is.

    The definition of audience targeting (in digital marketing) is using data to segment customers on a number of different metrics – such as demographics, interests and psychographics – in order to reach not only the right person at the right time, but the right person on the right device or medium at the right time.

    It all sounds tricky, but hang with us here while we assure you there are plenty of ways to simplify this.

    Either way, audience targeting is highly necessary when it comes to a successful campaign because if it’s not done well, you’ll be wasting money by displaying your ads to customers who will just never progress through the marketing funnel, nor will they ever convert.

    How do I find my target audience?

    So, you know that ad campaigns have to be targeted. But when it comes to targeting, where to begin?

    The key to being able to successfully target your audience is, unsurprisingly, data, data and more data. 

    Demographics v. Psychographics

    There are two concepts to keep in mind as we delve a bit deeper into audience targeting. 

    Admittedly, these are both very big, fancy words – but they underpin every successful attempt to pinpoint your target audience or “perfect customer”. 

    Bear with us for a moment as we start with the very basis of a target audience – demographic data. 

    Helpful demographics to think about include age, marital status, income, interests, location and gender.

    Knowing your age range, for example, is important when it comes to choosing which social media platforms to use, as we know which ages are more active across different socials. It’s also unlikely that you’re selling a product or service which is as appealing to a five-year-old as it is to a 50-year-old. 

    If you are, hats off to you.

    Likewise, knowing financial information and income is key because it helps you to consider appropriate price points for your business’ offerings, whether or not people will face any financial barriers to accessing your products and if they are likely to be repeat or one-time customers.

    But demographics are only the beginning – especially because a lot of the time, simply too many people fit into each demographic for it to be helpful. 

    So, there’s also (of course) a buzz-word that’s too good to ignore. If you haven’t heard of psychographics yet, you need to start thinking about them now. 

    It’s basically a way of segmenting customers based on their values, motivations and affinities rather than on simple demographics alone. Using this data, marketers can create really specific potential customer models. It’s how, for example, we can look at two 27 year old females working the same job and living in the same suburb in Sydney and separate them from one another.

    You see, while demographics can help you understand ‘who’ your buyer might be – as in, the dry hard facts, psychographics are much more interesting in that they can explain ‘why’ they buy.

    This is because psychographics goes further than demographics to study consumers based on psychological characteristics like values, desires, goals, interests and lifestyle choices.

    When it comes to psychographics, Marty Weintraub is at the forefront of the industry. His company Aimclear is pushing further and further into this field. He says Facebook was one of the first channels to really embrace psychographic targeting purely because it was the first to have the ability to do so.

    It was originally pretty basic because Facebook could see when somebody was interested in a particular topic, it was easy to serve them ads that matched this interest. But, it became even easier to target specific audiences when you can combine interests – say people who are interested in both ‘dance’ and ‘scuba diving’. 

    Within this particular set of interests, the addition of the word ‘and’ meant shrinking the audience to make it more specific. Being able to layer like this, says Weintraub, means less wasted spend. 

    He also says that Facebook is unique with its ‘exclusion’ category. This means that it is possible to not serve ads to people who are uninterested in your products. 

    Psychographics is quite similar to behavioural segmentation – groups are created based on personal or individual characteristics.

    By themselves, neither demographics nor psychographics are enough. But when they’re combined, they are pretty powerful. Together, they are able to form the start of your buyer persona – more like a real person than simply hard facts you get from demographics alone. 

    What kind of traits or characteristics does psychographics tell us about?

    Personality

    Oftentimes, personality is measured against a five-factor model of traits people exhibit over time. One example could be extroversion which is defined as the extent that somebody gains their energy by spending time with other people.

    If you’re a sports company, for example and you find that most of your audience are extroverts, you’re probably not going to run a successful campaign selling running shoes where running is seen as a solo activity, for example.

    Instead, you’d probably be much better off gearing your campaigns towards groups of people out jogging together, or people playing sport.

    Lifestyle

    Lifestyle is simply people’s day to day activities, who and what brands they associate with, where they live and where they hang out. These can be pretty broad, and to measure it or describe it requires tapping into an array of factors – but you can imagine that ad campaigns to target parents would be different from those that target their childless peers.

    Values, Opinions & Beliefs

    Then things get a little bit more blurry here. Oftentimes, things like religion or cultural background can shape an individual’s world-view, but so can their beliefs on social justice.

    If you are a home-delivery meal service and you find that many of your customers are eco-conscious, you might consider offering vegan options or advertising that your produce is locally grown and packaging is biodegradable. 

    Another example might be clothing companies that specifically target conservative, religious women. You’re unlikely to do well if all of your models are wearing skimpy bikinis, right? 

    So how exactly do you obtain psychographics?

    The easiest way to obtain psychographics is simply to start off by interviewing the clients you already have. Ask questions that go beyond simple data gathering. One easy way would be sending out a survey that asks customers what they actually care about.

    Instagram or Facebook polls are great because they don’t require a lot of time or effort on behalf of the customer – the social media sites already have personal information, and just need the actual questions answered. 

    As we know from our own personal behaviour as well as in-depth research – social media users have got pretty lazy and we are all used to being able to do whatever we need to do with relative ease.

    If you have to direct people through a very lengthy survey, you’re probably going to get fewer responses through Facebook or Instagram, especially if they need to leave the actual platform in order to answer your questions. 

    You can also do some research yourself looking at what kinds of social profiles people are following you on, and what these people have in common. 

    A more in-depth way can be by conducting focus groups. Focus groups are a decades-old practice when it comes to digital marketing, and even though they require a little more effort than a survey, they are likely to give you a deeper insight into a very specific segment of your target audience.  

    Then, it’s time to look at website analytics – what has previously been influential in getting clicks and conversions on your site. 

    Google Analytics also has an entire section dedicated to the interests of your website visitors – it’s possible to see what they are into, split via categories like travel, cooking or music. 

    You might notice from this that a lot of people are into cooking/food – you can publish content about recipes, run events at up and coming restaurants in town or advertise on podcasts that we know a lot of people listen to while cooking. 

    People often betray their own motivations when they undertake a particular action – whether or not they mean to, so if you can see that a particular offer or discount code worked well in the past – it, or similar, is likely to work well in the future. 

    Once you’ve figured out a couple of basic psychographic profiles – it’s time to figure out where you’ll find these potential customers. 

    This is why digital marketing campaigns generally target different psychographic profiles across different channels. If you know where your target customer is spending most of their time, you can reach out to them there. 

    For example, after conducting your audience research and customer surveys, you might discover that almost none of your existing customers are using Pinterest. In this case, you may as well stop advertising there altogether. 

    Instead, you may have uncovered that a lot of your customers are on Facebook – so it pays to focus your efforts here instead. Try to focus on one or a few key platforms – rather than cross-posting over many – and once you discover what kind of content really resonates with your audience, stick to it. 

    A/B testing is a good one to get around – if you’re not already doing it, of course. It’s an easy way of testing the content before it actually goes live and it helps you to improve it, ultimately saving you money in the end. 

    Then, of course, there’s the hyper-personalisation that social channels offer – allowing you to run one ad, but personalised for various audiences or segments. An easy example with our content at Ambire would be changing the language to shift from focusing on marketing professionals to business owners – they all like the same kinds of content, it just needs to be framed in a different way. 

    The same kinds of A/B testing strategies often pay off here. 

    So, once you’ve established a thorough understanding of who exactly is buying your products, and where they are most likely to be found online – what comes next? 

    What do psychographics do?

    Once you begin to get an understanding of your target audience and buyer, it’s time to go even further. 

    Start asking yourself what it would take to get these particular people within your target audience to actually pay for your product. What separates them from the ones that will never convert?

    What results do people want to see from the purchase of your product? What would stop them from making a purchase? What exactly drives them to stay on a website? 

    You’ve also got to consider your classic marketing funnel – think about the buyer’s journey from start to finish, and make you sure you’ve got advertising there at every step of the way to continue pushing them along to the end conversion. 

    Segmentation

    Once you’ve got all of this information – you’ve got four ways of segmenting your audience. Here’s a quick summary. 

    The first segment is obviously demographic – the driest of them all. As we said before, demographics are not the most interesting – but you still need to be able to separate your audience on age, gender, ethnicity and religion, location and income. 

    Then, there’s geographic segmentation – referring to where your target audience lives, of course. This is necessary when your content discusses regional issues or you’re a local business and it also helps inform a useful social media posting strategy.

    Behavioural segmentation is all about looking at people’s purchasing and loyalty behaviour – why they buy.

    Then, psychographics which go a little further, allowing you to ask more – what beliefs and values helped contribute the reason behind why somebody purchased something.

    When it comes to deciding on your target audience – don’t forget to check up on the competition. 

    Can you identify who they are targeting, and how they are doing it? 

    A pretty powerful example is Nike’s audience targeting. We all know that they are a sports equipment company, but they specifically target promising athletes who want to succeed. 

    This is why their ads are so motivational and why they often are at the forefront of the sporting industry – and why they have such high profile celebrities who endorse them. They very rarely mention their products in their advertising, instead focusing on selling ‘motivation’ and ‘inspiration’. 

    Audience Targeting across the Major Ads Platforms

    Google Ads

    We all know by now just how important it is to use Google Ads. We’ve mentioned it time and time again on the blog, but Google’s market share is just so enormous that if you’re not advertising there, you are probably missing out on a lot of a potential customers.  

    In fact, there’s even an argument to be made that Google Ads might be able to rule the world if they wanted to. 

    Moreover, because Google has such incredible analytics – it’s actually quite easy to be specific when it comes to audience targeting with the search engine giant.

    One simple way of targeting with Google Ads is using its features to target customers who are researching your product and services. This is often called targeting the “in-market audience” – they are the ones already out there wanting your product or service anyway.

    This is not the best way of really widening your marketing funnel, of course, but it is a very cost-effective way of marketing. After all, if somebody is already searching for a new car and you serve them an ad for your particular vehicles – it’s pretty likely you’re going to see some clicks and conversion. 

    It’s also a good way of reaching out to customers that have high buying intent – and we all know it’s about bang for your buck when it comes to digital marketing. 

    The other fantastic thing about Google Ads (although we might be seeing shifts in this area as we shift towards a cookie-less future more on that later) is that it effectively allows you to remarket. 

    So, using psychographics alongside what we know about previous buyer behaviour, you’re actually able to ensure that customers who have already visited the website are served ads for your products again.  

    Google Ads also have some really fantastic ways of using and assigning existing audiences, as well as letting you set up A/B testing to see which particular clusters and campaigns are most effective.

    Facebook Ads

    Facebook is another big player in the online marketing game – in fact, when it comes to audience targeting – the social media giant is pretty much unrivalled.

    After all, Facebook is a personalised data platform – it knows an awful lot about you, its users and advertisers can capitalise on this as the social media giant is able to share these learnings with advertisers. 

    Facebook actually gives you the option to target people based on their life events, for example – engagements, marriage or purchasing a new home. There are specific services that would be particularly appealing to people as they get to these kinds of stages in their lives. 

    Facebook also helps you build customer loyalty, and target leads that may already have been generated. This is through their Custom Audiences which enable you to upload your customer phone or email list to the platform. It also works in the opposite way, allowing you to exclude your existing customer list – which would be useful if you were to offer a free trial, for example. 

    The layered targeted options provided by Facebook are very specific, you can literally get it down to people living in a certain suburb and earning a certain amount of money in a particular career. If you can understand the needs and intent of a given Facebook segment, you can tap into some very specific markets.

    Facebook also allows you to tap into customer bases that are similar to your own, and will create mirror audiences for you.

    The ‘Cookie Apocalypse’

    One of the storms that’s about to hit the digital marketing world is the so-called ‘Cookie Apocalypse’. From 2022, Google will move to essentially nullify one of the most taken for granted aspects of digital marketing – the cookie. 

    They are following in the footsteps of Apple, as the tech giant has been waging a war on the advertising world since early 2017, when their Intelligent Tracking Protection (ITP) was born. 

    In the name of consumer privacy, Apple constantly thwarted ad platforms, and now Google Chrome is set to follow this. Considering Chrome holds upwards of 60% of the market share – this is big news. 

    Some say this will render up to 85% of digital marketing completely useless. Tracking cookies is actually already banned in Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox, but once Chrome goes, almost all of the cookies are gone. 

    This will have a fundamental impact on the way we market, driving a shift from hyper-targeting based solely on third-party collected data to a need for businesses to do their own collection of user data. 

    One thing is for certain, it is not going to be easy for everyone. 

    What are cookies?

    Let’s start with the real basics before we dive in any further to the cookie-land. Unfortunately, there are no chocolate chips around here – much to everyone’s dismay I’m sure. 

    A computer cookie, then,is not only much less tasty than its real-world counterpart, but it is actually able to store information. It can also be more formally known as a HTTP cookie, an Internet cookie, web cookie or even a magic cookie – no matter which name, cookies are packets of information that a computer receives and thens sends back without altering it in any way.

    When you visit a website, it’s the site itself that sends the cookie to your computer, which then stores the file inside your browser.

    But why?

    Well, websites use the data they store in cookies to keep track of your visits and activity. 

    A lot of the time, this can be really helpful to users. It means passwords or login information can be stored, or your shopping cart can remain full as you browse a site. If there were no cookies, when you clicked on another page, the cart would revert to 0. 

    Within the cookie family, there are different sorts, including session cookies which disappear when you leave the site, tracking cookies which create long-term records and authentication cookies which track whether or not a user is logged in. 

    Some viruses or malware can be disguised as cookies, but most people’s spring from security or privacy issues. Third-party cookies, which are the ones under fire, make it very easy for parties you cannot identify to watch where you are going and what you are doing online. 

    What’s the impact for digital marketing?

    Without cookies, advertisers are going to have access to much less data than before. They’ve been able to track users across sites and then display ads which are hyper-relevant.

    You’ve probably noticed this yourself when you’re browsing online. You might pay a visit to a hotel booking site, and then you’ll notice while on a completely separate site, you’ll be served ads for hotel rooms, but you’ll also be served ads for other holiday related purchases, like flights or clothing.

    Apple was probably the first to make bold moves by making Intelligent Tracking Protection almost impenetrable. 

    As Google gets set to go down the same track, advertising platforms won’t be able to track users across sites using unique identifiers. This reduces the platforms’ knowledge of users, and therefore makes it more and more difficult to create such hyper-targeted campaigns. 

    Analytics platforms which rely on first-party cookies are also likely to be affected. Apple’s latest ITP says that first-party cookies now have a shelf life of seven days, so if the buying cycle is any longer, there’s a significant problem for the advertiser. 

    What are we going to do without them?

    The fact that advertisers cannot track users to the extent they currently can means all digital marketing activities are about to become much more reliant on context. This means using the site the user is visiting as the basis for what ads they will be served, rather than knowledge about them individually. 

    It will become impossible to rely on prospecting tactics like running ads to target lookalike audience – people who already share the same characteristics as the existing audience. This data just won’t be available any more. 

    It also means that it’s about to become much more difficult for advertisers to measure performance. One way this has historically been done is by running experiments to understand which ad groups were more effective. 

    With third-party cookies no longer an option, it becomes much more difficult to split the audience and accurately test the results of one particular ad over another. The reason for this is obviously that it’s harder to ensure users in the control group are not exposed to the ad, making it much more difficult to measure exposure. 

    It means returning to the ‘old days’ when advertisers and marketers had to rely on intuition, rather than tracking, to ensure audiences are served the most appropriate ads.

    Apple and now Google are also cracking down on the use of analytics platforms which previously allowed businesses to share first-party cookies with advertisers. This will make attribution modelling a significant challenge, as any accurate modelling outside of sites like Google or Facebook will be very difficult. 

    The other impact, of course, will be on the technologies that your business has already invested in. Anything that relies on third-party, or even first-party cookies will be essentially defunct – think DMPs and the likes. 

    Is it all bad news?

    Luckily, no.

    The cookie-less future will also push marketers and the marketing industry back to focusing on quality rather than quantity of interactions. 

    Until now, a lot of digital marketing has relied on the ability to serve incredibly targeted ads to users within the few seconds that they open a particular website. This, unfortunately, is no longer going to be a feature. 

    It’s not even the death of data, of course, but is the death of lazy tactics. 

    After all, ever since the emergence of programmatic advertising in the late 90s, advertisers started needing wild amounts of data to ensure ads were being put in front of the right people at the right time. 

    This insatiable need for data has been responded to by landmark data privacy legislation in the EU and the US in the last few years. 

    Consumers have a new desire to know how their data is being used and who by. 

    The thing is, cookies have not always been that perfect anyway and there are still plenty of audience targeting options available to you. 

    Of course, your own first-party data, for brands, will still be available, and will still tell a good story. Marketing funnels will need to be even more well thought-out in order to keep an eye on an individual’s interactions with the brand. 

    One big difference will be a brand or website’s need to encourage positive identification of site visitors. 

    You may have noticed that big brands are already doing this – The Guardian, for example is one news company which, even though it is not moving towards a paywall, it needs users to positively identify themselves so they can serve more personalised ads. 

    Tapping into these so-called ‘walled gardens’ won’t be cheap – especially because the two largest walled gardens on the market are Facebook and Google. As you can imagine, going into competition with these big players is a difficult task.

    But these sources of data are authenticated, making the information they can provide to marketers extremely useful. 

    This doesn’t replace the need for companies to stop building and encouraging the development of their own customer database. 

    This kind of focus on real ‘identity’ rather than cookies will be really important as brands move forwards and look for solutions beyond data collection. 

    Obviously, the difficulty here is how exactly you encourage site visitors to sign up? Whether this is through mailing lists or site blocks, some businesses and brands will need to completely rethink their entire digital presence. 

    Loyalty and engagement schemes will be the other way that potential customers can be encouraged to identify themselves, and will be one way that brands will remain capable of tracking users across a variety of metrics – including spend, demographics and trends. 

    Privacy concerns will of course have to be alleviated first, but once these are, customers will want to share their information – if, and as long as, there are genuine benefits for the customers. 

    If you can incentivise customers to share their personal data, these kinds of brands are very much likely to succeed. 

    Take inspiration from companies such as Qantas – no matter how badly they might be hit at the moment, they are truly winning the loyalty game. 

    Google, Facebook and Amazon, like other social media sites, will continue to retain user information, and marketers will be encouraged to leverage their data and insights. The thing is, the big companies actually own their data, and so they will continue to retain this. Companies come to them. Unsurprisingly, these companies are going to win and marketers will be encouraged to properly integrate their campaigns with these networks. 

    The bright part comes, however, because the end of cookies signal a kind of reset to marketing firms and advertisers’ relationships with consumers. 

    That’s not to say that there won’t be issues – especially in the short term. Even for consumers, they’re likely to notice that where once ads seemed uncannily specific, they are now going to border on just laughably wrong. 

    Now is the time for smaller companies to start investing in their own collection of first-party data. As soon as Chrome removes cookies – those who are still behind the curve and relying on third-party cookies from other companies are going to suffer. 

    An alternative form of targeting is to implement mobile ad ID (MAID). This is an extremely advanced form of technology which allows advertisers to track the location of their target audience based off the information their mobile provides. For example, if you notice someone spends a lot of time at the pool, you can market specific swimming or water sports products to them. 

    The only thing to watch out for, of course, would be the constant updates to Apple’s iOS platform which is attempting to limit tracking of any kind as much as possible. 

    Conclusions?

    Let’s not leave this on such a negative note – after all, it seems like every week someone is posting online about how and why the digital marketing industry is dead and done. 

    People have wanted brands to respond to their privacy concerns for a long time – and finally, major companies are being forced to do so. 

    The cookie-less future is almost upon us – it’s time that advertisers and companies step up to the plate. 

    Audience targeting is set to become more difficult as we can no longer rely on these highly targeted packets of data. Instead, brands and businesses will need to work on other ways to engage customers.

    Loyalty programs will have a lot to do with this, as companies need to find ways to encourage them to part with their personal information as it benefits them to do so. 

    It will pay to get back to basics when it comes to audience targeting. 

    After all, no matter how technological marketing campaigns become – there can be no product destined for every single person on the planet.

    This is why it pays to do your research. Who is your ideal buyer persona? 

    Demographics, as we spoke about, are only one key aspect of defining your target audience. 

    Helpful demographics to think about include age, marital status, income, interests, location and gender.

    These are the ‘who’, but you need to delve one step further and deeper – looking at psychographics. These metrics tell us about people’s interests, beliefs and values – helping you really get in the skin of your audience. 

    Being able to differentiate from within specific demographics is important. If you can split, say, two females who work in the same profession, are the same age and live in the same suburb – your content and ad campaigns can be incredibly specific. 

    As we move ahead into our cookie-less future, marketing will change. But the more we all get used to the ‘new normal’, the more innovative solutions brands and marketers will invent and implement. 

    Sometimes a rest from cookies can do us all a world of good. 

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