Age is just a number - why it's time to prioritise interest over demographic

25 Sep 2018  |  Carl White 
Age is just a number - why it's time to prioritise interest over demographic

Approaches that depend on demographic data alone face a tough fight to retain relevance in a programmatic and micro-targeted world, writes Nano Interactive's Carl White

Demographic targeting is alive and well according to UKOM’s Ian Dowds in a recent article for Mediatel. But, while I agree with him that advertisers have become a little too fond of “the death of...” proclamations, when it comes to the demise of demographics, those predictions are borne out by reality.

The reason for this comes down to a trend that’s been present in our sector since the early days of digital advertising – the unstoppable drive towards personalisation.

Demographic targeting is really an echo from our offline days when we had no choice but to lump people together into categories and hope that we hit the target. We’ve since discovered that consumers come in all different shapes, sizes, preferences, likes and backgrounds. No two people are the same – even if, on paper, they do fit neatly into the same age demographic.

Yes, demographic data today is a whole lot more sophisticated than it used to be, but why bother with even the most finely segmented demographic when you can serve one-to-one ads in real-time based on an individual’s interests, and all completely anonymously? Because, and I’m not exaggerating here, that’s exactly what marketers can now do.

State your intent

Ian Dowds is right to be sceptical towards programmatic advertising - cookie targeting has never been as effective as was promised and made our industry potentially vulnerable to fraud. However, programmatic represents an approach that will outgrow and transcend even the cookie. Programmatic advocates look for ways to automate and scale media trading safely and the emerging category of intent based targeting offers an intriguing and progressive approach that can thrive even in the cookie free world.

However, programmatic represents an approach that will outgrow and transcend even the cookie. Programmatic advocates look for ways to automate and scale media trading safely and the emerging category of intent based targeting offers an intriguing and progressive approach that can thrive even in the cookie free world.

If you’re not familiar with it, intent marketing involves identifying and acting on actual signals of interest in a product or service, as opposed to pinpointing audiences based purely on retrospective profile or demographic data. It’s nothing new, of course; marketers have been using intent targeting for many years. The difference now is artificial intelligence and machine learning have taken it to a whole new level, particularly in the field of search-based analysis.

Through AI techniques, we’re now able to create detailed maps of a user’s search activity to better predict their interests and deliver them targeted brand messages in relevant environments. It’s an approach which, frankly, leaves demographic data in the shade.

What a consumer wants, a consumer gets

No matter how finely tuned your marketing segment is, there’s likely always going to be someone on the receiving end who isn’t right for the message. Because of ad blockers, consumers don’t have to just passively accept this. They can vote with their feet and block all ads entirely, undermining the sustainability of online media.

Alongside ad blockers, consumers also have the Coalition for Better Ads, which is essentially giving them a voice within our industry to demand a better user experience. Their calls will only get louder and marketers cannot afford to let any consumer slip through the net. That’s why, going forward, demographic targeting will increasingly struggle to meet our needs.

With intent marketing, however, you’re not serving ads to segmented groups of consumers, you’re serving them to individuals who have given a genuine signal of interest in your product or service. As the need for precision and relevance increases, intent marketing is becoming a no brainer.

The other thing to remember is that demographic targeting is becoming an increasingly risky option in the current regulatory climate. GDPR has made it much harder to store cookie and demographic-based data without infringing on the privacy rights of the consumer. The fines for doing this can be astronomical.

To avoid these risks, digital marketers will increasingly need to evolve away from retrospective analysis and pivot towards real-time, ‘in the moment’ targeting of consumer behaviour - exactly what intent-based strategies deliver.

The last rites for demographic data

OK, it hasn’t come to that just yet. The level of innovation we’re seeing in marketing tech could see demographics evolve into something far more sophisticated and consumer-centric – in which case, I’ll happily eat my own words.

But, as things currently stand, our continual drive towards personalisation and relevance in advertising will eventually leave broad demographic data far behind. Is demographic targeting going to deliver relevancy to every consumer you target? No. Is it going to sit well in our post-GDPR world? No, again.

So, why turn back the clock? Approaches that depend on demographic data alone face a tough fight to retain relevance in a programmatic and micro-targeted world where signals of user intent can deliver marketers relevance in real time.


Carl White is co-founder and group CEO of Nano Interactive


CORRECTION: This article was updated 26 September at 16:55. The original misquoted UKOM's Ian Dowds in the first paragraph in 'State your intent' section. The new copy addresses this mistake.

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NigelJacklin, MD, Think Media Consultancy on 1 Oct 2018
“Worth thinking about...how do you encourage 'intent.' Perhaps advertising to a broader group than those who've expressed an interest in your product/service/category might help generate more demand or support a higher price. And you might capture some of those people who've not generated the right data for you to spot their intent.”
IanDowds, CEO, UKOM on 27 Sep 2018
“1. In your comment below: "of course demographics won’t actually die!" In your article: "proclamations [of the death of demographics]...are borne out by reality." Confusing.
2. Four trade bodies, covering every constituency of the advertising industry, all championing through UKOM independent and objective measurement using it, means that demographic data doesn't need saving.
3. I agree: 'behavioural,' 'interest-based' and 'intent-based' segmentation all have a place too. Please carry on marketing their many benefits. Just do it without erroneously dismissing demographics. There's a richer and broader marketing world out there than the purely programmatic one. Market insight and strategic, communications and media planning all come before online activation.
4. Apology accepted and delighted to continue the dialogue off-line.”
CarlWhite, Group CEO, Nano Interactive on 27 Sep 2018
“Firstly apologies. In my eagerness to put my position across it looks like I misquoted you. Sorry about that.
This has now been corrected.
I’m a passionate believer in using real time signals of intent for targeting and as a means of finding a relevant audience this approach will be one of the fastest growing in the ecosystem in 2019.
Don’t even get me started on how AI and machine learning will contribute to the party!
Approaches like ‘Interest-based’ and ‘behavioural’ will continue to be important and of course demographics won’t actually die! Simply being in ‘widespread usage’ won’t save them though.
UKOM’s ‘current governance of an establishment-survey based demographic segmentation of UK’s online audience’ is highly valued. Meanwhile Amazon’s (intent driven) advertising business is exploding and advertisers want to understand how they can get an edge.
Intent targeting will take its place as a very important part of the discussion in a marketing department near you very soon.
Let’s keep talking!”
IanDowds, CEO, UKOM on 26 Sep 2018
“Well, you didn’t really expect radio silence did you?!

“The predictions [of the demise of demographics] are borne out by reality.” Where is Carl’s evidence of that reality? My original piece referenced a recent Lotame report, based on 300 advertisers across Brand, Digital & Programmatic advertising, showing Demographic targeting continuing as their no.1 segmentation. ‘Interest based’ & ‘Behavioural’ were 4th & 6th on the list. I guess Nano Interactive’s ‘intent based’ audience segmentation sits somewhere under either, or both. Certainly valued; just not seeing such widespread application as demographics.

Lotame’s report was merely a springboard. My view of the continued importance of demographics is more based on what my Board members and UKOM’s Technical & Commercial Boards tell me is important. The IAB, AOP, ISBA all co-own UKOM & the IPA are represented on my Board. All have members on the Tech and Commercial Boards. That’s pretty much the entire industry with significant & continuous input into UKOM’s current governance of an establishment-survey-based demographic segmentation of UK’s online audience. THAT is a reality.

Carl is right to expound potential merits in the personalisation of advertising. It’s a fascinating space. Technical & commercial capabilities will continue to grow. Hopefully Nano Interactive & others like it that are also JICWEBs certified & registered for the IAB Gold standard, will drive that evolution. The importance of behavioural, interest based or intent based marketing is not to be dismissed. Who knows, one day there may be a defined, objective industry governed standard for that part of the market?

But Carl is wrong to dismiss demographics: “why bother with even the most finely segmented demographic?” Because there is a bigger picture. One in which a broad marketing industry is championing the value of establishment surveys and cross-industry, independent & objective measurement. It doesn’t reflect very well on businesses who appear unaware of it.

p.s.There is much I could take issue with here but I must highlight references to things I simply did not write: 1.) “specifically [Ian] argues that cookie targeting has never been as effective as was originally promised.” Where did I argue that (specifically or otherwise)?
2.)“[Ian argues] importantly that [programmatic] made our industry potentially vulnerable to fraud.” Again, where? I never mentioned fraud.”

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10 Dec 2018 

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