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How to identify and fix off-target ad personalisation

10 minute read

Polly Kay
Polly Kay

Ad personalisation is one of the latest buzz-phrases to make it into the vocabulary of modern marketers, and for good reason. 74% of online consumers are frustrated when adverts, offers and promotions aren’t bespoke-tailored and relevant to their interests, and yet 93% of businesses see an uplift in conversion rates when website content is personalised.

Looking at the big picture, it is fair to say that consumers in every niche and industry respond positively to well executed ad personalisation, and most businesses using any form of automated ad placement tech have the ability to personalise their content to meet the needs of their individual prospects, albeit not all of them make use of it.

59% of consumers who received personally tailored ad content state that it significantly influences their purchasing decisions, but Segment’s 2017 report on the State of Personalisation indicates that only 22% of consumers are satisfied with the level and accuracy of personalisation they tend to receive.

However, overly-intrusive or off-target ad personalisation can actually freak your prospects out and discourage them from making a purchase; which is a problem that can be a challenge for businesses to identify and fix.

In this article, I will explain why poor and off-target marketing campaigns and ad personalisation can hamper your growth and curtail otherwise viable revenue streams, and how to identify and fix problems of this type.

What type of marketing content can be personalised?

Marketing and ad personalisation comes in many guises; from email mailshots that address each individual prospect by name to personally tailored programmatic ads to in-website product suggestions that are bespoke-tailored according to the search patterns of each user. This is just the beginning, and new applications for ad personalisation are being found and utilised continually in order to give modern marketers an edge in today’s competitive digital marketplace.

Even televised ads within subscription-based on-demand streaming services offered by brands like Channel 4 are prime territory for ad personalisation, and virtually any form of marketing collateral you can think of can be personalised, if you have the insights and tech at your disposal to enable it.

However, ad personalisation needs to be handled carefully in order to ensure that firstly, you get your personalisation on target and make it work for you rather than against you, and secondly, so that your consumer insights aren’t so good that they actually put prospects off because they feel as if their privacy has been invaded.

Being able to personalise ad content in the right way means ensuring that you’re working with accurate data in the first place, and this is one of the main problems faced by businesses and brands that seek to offer a more personalised ad experience in order to boost revenue.

The value of personalised ads and how they can boost your ROI

Research has shown time and again that online shoppers want personalised content, and that they would prefer to see fewer ads that are better tailored to meet their needs than a large volume of irrelevant ads, which makes perfect sense.

Personalisation works for both obvious reasons and more obscure ones; if you offer a prospect something they already want or have shown an interest in they are of course exponentially more likely to purchase it, particularly if you incentivise the deal with an offer or discount. However, personalisation works in part simply because it makes each prospect feel valued and recognised as an individual.

Using a prospect’s own name makes a connection with them, and speaking in a tone and style that resonates with them generates a feeling of familiarity and comfort that is apt to make prospects think that your brand and products are in line with their preferences and ethos.

Anything that you can do to engage prospects on a personal level to make them feel recognised and valued and seen as individuals not only enhances your chances of making a sale but also, makes your prospects look more favourably upon your brand in the first place.

The pitfalls of poor ad targeting and off-target campaigns

All of the advantages that ad personalisation can bring are negated if your ad targeting is poor, or inappropriate for your target audience. Off-target personalised ads can generate a number of reactions in your would-be prospects, and none of them are likely to be good.

Ads that aren’t relevant to your prospects’ interests or that confuse them because they don’t know why they’re being shown a certain type of ad will either blend into the background or annoy your prospects in the same manner that spam emails can.

If your prospects find that your targeted ads are overly intrusive, make assumptions or simply know too much about them and their browsing history or internet use, they are apt to find this discomfiting and invasive, which means that those ads won’t work and will also make your prospects suspicious and aversive about your brand and offers.

All of this means that poor ad targeting not only costs you money on wasted ad impressions that won’t convert, but also, that off-target ads are apt to compromise perception of your brand and make prospects question your integrity in terms of what sort of information you hold about them, how you came by it, and what you intend to do with it.

How to identify and fix off-target ad personalisation

In order to fix the issues that off-target ad personalisation can bring, you first need to be able to identify them in the first place, work out why things went wrong, and redesign your ad collateral to correct it.

Next, I’ll outline some of the most common issues that lead to off-target ad personalisation and share tips on how to fix them.

Audience demographic and segmentation problems

Perhaps the most common cause of ad targeting gone awry is audience demographic and segmentation errors and problems at the early stages of the process, when you’re identifying viable target demographics and segmenting them up into workable audience groups.

Identifying viable prospect groups can be hard work and may take a lot of time, and it is all too easy to try to take shortcuts by making assumptions or assigning certain traits to prospect groups because they fit in with your expectations or projections for how the group will behave. However, shortcutting things at this stage will almost always cause problems further on down the line, and most ad targeting problems can be traced back to poor or weak demographic segmentation at the outset.

The first challenge faced by marketers drawing up a personalised ad campaign is how to segment up their larger prospect pool into smaller groups that can be personalised effectively. This ensures that you don’t waste time and effort devising strategies to deliver personalised content for audiences that aren’t properly understood, aren’t likely to convert, or that are too small to be viable.

Determining the important commonalities between audience groups as opposed to the irrelevant ones that can form the basis of your personalisation data is essential too. Hard datapoints like age and gender are often vital to build up audience demographic pictures, but they’re unlikely to be enough on their own to form the basis of an effective sales campaign.

A known interest in or purchase of a product of a type that you offer, or shared interests with others that have purchased from you in the past are both valuable datapoints if you get them right, but they do need to be handled carefully to avoid off-target promotions that will appear either overly intrusive, or miss the mark entirely.

It is also important to remember that people and their tastes and interests evolve over time, and this needs to be reviewed regularly to ensure that you aren’t missing a potential buyer pool, or targeting one that has long since moved on.

To avoid or correct audience demographic and segmentation problems, work back from hard data that is consistent and relevant to the group in question and trace it back through the buyer journey to identify what brought that prospect to you in the first place and why – such as a keyword search or specific promotion. Then, identify where you could personalise the customer experience for those same prospects, how it would add value for them, and where it might be too intrusive or overused.

What personalisation looks like to the targets of your campaigns

To make ad personalisation effective, you have to view it through the eyes of the targets of your campaign and assess how it looks to them; how relevant it is, how noticeable, how timely, and how likely to convert or incentivise.

All too many SMEs seeking to personalise the customer experience get as far as personalising mailshots and similar content with each individual prospects’ name and congratulating themselves on a job well done, rather than assessing the relevance of the offer’s content itself.

Whilst using the name of your prospect can help to boost brand perception and enhance the buyer experience, it is rarely enough to give prospects that final push they need to achieve a conversion.

Your personalisation needs to be not only accurate (such as using the correct name, at its simplest) but also relevant. For instance, if you sell skin and haircare products and want to offer prospects offers and promotions for a certain type of product, any one individual product is unlikely to meet the needs of all of your prospects based on an interest in skin and haircare alone.

A named offer of products designed for straight European hair is not going to resonate with people with curly or Afro hair, and not only will such targeting miss the mark for those prospects who fall outside of the niche, but it is also likely to annoy them. 

If you don’t have the right information to personalise content (such as within the above example, if you are unable to segment beauty and skincare fans according to their needs and preferences) then you can’t personalise it effectively, and it will ring off-key with many, if not most, of your prospects.

Keep seeking and collating information on your prospects, use opportunities to request information that will better help you to serve their needs, and review the full prospect journey through your personalisation funnel to identify if it fails certain members of a given demographic.

If you do find that this is the case, you might need to go back to the beginning with your segmentation and audience profiles, or alternatively, remove some of the personalisation that isn’t going to ring true for all of your prospects.

Issues with scalability

When you have determined what type of personalisation is likely to prove effective for any given audience demographic, you need to decide how and where to integrate different elements of it into the buyer journey. If you’re uncertain about the value or relevance of personalising a certain aspect of your approach, it may be better to keep it generic. Personalisation only works when it is relevant and well-timed, and can soon begin to work against you if it is overplayed or irrelevant.

However, working out how much content to personalise and where it provides value is not always easy. Personalising the initial ad collateral that a prospect sees (by means of a personalised offer, use of their name or something else that “calls” to them personally) is a good place to start, to catch attention and cause that initial spark of interest in the prospect’s mind that may later turn into a conversion.

The final stages of the sales funnel too, such as the checkout stage, is another good place to put the onus on personalisation, in order to avoid abandoned shopping carts and last-minute changes of mind.

In the middle stages, anywhere that you integrate a call to action may be a viable place to personalise, as is supporting ad collateral designed to re-incentivise a prospect that didn’t complete a purchase or that keeps returning to your site to browse but not buy.

When you go through the buyer journey from start to finish, obvious opportunities to personalise content will tend to become apparent once you start to get a feel for things, and you will also be able to begin to identify where personalisation isn’t appropriate, doesn’t enhance your content, or is too pushy.

To get to grips with scalability, you need to keep a close track of your analytic data and supporting collateral and review it on an ongoing basis to ensure it remains on target. For instance, if you’re achieving great results with your personalisation for one audience sector but not another, something is amiss; but next, you need to determine whether the problem is that your personalisation isn’t right for the group in question, or if they’re not a viable demographic group in the first place.

If you spot a problem or potential problem, it is only natural to wish to resolve it immediately, in order to avoid losing revenue or even compromising brand perception in the minds of your prospects for the long term. However, diving right in and making dramatic changes to your existing personalisation protocols can create more problems than it solves and causes you to inadvertently mess with the wrong things, or negate or alter personalisation points that on their own, were holding up.

To avoid this, make sure you’ve gotten to the bottom of what isn’t working and why before you start making adjustments, and keep changes small so that you can assess their positive or negative impact clearly before you start altering other things. Failing to approach things in this way is likely to result in a lot of misfires, and whether your new approach works or not, the chances are that you still won’t really know why if you alter too many things at once.

Another potential pitfall here is a tendency to assume that a misfire or error within the targeting and personalisation of one audience will also apply to others; so don’t dive straight in to making alterations across every group just because a certain approach or stage in the personalisation funnel isn’t pulling its weight across one demographic.

Ad personalisation done well is not only insightful, but also controlled. If you seem to know too much about your prospects, know things about them that they see as personal, or parse information from your data that enables you to project future wants and needs that miss the mark (or that are too intrusive), your prospects won’t respond well.

It can be tempting to integrate as much detailed personalisation as possible for your prospects, putting all of the data you have for them to use and taking up every opportunity to let your prospects know that you understand them and can meet their needs.

However, if your prospects feel as if you’re getting too personal, drawing incorrect conclusions about them or tracking their online browsing patterns, they will not only avoid you like the plague but also potentially warn other people to do the same.

It is much wiser to play it safe in terms of how far you go with personalisation and steer well clear of making assumptions or integrating programmatic ad tech that parses information to draw conclusions about each prospect that might not be correct.

Telling prospects why they are seeing a certain type of ad and how you came to serve it to them in the first place can help to negate some of the effects of overly intrusive personalisation, but it is best to avoid getting too personal entirely.

Similarly, cap the number of impressions of any type of ad or promotion that each prospect sees to a number that you have established works for their demographic; bombarding a prospect with the same ad or same type of ads across multiple platforms across a long timeframe will at best lead to a form of snow blindness where your ad collateral is concerned or worse, come across as creepy and stalker-ish; traits that no brand (or person) wants to be associated with.

The best way to approach ad personalisation and audience targeting

In the medium to long term, it is wise to approach gathering data to enhance personalisation as something that can help you to develop better audience insights to help you to understand your prospects more clearly and so, meet their needs. Looking at the big picture rather than concentrating solely on what data you can use right now to turn a profit provides you with evergreen insights that will naturally present opportunities to sell, rather than serving as a one-time opportunity to generate a lone sale.

Continually reviewing and reassessing your audience demographics themselves as well as the right formula and approach for each one is vital, and remember that everything from the members of individual demographics to their preferences and interests are in a continual state of flux.

Keeping an eye on the data enables you to identify new audiences that are viable to target, disregard audiences that have reached the end of the road, and fix off-target personalisation before it begins to have an impact on your bottom line.

Polly Kay

Polly Kay is a British copywriter and content writer with a digital marketing background. After studying Marketing (BA Hons) at university, she first honed her skills as a copywriter by working in-house for an award-winning creative agency in London before branching out on her own in 2012. Today, Polly Kay Copywriting and Content Writing serves clients ranging from small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK to well-known multinational brands. Polly specialises in SEO-friendly content writing for online use, and both brand-led and direct response copywriting for all applications.

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