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How to create online ad targeting that doesn’t freak your prospects out

10 minute read

Polly Kay
Polly Kay

Personalising ads and the individual customer experience is vital to succeed in today’s highly competitive digital marketplace, particularly when it comes to programmatic ads and other forms of automated ad placement.

However, if your personalisation and targeting go too far, you run the risk of freaking your prospects out or making them feel as if their privacy has been invaded.

Find out why online ad targeting might be scaring your prospects off, and how to personalise your ad content in the most appropriate way for your audience demographics.

What is online ad targeting?

Ad targeting or targeted ads are advertisements that are tailored to appeal to a certain demographic audience, be that a single individual or a wider collective of people who have things in common such as a location, age group or interest.

Personalised ad targeting can be as broad as simply choosing a certain type of ad to use within a certain host portal so that it appeals to their average reader demographics, but it can be much more finely tuned and precise too.

Four of the main types of online ad targeting that you might have seen in action or be considering using as part of a marketing campaign include:

  • Social media ad targeting, which is based on the selection of a viewing audience determined by shared traits such as gender and location, or likes and follows on other related pages.
  • Contextual ad targeting delivers personalised ads to viewers based on the patterns of their behaviour online, and such ads may be chosen based on a wide range of collated data such as the type of Google searches a user has performed, the type of websites they look at, and the online stores that they browse and buy from.
  • Geotargeted ads are delivered to users whose IP address or other information indicates that they are located within a certain country or local region. This enables local businesses and others targeting geographically specific markets to deliver ads to potential buyers within the catchment area that they serve.
  • Remarketed or retargeted ads are designed to follow an individual after they leave a certain website or online store across the wider internet, delivering ads for items that the individual may have browsed for or added to a shopping cart, or that might be complementary to another product they have bought or shopped for.

How effective is online ad targeting?

Online ad targeting can be highly effective for businesses that do it right, and personalisation is the cornerstone of successful ad targeting. However, getting the balance right between personalisation that enhances brand perception and an overly intrusive ad that appears to be reading your prospect’s mind or worse, invading their privacy and tracking them across the internet can be complicated.

59% of respondents to Infosys’s Consumer Study state that effective personalisation has a significant impact on what they eventually go on to purchase, and research by PWC indicates that online consumers are 12% more likely to choose a retailer based on personalised offers.

When done well, targeted ads can yield twice the number of clicks or actions of a non-targeted ad, but on the flipside, 68% of internet users surveyed by The Pew Research Center stated that they oppose the placement of targeted ads that are selected based on online tracking of their wider internet usage.

How targeted ad algorithms determine and place content in front of individual ad viewers

Exactly how any ad algorithm selects audiences and the content to display to them varies from case to case, but the basic principles of online ad targeting remain the same across the board.

Social media targeted ads enable the person placing the ad to set a number of parameters to narrow down their audience demographics, ranging from broad and simple approaches such as selections based on gender, age and location right through to fine-tuning to reach out to prospects who like certain types of pages or posts.

Contextual ads work by means of ad algorithms building up a pattern of the behaviour of individuals across the wider internet, taking into account things like the type of sites they visit, online stores they browse or buy from, and search terms used as well.

This then produces a virtual map of the individual’s areas of interest and what incentivises them, in order to automate ad placement across various channels that are designed to deliver targeted ads that relate to these parameters.

Geotargeted ads use information such as the physical location of the user’s IP address, or their search history for services within a certain country or region. This enables the ad algorithm to deliver localised content to individuals that the data indicates might fall within the area that they serve.

However, there is a reasonably large margin of error to bear in mind when using geotargeted ads, particularly when it comes to mobile browsers and individuals who access the internet using mobile dongles and other sim-based devices. This is because the geographic location returned by these IP addresses may relate to the location of the service provider rather than the individual user themselves.

Remarketed or retargeted ads work with site user cookies and follow previous users of a site once they have navigated away, to deliver ads that relate to the site or products the user viewed and incentivise an abandoned shopping cart or repeat purchase.

The uniting factor that all of the various ad targeting and placement algorithms have in common is that they work in real time by means of automated and programmatic ad placements that make the decision about what ad to place before any individual and serve it up in the fraction of a second that it takes the host web page to load.

Why targeted ads might be freaking your prospects out

Effective personalisation might be the key to connecting with prospects and increasing interest and sales, but if the type of ad targeting you use causes your prospects to feel as if their privacy has been invaded, it will have the opposite effect.

Internet users as a whole aren’t comfortable with having their online behaviour tracked or surveilled and monitored across the wider web, and in fact, 87% of respondents to social marketing firm Communispace’s survey stated that if a “do not track” browser option was available to them, they would use it.

In order to understand why your targeted ads might be freaking your prospects out and limiting their effectiveness, you need to get inside the mind of the consumer and view things from their perspective.

Regardless of today’s reality, in most people’s minds the internet is a place of anonymity, with the expectation of a certain level of privacy in terms of one’s online activities and who can view them.

Ad placement algorithms that show an almost presentient level of knowledge about a prospect’s interests, preferences, internet usage or purchases will certainly catch your prospect’s attention, but in all of the wrong ways.

If your prospect glances at an ad and their immediate questions are “why am I seeing this? What do they know about me?” They will immediately be suspicious about the content itself, and who has placed it.

Any associations that they do make with the product or brand being advertised will correlate with this perceived invasion of privacy, doing nothing to incentivise a purchase and potentially, compromising any existing chance of getting that person’s custom.

Misfires with targeted ads are also common. These too can freak out your prospects even more than well-targeted ads that are overly intrusive.

For instance, if a childless person buys a gift for a friend’s new baby and is then followed around multiple websites and social media portals with adverts for products aimed at new parents and expectant mothers, this could potentially be confusing and unsettling.

For the average childless person of a certain age, ads like this can be annoying, particularly if the viewer doesn’t understand why they are seeing them.

Targeted ads can also offend as well, such as if a person who has recently reached a milestone birthday starts seeing ads for funeral services, senior living centres, and mobility aids!

Ultimately, the main bugbear for consumers comes down to a combination of a failure to understand why a certain ad might be served, and privacy concerns surrounding what information third parties hold about them to determine the type of ads to showcase.

This is particularly true when an action within a certain website or social media portal triggers ads across other sites and mediums as well, as is often the case with remarketed ad targeting.

What type of ad targeting might be unsettling your prospects?

Targeted ads that make assumptions about the viewer are those most likely to raise warning flags for them, particularly if those assumptions are way off base – as per my previous example of baby-related ads being delivered to people who may well have no plans to have children of their own.

Remarketed or retargeted ads that follow their viewer around, continually popping up on other unrelated sites that host adverts are also a particular bone of contention, because many viewers see this as underhand or an invasion of their privacy.

Geotargeted ads have become so ubiquitous today that they no longer raise eyebrows among most internet users, but for those that only browse the internet occasionally or that aren’t very tech-savvy, feeling as if an ad’s host knows where you live can be quite unsettling.

Contextual ads tend to come across as more subtle and less finely targeted to each individual ad viewer, but this broader and softer approach to targeting comes at the expense of some of the very personalisation that makes such ads effective in the first place.

Personalising your ads without making your prospects feel as if their privacy has been invaded

How do you personalise and deliver individually targeted ad content without freaking your prospects out? In order to achieve this, you need to be able to build in transparency for those that are looking for it, without compromising your ad’s message or impact.

Building transparency into your ads can help to increase their performance, but this only holds true if your ad’s targeting itself isn’t overly intrusive in the first place, which means that you need to review your ad placement protocols themselves alongside the transparency that savvy consumers are looking for.

Here are some approaches to consider to help you to get your message across without freaking your prospects out.

Ask permission to collect tracking data

If you intend to use remarketed ads to incentivise purchases and returns to abandoned carts after your shopper has left your site, asking for permission to collect basic tracking data (such as from your website’s cookies) makes your prospects feel in control.

Simply adding a note about marketing tracking data to your cookie notice can help you to avoid prospects feeling stalked around the net by their shopping cart long after they’ve left your site.

Draw a line under your data personalisation limits

Knowledge is power, and the more information you can gather about your prospects, the more effectively you can sell to them.

However, when you’re walking the fine line between customised content and potential creepiness, it is wise to set some limits to the level of personalisation you build into any individual ad trigger.

This can help you to avoid freaking your prospects out or having the algorithm put two and two together to make five, resulting in assumptions about your prospects that might be incorrect, intrusive, or alarming.

Stick to known, generalised parameters such as age group, gender, location, and broad interests – and steer clear of inferences or algorithms that predict future behaviour or interests based on known or previous patterns.

Concentrate on getting the most mileage out of the data people share willingly

What constitutes an invasion of privacy in a prospect’s mind can be highly subjective, but if you concentrate your efforts on working with data that people tend to share openly (such as their region and gender) you’re less likely to alienate them.

Offer options for prospects to find out more

Build in trust by making it easy for people who view your targeted ads to see why any particular ad was shown to them.

Most ad platforms provide options within their ad placements to include information of this type, such as Facebook’s “Why am I seeing this ad?” text, and AdChoices’ blue triangle icon in the top right corner that lets prospects know that the ad they are viewing has been tailored to match their interests.

If you choose to integrate further information, your prospects can click on the blue triangle to find out more, so ensure that you incorporate a message for those that do to provide reassurance and build trust.

online ad targeting

Provide options for opt-outs or user control where possible

online ad targeting

In the above ad that was served up to me on my own eBay homepage after I’d been browsing clothes on the Simply Be website, you can see a small, unobtrusive = symbol in the bottom left corner of the ad.

Clicking on this symbol takes to you the website for the ad portal responsible for the ad placement, where I was able to find out more about why and how certain ads had been served to me, and could choose to opt out of further personalised ads from the portal.

Integrating an opt-out option such as this reassures your prospects by giving them a choice, and those given a choice are less likely to exercise it thanks to the reassurance this provides and the impression of honesty and respect that it conveys.

Justify your personalisation

Not all of your prospects will know or notice that you’ve integrated an option to allow them to find out more about why they’re seeing a particular ad.

Providing justification for personalised ads that contains a message of explanation built in can help to avoid suspicion and distrust, particularly if you’re using remarketed ads.

Consider integrating text such as “Still looking for an X? Ours are on sale now!” Or “Recommended for you because you liked our Y.” This lets your prospects know why a certain ad has been served to them without compromising its message and incentive.

A good rule of thumb to follow is that if you can’t justify your personalisation, it might run the risk of going too far in the minds of your prospects.

Ask, don’t tell

The way that you frame and word your ad text itself can either help to build trust or compromise it.

If your ad copy tells your prospect something about themselves that they don’t think you should know (or if your copy is framed in such a way as to sound pushy or assumptive) this can compromise your ad’s performance.

Try out wording such as “Do you live in Brighton? Exclusive discount for local buyers” rather than “Because you live in Brighton, we’ve got an exclusive discount for you.”

Cap your ad impressions

There is a sweet spot to be found when it comes to how many times a prospect sees the same ad in order to maximise its impact and incentive, and one impression is rarely enough.

However, serving up the same advert to a prospect multiple times on different platforms and over a protracted period of time can lead to banner blindness or worse, annoyance on the part of the viewer.

The number of ad impressions required in order to achieve the highest yield per impression is known as an ad’s effective frequency or optimal frequency, and the number of impressions that this entails can be quite variable across different niches and prospects.

Cap the number of impressions of each ad a prospect sees, and set a cut-off date after which your targeting moves on.

Ultimately, there is no one size fits all winning formula that will enable you to reach all of your prospects with the right balance of personalisation and respect of privacy. However, losing prospects due to overly invasive ad targeting can have a significant impact on your bottom line for the long term.

It is wiser to adjust your ad parameters carefully and selectively to encompass “safe” data than it is to launch a full-out campaign that is designed to predict a prospect’s behaviours and make assumptions about their future interests.

Using the tips above to build transparency into your ad protocols from the data collation side of things upwards, you should be able to achieve the most effective results from your ad targeting, without earning a reputation for stalking your prospects or invading their privacy.

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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