The Future of Targeted Marketing – Search Data, Retargeting, and Ads

I’m thinking about getting a new car.  Anyone who knows me personally knows that’s a BIG deal.  I love my current car so much that I’d sleep in the garage with it if my husband would let me.  But, we’re committed to traveling more, and we crave the extra space that my convertible just doesn’t provide.

We’ve looked at just about every make and model of vehicle in the US auto market.  We’re picky buyers, our lifestyle is pretty abnormal, and finding “the one” is proving to be tough.  To help our decision-making process, we watch a lot of YouTube video reviews and read a lot of consumer reports online.

In my (seemingly) eternal search for the perfect vehicle, I’ve been almost creeped out by how auto makers are targeting me.  I say ‘almost’ because nothing about marketing could ever truly creep me out; my obsession runs too deep.  But I will say that the accuracy of their targeting definitely makes me think twice about what I search for and who is watching me online.

Now, let’s be real here: I know there’s not a guy in a room full of screens, watching what I do and serving up ads depending on my cues.  It may feel like that at times, but the truth is all my search data just gets compiled and served to a system that uses an elaborate algorithm to decide what ads to show me.  The algorithm is clever; but sometimes it misses the mark completely.

To explain, I’ll have to tell you a bit about my “demographic” first.  My husband and I are in our thirties, professionals, no children.  We travel (not nearly enough), we dine out (way too much), and I’d say we have above-average tech in our home.  Given the types of ads that I see over and over again, I think that all of this data is known by at least some of the ad networks out there.

How Does It Work?

How would they know our demographic?  Well, we buy quite a bit of our household goods via Amazon, as well as some clothing items, accessories, and tech.  I’d bet there’s an algorithm that can pretty accurately guess our demographic based upon just my recent Amazon purchases alone: Women’s neon-colored brand-name running shoes, a few internal high-end computer parts, an accessory for the newest iPhone, a pair of earrings, and an Xbox One game that’s rated M for ‘mature’ audiences.

The algorithm probably thinks I’m slightly more fit than I actually am (those Nikes just look cool; my fitness routine has never included actual running), but aside from that, its opinion of me is likely pretty accurate: an adult female under the age of 45, no children, who is a bit of a nerd and has mad style.  Bingo, Amazon… you got me!

So, take that demographic assumption and combine it with some recent Google/YouTube search queries for reviews and consumer reports on a TON of different vehicles, and it’s safe to assume that I’m in the market for a vehicle.  What does that mean for the ads that I’m being served?

Sometimes It Works

For starters, I now see an ad for a vehicle at every turn.  I pull up YouTube to watch anything, even if it’s completely unrelated to vehicles, and the ad I have to watch is Toyota, or Lexus, or Chevy.  I fire up the Xbox to watch Netflix, Hulu, or my favorite Twitch streamer, and I’m watching an ad for Infiniti, Nissan, or Fiat.  I see these ads no matter what device I’m on, and they even stay pretty consistent whether or not I’m on wifi.  I see ads for brands I’ve researched, and I also see ads for brands I’ve never once Googled.  Very interesting, and a great use of advertising dollars on the part of these auto companies.

Sometimes It Doesn’t

But this type of “smart” targeted marketing isn’t without its failures – I’ve seen ads lately that were clearly not meant for my demographic.  An example of this would be an ad that I’ve seen multiple times now, for a minivan which features amenities that would only benefit a family with children.  It may be an assumption that I’m shopping for a vehicle because I have plans to start a family soon (my age and U.S. statistics would probably dictate that, in fact), but if the algorithm serving that ad took into consideration that the vast majority of vehicles I’ve searched for are sporty crossovers and generally have a higher horsepower-to-cupholder ratio, it would know that I’m not in the market for a kid-friendly minivan.  The same company that makes that minivan also makes a sporty crossover that it could be pitching to me instead.

The Future of Targeted Marketing

As is the case with most technology, improvements will come, and algorithms will get smarter.  I’d love for there to be a time when every ad I see is something I actually need and/or want.  I know that sounds crazy, but if every ad held your attention and gave you something useful (whether it’s new information or just a reminder that you needed it), then ads wouldn’t really be so obstructive to our everyday lives.  If that ad before your YouTube video was useful to you in some small way, or even just very appealing to you, maybe you wouldn’t skip it.  If ads were totally customized to our lives and preferences, watching an ad would be more like scrolling through your Pinterest wall, or window shopping at a store made just for you.

I know that the idea of shared data scares a lot of people, but I’m not one of them.  I think there is anonymity in numbers; the sheer vast quantity of information available makes it nearly impossible to pinpoint one person.  You (and your data) are literally a needle in a haystack, so just kick back and wait for the ads to improve… after all, these ads were chosen for someone just like you.

If you’re interested in learning how you can use search data and retargeting to improve your targeted marketing, check this out.  Thanks for reading and have a great day!