What makes digital advertising special

  Jeroen Seynhaeve     2023-09-06

Advertisers craft and distribute messages with a specific purpose: to grab the attention of particular audiences in order to create awareness, or to persuade them to act in a particular way, or to accept a particular belief – like buying a product or service, or embracing a brand.

The success of an advertising campaign depends on finding the right audience first, finding ways to persuade that audience second, and on defining benchmarks for measuring (and fine-tuning) its impact third.

  1. [ 1 ] A successful advertising campaign depends first and foremost on finding and targeting the right audience. In essence, the right audience is made up of people that are susceptible to persuasion: they have an interest in what you offer, are in the right mindset to consider your offer, and see real benefits in responding to your offer. For example, advertising a reduced rate for high-end luxury accommodation to people mainly interested in backpacking, would be a waste of resources. To find the right audience in the right mindset at the right time and place, is therefore a crucial first step to the success of any advertising campaign.
  2. [ 2 ] The second step is less clearcut: the content of your advertisement (its message, imagery, format, etc.) must have the power to persuade. A lot has been said and written about the best ways of persuading people, and as psychological research has been evolving, so the debate kept on changing. At the heart of the debate are questions of effective frequency, repetition, response time, and emotional connection: what kind of message connects with people emotionally in such a way that it can motivate them to act or change a belief, and how many times over which period of time should this message be shown?
  3. [ 3 ] Once the target audience and advertorial content have been defined, the advert can be published. Of course, advertisers (and perhaps even more so, the clients that hire them) will want to weigh up the cost of advertising with its impact (increased sales, brand awareness, etc). This is known as the ROI of a campaign – the return on investment. The impact of an advertising campaign is predominantly measured in terms of its rate of conversions: how many people have effectively acted upon, or changed their belief, as a result of your advert? Conversions are expressed in percentages: how does the number of people that has seen or heard the advert compare to the number of people that have effectively acted upon it (e.g. bought a product, requested a booking) or changed their belief (e.g. associated with your brand)?

Each and every one of these aspects of a successful advertising campaign have historically presented real challenges for traditional forms of advertising like billboards, magazines, newspapers and pamphlets, or radio and TV. Audiences were either defined on the basis of wobbly market surveys, estimations and assumptions, or not defined at all. The content and frequency of campaigns was motivated by opposing theories from the studies of psychology, sociology, etc. and, let’s be honest, by a whole lot of trial and error. And the analysis of the impact of advertising was by and large unreliable: how could we know with any certainty that an increase in sales or brand awareness was directly related to a specific advertising campaign?

New – AI based – forms of advertising, however, know exactly how to deal with these challenges. We group these new forms of advertising under the banner of ‘digital advertising’ because they essentially rely on digital data and machine-learning technologies. While the data provides very detailed information about people’s characteristics and behaviour, the technologies power platforms and devices that are optimised for collecting and processing this data. As a result, target audiences, content and conversions are no longer reliant on estimates and trial and errors, but directly extracted from massive amounts of very precise – historical and statistically predictive – data and data patterns. To find the right audience is now a matter of tapping into one of the tech giants’ databases and connecting the right data points; to find the most effective campaign a matter of A/B testing; to measure the impact a matter of tracking digital breadcrumbs (or rather cookie crumbs) across the world wide web and its interconnected devices.

OK, this sounds great. But where do we start? Tech giants like Meta (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp), Alphabet (Google), Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon, have been collecting data about the profiles and behaviour of the users of their free platforms for many years, and make this data available to advertisers. The first step in any digital advertising strategy is therefore to decide which data best applies to the audience you wish to target. Broadly speaking, the available data allows advertisers to take two different approaches: brand awareness and call to action. While the first aims to make as many people as possible aware of your brand or your offer, and connect with it (accept a particular belief), the second aims to persuade people to do something (act in a particular way). In essence, both approaches depend on different sets of data, which are held by different tech giants.

In my view, social media is the best platform for an effective brand awareness campaign: it allows to connect to people, one on one, at a time they are connecting, and sharing ideas, dreams and experiences with people they (usually) care about and whose opinions they (usually) value. In other words, social media is where ideas are shared in global social networks – including the idea that a particular brand or offering is to be recommended. Platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn make it possible to do this free of charge to people within your network, or by means of pay-per-click advertising to specific target audiences at a pre-determined cost.

Search engines, like Google on the other hand, are the optimal platform to catch people at the right moment (when they are searching for products or services similar to yours) and to try and persuade them to take action (click). Google, with a persistent 85% market share, offers two options: search engine optimisation (SEO) and advertising (Google Ads). The first refers to so-called “organic” search results, based on Google’s secret sauce called Page Rank. SEO applies strategies to improve the ranking of your website for particular search terms in these search results. However, because much of Google’s secret sauce is, well, secret, the success of SEO isn’t guaranteed or permanent. The second refers to text and/or image-based adverts that appear alongside organic search results. Google Ads allows advertisers to buy top search result rankings and target them at specific audiences. Costs are based on the number of clicks and on real-time auctions with competitors, and impact is measured by means of very precise statistics.

So, in summary, make sure that your next digital advertising campaign starts with well-defined answers to the questions of who you want to target, and how. These answers will steer you towards a digital advertising platform that best suits your needs, and at the same time provides detailed analysis of the impact of your campaigns.

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