Unveiling the Science of Ad Targeting: Serving Always-Relevant Content
While passing the time on your smartphone, you’ve likely scrolled through social media and seen an ad that is a little too on the nose. Maybe you saw an ad on TikTok, and you and a group of friends were JUST talking about this product. Or maybe you ducked into a local coffee shop to avoid some mid-afternoon rain, and now you’re seeing ads for cafes miles from that same coffee shop all over your Instagram.
So the inevitable happens. Everyone’s said it. And if you deny saying it, you’ve definitely thought it. Some variation of “Holy [insert choice expletive here], my phone is listening to me.”
Let’s debunk this once and for all: No, your phone is not eavesdropping on you.
But your phone is learning from you. Voluntary actions (a.k.a. engagements) you take on various search engines and social media channels, combined with location permissions and general browsing habits, create a “digital persona” of you, which brands can target ads to.
Levers for Ad Targeting
While it may leave you scratching your head, ad targeting is a science and not spyware – we promise. And as privacy laws continue to strengthen, brands are more transparent than ever on their audience targeting techniques. So what exactly is happening as you scroll on your phone? Let’s break down some key levers for how advertisers serve you always-relevant social media ads.
Remember the coffee shop example from above? While you were waiting out the rain, you hopped onto that coffee shop’s wi-fi and thereby agreed to share your location via IP address. Mixed with other demographic information, you may have given when registering to use the free Wi-Fi, the coffee shop can now serve relevant ads to you based on what it infers – that you are someone who goes to coffee shops, specifically their coffee shop. If this coffee shop has a good content & marketing team, then they’ve likely curated beautiful images of coffee/tea or selected UGC (user-generated content) from its customers to then turn into ads. Effective marketers can differentiate the ads that new customers and returning customers see. A new customer may be served a location or coupon ad, while a returning customer could be served an ad for a new loyalty program or event pop-up.
Tracking pixels are HTML code snippets that “fire” or activate when a user visits a webpage or takes a certain action. These pixels are extremely helpful for tracking user behavior and conversions. Conversions are actions that a marketer wants a user to take, whether that’s a website view, an email sign-up, or even a purchase. By tracking these actions, a company is able to evaluate the data and tailor its digital ads to specific audiences so that the content is relevant to the customer and the customer is relevant to the business.
For complete transparency, anyone can download the Meta Pixel Helper for free on Chrome to see what event information a brand is sending to Facebook. You can see that on Adlucent’s company homepage, view data (highlighted in the Meta Pixel Helper Chrome extension) is sent to Meta so that Adlucent is able to target potentially interested clients in its Facebook ads!
These actions can range from liking a retailer’s Instagram feed post to sharing a helpful video on TikTok with a close friend. These actions signal to a social media algorithm that the content you’re viewing is relevant. Naturally, you and your friend (and perhaps even other close friends) may start seeing more content and ads for these brands, products, or services.
Social media is constantly learning from its users. Social media companies are constantly striving to make their algorithms more relevant, user-focused, and, admittedly, profitable. There’s no circumventing that last aspect. These are companies, after all. The more a person is on social media, and the more actions they take, the “smarter” the algorithm becomes in relation to that user. The algorithm is able to find content, brands, and other users that, based on your previous actions/habits, you may be interested in. The nature of the algorithm is to encourage discovery and match the correct users to the correct content – i.e., relevancy. At the end of the day, relevancy benefits everyone.
So the next time you receive a perfectly targeted ad, know that it results from data-driven marketing rather than phone eavesdropping. And sometimes, a perfectly timed ad makes life easier.
A good ad not only sells the product it’s advertising but allows a consumer to fill a need or solve a problem they’re having. At Adlucent, we strive for always-relevant marketing. From special edition Beyoncé vinyls to shifting career paths, targeted ads have the power to change consumers’ lives for the better, no matter how big or small.
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Chandler is an Account Manager II at Adlucent with an emphasis on social media marketing. She has held roles in both paid and organic social. When she’s not working, Chandler enjoys sports, cooking, and being outside with her family in Denver, Colorado.
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