Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Moving on from target audiences: the six principles of signals planning

By Dylan Mouratsing, Global Head of Data Strategy, mSix&Partners

Agencies are meant to simplify the complex to both ensure strategic clarity and build the confidence necessary to de-risk marketing investment decisions. From a data perspective, there is a risk that simplification may lead to reliance on out-of-date data and imprecise targeting. It may also result in value being left on the table for advertisers, in the form of inaccurate understanding of the market and of how it is moving. At worst, agencies risk straying into unethical practices.

To navigate the complexity the right way we should question the tenets that have guided agencies for decades and rethink the very idea of target audience.

From rigid cohort definitions to multiple and dynamic contexts

People change minute by minute and behave differently in different contexts. The ‘pen portrait’, by contrast, is where key facts about a single target audience are used to create a persona. This has its place in the early phase of strategic planning, but needs to be enriched as it is often derived from survey data, and so can be out of date. This poses significant limitations in all product categories. Given the economic turbulence predicted for 2023, relying solely on historic data will likely be a gamble that doesn’t pay off.

Any long-run ‘bullseye’ audience must be augmented with the plurality of data available. Comparing sources ranging from cultural context to AI-originated platform data and on-demand research can help differentiate between data anomaly and underlying human truth, and so inform businesses’ strategic priorities.

Six factors will trigger this process.

  1. Differentiating inputs from outputs

In an age of increasingly addressable media, audience targeting based on any available attribute may be misleading. Use of demographics, such as age, location or gender, can too easily turn from a sensible to an arbitrary shortcut. At its worst, blunt targeting can engender discriminatory advertising practices.

Rather than targeting input, demographic attributes should be considered descriptive outputs. They help understand, for instance, that the average age of consumers turning to brand x is higher than that of consumers preferring a competitor. Advertisers, however, should not fall in the trap of excluding potential customers arbitrarily. Agencies should uncover the underlying mindsets and contextual moments leading to demographic biases, to create inclusive and engaging content.

  •  Climate is not weather

While some truths about people are unchanging, others are fleeting and conditional. It is hard to distinguish between the two by looking only at data snapshots. Drawing on and combining multiple data sources, by contrast, helps an understanding of the bedrock beliefs that unite a cohort, together with the momentary trends and collective obsessions shaping culture. In this way, agencies can not only grasp market trends, but also predict consumer behaviour more accurately, even in an unstable economic environment.

  • Unlocking the power of triangulation

Many publishers, platforms and advertisers aim to create a 360-degree customer view for their ad trading. Insights derived from any single platform, however, are limited. Triangulating data sources from client and publisher, or agency and platform, delivers a more trusted and robust perspective on any given target cohort.

  • Incrementality is key

There is no such thing as a brand audience defined once and for all. Each audience segment needs to be explored and understood in its own terms. Experimenting with modelling techniques to establish the incremental contribution of every target group is key. This means that every cohort needs simple and measurable KPIs.  

  • The importance of connection

The red thread connecting product design, client marketing, agency activation and measurement should be as consistent as possible. When a new data model is devised, all teams need to work with the same cohort data, which must include consumers’ attitudes and motivations.

  • An ethical approach to data

All of this is for naught if agencies act in a socially irresponsible way. Data ethics must be at the heart of agency work. Advertisers, for example, should not track data of uncertain origin but have systems in place to ensure not only legal compliance, but ethical compliance for any use of data.

Unlocking growth through signal planning Departing from traditional audience planning and embracing a signal-led approach will empower agencies and their clients. By relying on evolving, real-world, consumer behaviour data, rather than static models, agencies can maximise the efficiency of advertising campaigns and align clients’ needs with the cultural and economic context. This will unlock a new world of opportunities powering brand growth in the challenging times ahead

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