The Trouble with Targeting
Callum Jewell and Hannah McCready decided to make a diary of all the digital display ads served to them for a week, and then compare the similarities/differences between their accounts. They thought they might be similar – in terms of demographic targeting they tick a lot of the same boxes. They both joined TCS in autumn last year as Junior Media Planners/Buyers, and last summer they both graduated from University (Callum from Lancaster, Hannah from York). Now they’re living in London, and both turning 22 this year. The differences between them? Callum is a single gay man, and Hannah is a taken straight woman.
Callum: “I took my observations from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify and Instagram. There were a few industries that the ads served to me were centred around, with the main one being entertainments. Being a bit of a film buff – ads for Star Trek, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Warcraft, Sky Movies and Now TV certainly felt well targeted.”
Hannah: “I recorded the ads I saw on my Facebook, YouTube and Instagram accounts. It quickly became clear that they related to three general categories: fashion, weddings and mother/baby. Fashion – I understand. I shop online for clothes most weeks, and I’m always looking for new brands to try. But weddings and mother/baby? Although very happily in a relationship, I’m not engaged and I don’t have any children. Contrary to the ads I was served – I’m not looking for wedding dresses, the perfect bouquet or the best beds for your children!”
Did you purchase any of the products/services being advertised to you?
Callum: “Whilst I didn’t see any of the films advertised, and I’m not a Sky customer, I did sign up to Now TV after seeing their ads multiple times throughout the week.”
Hannah: “I didn’t directly purchase anything, but a few made an impact. I took screenshots of some adverts for different clothes websites, so I could look at them at a more convenient moment.”
Which industries/companies did you see most often?
Callum: “Along with films, music was heavily pushed. Reading/Leeds festival and the 02 Forum were prominent. Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal were also frequent – particularly on Instagram.”
Hannah: “I had a variation of different companies appear on my feeds, none really followed me around. In fact, the only one which kept re-appearing was a Facebook ‘sponsored suggestion’ to follow Mark Zuckerberg!”
Were any ads relevant/useful to you?
Callum: “Yes, I think so. I’ve caught the travel bug – having recently been away on a football trip to Helsinki – and am looking for new places to go. I saw ads for the EuroStar, Opodo, EasyJet and Travel Republic – so I feel these were relevant to me. Whilst I did click on some, I haven’t taken the plunge and bought another holiday… yet! I did also see a number of ads for insurance companies and ended up buying cover through one of them (for my Helsinki trip which required a special type of sports insurance).”
Hannah: “I’d say about 30% were relevant – particularly the clothing brands, festivals and apps – but I was quite shocked at the amount of wedding and baby related ads. I’m not sure why I was targeted for those – I did recently post about being excited to move in with my boyfriend of two years, but if Facebook’s behavioural targeting is that precise it gets a little big brother-esque!”
Do you think the ads you saw were particularly gender/sexual orientation/relationship status targeted?
Callum: “I’m not sure. It might be stereotyping to say I was served ads for musicals because I’m gay, or that I saw (contact) sports insurance ads because I’m male.”
Hannah: “I’d say mine were very much relationship status and gender targeted.”
Did you have a particularly positive/negative experience with an ad?
Callum: “I found myself seeing a lot of financial ads. As a recent graduate who’s starting to look at credit cards, credit scores and changing my bank account from a student one to a full on grown-up one – hits panic button repeatedly – this was useful to me. The companies I saw were mainly MoneySuperMarket, Natwest and Mondo.”
Hannah: “They were generally neutral or positive, with the only questionable being a wedding weight loss plan!”
Did you feel the ads were specific to you? Would you have done anything differently as a Media Planner?
Callum: “As a media planner I wouldn’t have significantly changed the targeting, as they were nearly all relevant to me. This being said – whilst they were mostly relevant to me, they were brands and products that have generic and wide appeal. If I were to ask myself if the ads felt personalised, I’d have to answer no.”
Hannah: “If I were some of the companies in question I wouldn’t be overly happy with my media planners (no, I don’t want to take my non-existent child to a modelling audition!). I guess it’s possible that these ads were simply targeted at 22-28 year old women in relationships, and so hit a huge generic audience (of which a segment was potentially relevant). If this were the case, it likely means a lot of wastage on a platform which offers such precise targeting options. The only ad which was felt more specific than generic was from Spotify, telling me to ‘come back to Spotify Premium’ (which I have recently left for Apple Music).”
Callum: “I felt the ads I saw were fairly well suited, barring the odd outlier (such as an ad for hair transplants which led to days of paranoia about my hairline). That being said I don’t feel that the ads were overly targeted at me, as they were all fairly generic products which had broad appeal.”
Hannah: “I don’t think the ads I saw were well suited to me – and as someone who shops online far too often this can’t be good for the companies in question! I actually like to use ads as a guide for companies I might like, so I was disappointed with a lot of the irrelevant ads served to me during the week. This being said, I did explore the minority which were relevant – and for some I may well be a future customer.”
Callum: “Although not an online ad, my favourite of the week was a collaboration between Virgin and ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ involving a robotic alien in Euston station.”
Hannah: “I think it says a lot that even though we were intentionally looking for ads online, the one you thought was most powerful was outdoor!”
Accounts from Callum Jewell and Hannah McCready