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Marketing Industry Insights Mobile Advertising

How to succeed in advertising’s new kiddie pool of targeting

By Jonathan Harrop | Head of Brand Marketing


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October 4, 2022 | 9 min read

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The impact of privacy changes is far-reaching but it doesn’t mean you’ll never get the attention (and conversion) of your ideal consumer again, writes Digital Turbine’s Jonathan Harrop.

How to Succeed in Advertising’s New Kiddie Pool of Targeting

Privacy changes are forcing you to widen your scope

There’s a mobile zombie survival game I see all over my digital life that is not for me. Everywhere I go I see ads for this game that is trying so hard (so hard) to look like so many classic games at once, but for mobile.

The thing is, I haven’t played some of those games since before the internet, and I have zero survival (or zombie) games installed on my phone. I’m clearly not their target user, yet I’m getting hit with ads multiple times a day. In-app videos, social, video stories, tweets, the works.

So I looked and the information on why I’m being targeted boils down to two factors: over 18 years old, and living in the US. That’s it. It’s what we used to call “spray and pray.”

What quality user are they getting? I shudder to think about the amount of money being wasted, running this massive campaign at today’s cost per install (CPIs), only to find out next month that 95% of their installs either never opened the app, or churned out. I see similar hugely broad targeting when I look at the criteria used to target me about a number of products, not just apps.

Here’s what I think is happening: mobile app publishers and advertisers are still panicking about the loss of IDFA, that they’ll never be able to get their “ideal user” again and overcorrecting. They’re hitting all people, in as many places, barely any targeting – because they think that’s no longer affordable.

While privacy in the mobile app ecosystem overall is still open for commentary, with Google being more collaborative with the ad tech industry to find solutions, with Apple it’s already settled: privacy is paramount, and there are no workarounds.

Since many now believe they can’t go deep, they’re going wide. “We get who we get. Once things settle on this whole privacy thing, we will focus again on our target audience,” mentality.

I believe this is overly dramatic. Yes, the impact of the privacy changes is far-reaching but there’s no need to think that you’ll never get the attention (and conversion) of your ideal consumer again.

The advertising industry operated for decades without “precision targeting” and did just fine. Without knowing exactly who people were by tracking their exact demographics, location, behavior, etc. Madison Avenue made logical conclusions based on the information that they did have – and in some cases, by more creative thinking.

Take the episode of Mad Men where Pete and Paul devise a strategy to target African-American buyers for Admiral television, based on the fact that sales of the product are stronger in cities like Detroit, with large minority populations. They recommend doubling down on ads in those locations, in local newspapers and in Ebony magazine.

They broadened the view on who is the relevant consumer for the brand.

Only to be completely rejected. This painful example isn’t even that fictionalized.

Pete, after being told that Admiral Television has no interest in becoming a “colored television company,” says, “But they are. It seems so logical to me that they would reject the opportunity to make more money. Then again,” he says, “I’m in advertising.”

What that B-plot boils down to is simple and relevant to our privacy change today: Your customers might not be who you think they are.

The privacy changes are now forcing you, as an advertiser, to widen your scope and look at audiences you may not otherwise have considered, being so focused on exact identifiers and behaviors.

The other mindset shift that is going to be important in the post-privacy era is around contextual signals. Before you roll your eyes and say, yes, “I know, we are going back to the era of contextual targeting… We aren’t going back, we’re going forward.

When we talk about contextual advertising, much of the focus has been on the contextual experience as a web page, and how far we’ve come around artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, nuances of seeing past basic text and video. The mobile app experience isn’t just text and video. It’s location. It’s utility – how is the user leveraging the functionality of that app to make their lives easier, richer, and fuller? I would equate contextuality in mobile closer to digital out of home (DOOH).

Sports brands buy ad inventory on billboards and signage in and around stadiums, because they know that is where sports fans will be, and they know what those fans want and need during that time – such as player biographical info, scores of other games, or free beer (in return for texting a code, of course).

Are those same brands also buying space in the sports category on mobile? Running high-impact interactive ads that offer utility and value to that mobile consumer, based on what they know of them at that time, thanks to first-party app data? Some are.

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It’s time get back to the psychology of the user. What do people want and need, and how often? Not which color button they are more likely to click, or how many times they liked or shared a certain type of social post. I only need one toothbrush at a time. Please stop serving me ads for every electric toothbrush option. I already bought one.

We’ve lost precision ad targeting, but I’m telling you, that’s not a bad thing. There are ways to find and reach target audiences with first-party data sources that don’t compromise privacy. And there are ways to reach them simply by being creative in how you think about your campaigns. If Apple, and now Google, have spurred a new era of digital marketing, I welcome it – because it means that we can be more thoughtful in our approach and meaningful in our messages.

When we had personal identification data, we were able to go deep, getting very specific on the “who,” and that worked for many brands. But we may have gotten a bit lazy, pumping money into a known tactic and forgetting to think broader, too. What used to be creative thinking became muscle-memory button pushing and data entry.

What you discover through analysis of thinking about the context and the creative a little more again might surprise you, as long as you keep an open mind.

Marketing Industry Insights Mobile Advertising

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