You decide to search for a new pair of jeans online. After visiting several sites, you take a break and scroll through social media, only to find that every ad is now trying to sell you the same jeans you just searched for – and many other similar brands.

On the one hand, this experience can feel creepy and intrusive to users. Knowing that brands are using your search history and preferences to profit off your interests is invasive, at worst. But on the flip side, at least the ads you see are relevant to your interests. 

Consumers are slowly starting to embrace the benefits of targeted advertising. One recent report showed that more than half of respondents were able to identify at least one positive attribute of targeted advertising. The report noted benefits like finding sales, discovering new brands, supporting local businesses, and building a more efficient shopping experience as advantages of targeted advertising. 

As data privacy policies evolve to protect consumer privacy, marketers have to adapt quickly to reach target audiences in strategic, meaningful ways. 

The Rise of Hyper-Targeted Ads

Early forms of targeted advertising existed through pay-per-click models on search engines like Yahoo! The rise of hyper-targeted ads really took off when Facebook agreed to allow advertising on its platform in 2006, giving advertisers access to a slew of personal data and the ability to target ads to users who would find them most relevant. This trend continued as social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube gained popularity. The strategy behind these targeted ads was a “less is more” approach. 

Rather than bombarding audiences with many ads, keeping the volume small and relevant proved effective for advertisers and non-menacing for users. However, once it came to light that users’ personal data was being utilized for profit without their consent, this model of advertising received backlash from consumers. Since then, data privacy policies have evolved to allow users to decide whether or not to allow access to their personal data and whether or not they can track their activity across platforms.

The Death of the Cookie

Invented by Netscape in 1992, the cookie was a way for websites to retain user information and interests. This made for an easier user experience for consumers but also provided an invaluable tool for advertisers to understand audiences better, target them and serve relevant ads. Inevitably, the use of cookies created privacy concerns for users who did not want their information to be available to advertisers in this way. In response, Google has started phasing out the support of third-party cookies, forcing advertisers to find new ways to reach target audiences. 

The Future of Targeted Advertising

How can marketers create targeted ads without access to audience data? One solution that’s started to gain traction is contextual advertising. Instead of mining audience data, contextual targeting analyzes a site’s content and keywords to determine whether or not it makes sense for an advertiser’s message to display there. Rather than rely on a consumer’s personal data, this approach places ads in environments that are relevant to the brand itself. 

Zero-party data has become another popular method for gleaning audience insights while respecting data privacy. Zero-party data is entered voluntarily by users through methods like creating a profile on an e-commerce site, taking a survey to determine preferences like their personal taste or style, or surveys that indicate what type of products users are most interested in learning about. 

Universal IDs are another new tool marketers use to track users without third-party cookies. These identifiers recognize users across certain approved sites and platforms, enabling accurate brand targeting. This method removes the need for third-party tracking software, providing a better user experience for consumers.

Working in digital advertising can be a humbling experience. Just when marketers feel they’ve figured out the best method for reaching target audiences, privacy laws change, user behavior shifts or a new social media platform emerges with another algorithm to understand. Brands need to evolve and adapt to stay relevant to consumers constantly. Targeted advertising is poised to continue being a powerful tool in a marketer’s toolbox – as long as they’re willing to evolve with it.