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Digital Advertising Is So Awesome (And A Little Scary)

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April 23, 2018

At our Miami ad agency we've been creating and placing online advertising for more than a decade. It started with a Google AdWords campaign to promote a client's weight loss surgery program back in the early 2000s. The results were extraordinary, instantaneous, and, most of all, measurable.

That campaign was a watershed moment for our agency. From that point forward, online advertising (or digital marketing as we call it these days) became a vital ingredient in the marketing mix we employ on behalf of our clients. Today, we continue to utilize digital marketing tactics albeit far more sophisticated, far more varied, and far more targeted than the basic approaches from the previous decade. And the results continue to be extraordinary, instantaneous, and measurable. Of course, there's a flip side to this happy story.

Targeting Fueled By Data
At our healthcare marketing firm, digital advertising has proven to be a powerful and sublime tool to reach our clients' audiences with unprecedented precision. However, the fuel that allows us to target advertising with such precision is personal data. And like all players in the digital marketing space, we rely on the copious data collected by companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. This data allows us to magically reach into the lives of our clients' customers and to present our clients' selling messages.

This kind of precision targeting works, but it's scary to anyone who values privacy. That's why the topic deserves the attention it is getting in the halls of Congress, on cable news channels, and in the meeting rooms of Silicon Valley.

Contemplating The Ethics Of Digital Marketing
Those of us who work at a marketing communications firm value privacy and individuals' rights to protect their identities. We also value the power and effectiveness of digital marketing when it's applied in a principled, ethical manner. So, let's take a look at how we're using digital advertising today and protecting privacy.

Targeting Intent
Paid search advertising, which by and large, is synonymous with Google AdWords, most clearly demonstrates how advertisers target customers based on their intent to purchase. When someone searches for a particular thing, they are raising their virtual hand to say, "Show me what you got." For a healthcare advertising agency like ours, it's analogous to walking into a hospital and telling the triage nurse what procedure you want.

Today's more sophisticated digital marketing methods take this concept to a whole new level. Now, we can create "Custom Intent Audiences." We can identify internet users who have demonstrated behavior that indicates they actively plan to make a purchase. With custom intent audiences, a user's intent is determined by a large number of online actions that put the user in the "I want to buy" bucket. And, unlike paid search advertising that relies on text ads, using custom intent audiences allows us to serve display-style ads that are more brand-centric and more attention-getting.

Targeting Interest
For years, advertisers have had the ability to serve advertising to users based on their online behavior. Anyone even vaguely familiar with digital marketing has heard the term "behaviorally-targeted advertising." It's not new, and it's certainly not noteworthy. Why? Because, historically, advertisers were limited to a hundred or so categories of behaviors defined by online media networks. That may sound like a lot, but it's a drop in the bucket when you consider how varied consumers' and professionals' interests are.

Who cares if you can target people interested in organic food? Instead, what if you want to target people interested in organic, vegan food grown in Oregon that's pre-packaged, frozen, and available for free shipping. Today we can be that precise with our targeting. With "Custom Affinity Audiences" we can deliver ads based on the precise affinities our clients care about.

Targeting Competitors' Prospects
People interested in our clients' competitors are perhaps the most valuable affinity group of all, and we can deliver advertising to these people. More accurately, we can serve ads to people who have visited our clients' competitors' websites. In these cases, it's almost as if we've been given access to the customer lists of our clients' competitors.

However, there's an important distinction. While we can show our ads to these audiences, we don't know who they are. We don't know their names, phone numbers, email addresses, or the like.

Digital marketing allows us to efficiently and effectively target advertising to specific audiences. That's a good thing. And individuals' personal information remains protected. That's a good thing too!

In our next blog we'll take a closer look at digital advertising delivered through Facebook and Instagram. Recent revelations about security breaches at Facebook make this a particularly important part of the discussion, and we'll explore the types of targeting that Facebook supports and contemplate the ethics involved.