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The Audience-First Imperative

By Phil Norris
on 8/2/18

The term “audience-first marketing” isn’t a new thing. Neither is it a revolutionary development in the way we speak to potential customers; marketers have long understood the necessity of getting to grips with the target audience they’re trying to reach in order to reduce wastage.

Of course, it’s easy to talk about how your brand or agency takes an audience-first approach, but much more challenging to actually do it. We’re used to thinking of users in terms of demographic profiles, but these traditional measures have far more relevance to offline publishing than they do within the digital realm.

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So what do we mean by “audience-first”?

Segmenting by demographic is an easy way to build scale into campaigns, but it often doesn’t make much sense. The outcome is typically a narrow group that may or may not represent a brand’s most productive audience. In particular, it excludes users who may display buying sentiment, but aren’t covered by a restrictive demographic profile.

 The situation becomes even trickier when you attempt to account for multi-device behaviour. According to Google, 90% of users switch between devices and platforms to complete tasks. If you’re only targeting based on demographics rather than the reason your audience is online in the first place, you’ll be facing a near-hopeless task in piecing these convoluted user journeys together.

 That doesn’t mean we should ditch targeting completely; just that we need to readjust our understanding of an audience profile. Instead of focusing on rigid measures like age, gender and location, we should be considering factors like behaviours and moments. Have they displayed some sort of intent to purchase a product or service you offer? Is there an external factor – like weather, traffic or a specific local event – that could persuade them to buy something you offer?

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Does an audience-first approach actually work?

It can be a tough sell convincing brands to stop focusing on specific products or services, and instead concentrate on the benefits they provide and the problems they solve. But it’s important to note that this isn’t just some high-level marketing theory with no immediate practical application; we’re already seeing the results of putting the audience first (or of failing to do so). For instance…

 Netflix has completely abandoned demographic targeting

Todd Yellin, Vice President of Product at Netflix, ruffled a few feathers with his 2016 proclamation that demographic profiling is basically worthless. “Geography, age, and gender? We put that in the garbage heap,” he said, explaining that the streaming giant groups users into “clusters” based on their content preferences.

While his words may sound a little extreme, the logic behind them is sound: an 18-year-old woman from Manchester and a 50-year-old man from Melbourne would be unlikely to appear in the same demographic segment, but they might both happen to love watching The Crown and Stranger Things. So why should they be targeted in the same way?

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NBC blamed millennials for rating drops during Rio Olympics

In a prime example of not putting the audience first, US broadcaster NBC pinned the blame squarely on millennials for its lower-than-expected viewing figures during the 2016 Rio Olympics.

 Ahead of the international sporting event, NBC Universal Chief Executive Steve Burke had spoken of a nightmare scenario in which ratings dropped by 20% (a prediction that proved highly prescient). “If that happens, my prediction would be that millennials had been in a Facebook bubble or a Snapchat bubble and the Olympics have come, and they didn’t know it,” he said at the time.

 The reality is that TV viewing habits had changed massively since London 2012, and that NBC had simply failed to put the viewer at the heart of its marketing – and broadcasting – strategy.

New Balance grew brand awareness through emotional targeting

Aiming to raise its profile in the Japanese market, New Balance took advantage of so-called emotional targeting by using video to reach consumers who had displayed pre-defined receptivity signals. The campaign resulted in a 135% increase in awareness when compared to the control group.

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How audience-first challenges the traditional agency

Follow the audience-first approach through to its natural conclusion and it becomes clear that the traditional agency channel structure has become a barrier to success.

 You’ll never be able to get your message to the right people, in the right place and at the right time if your agency is taking a siloed approach to your digital marketing strategy. It’s not about “doing audience-first PPC” or “doing audience-first SEO”; it has to inform every stage of a campaign.

 In our recent blog on digital marketing predictions for 2018, our Operations Director Andy Heaps explained that audience-first hasn’t ripped up the marketers’ rulebook, but it has necessitated an ever-greater fixation on agility:

 “The goal of digital marketing stays the same. That is: understand who your ideal audience is, reach them at scale, and connect with them effectively and cost-efficiently. But the way we achieve it is changing. No longer can digital marketers work in channel silos. Ensuring consistent delivery of the right message, to the right person, at the right time, in the right place is critical to success, but only works at scale with a truly audience-first strategy.

 “So, digital budgets need to be channel-independent, and those managing budgets across channels need to be more agile than ever. Audience behaviour needs to drive all multi-channel planning and optimisation decisions, so that at any point in time, regardless of the channel or medium, we can show the message most likely to provide the biggest possible step towards conversion.

 “The final piece of the puzzle, and likely the most difficult for many, is measurement. Google Attribution (due for release in Q1) will bring attribution capabilities to the masses, so there’ll no longer be any excuse to measure ROI on a last-click basis.”

 Are you struggling to connect with your audience? Maybe you’re unclear on who they are or how best to speak to them? Return can help with that! Get in touch today to find out what we can do for your audience targeting.

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