Demographics are so pre-GDPR, but that doesn’t mean the end of contextual advertising

Emma Lacey is currently the Director of Strategic Accounts at Blis. With over 13 years experience of leading and building successful commercial teams, and a demonstrated history of working in the digital marketing and advertising industry, her previous roles have been at AOL, HarperCollins Publishers, and Sky.

The unthinkable has happened. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has culminated in Facebook being slapped with a fine to the tune of £500k – the maximum possible under the pre-GDPR Data Protection Act. For Zuck the mighty tech deity, the chickens have truly come home to roost. Or have they? Zuckerberg probably made more than that in the time it has taken to read this sentence…

But should GDPR have us all shaking in our boots? Or is it time to embrace the limitations it places upon us to unlock more creativity – and better results?

Lost in scale

The pre-GDPR world already seems far away, but plenty of us are still mourning the longer mailing lists and there is still a general consensus that we are working with a smaller digital audience.  Personally, I’m enjoying receiving fewer emails from random brands I once upon a time engaged with… sadly I am not still in market for a student bank account!

But the reality is, as marketers we were lost in scale. Aiming for as many hits on as many platforms amounted to too much focus on mass audience demographics and too little focus on the people who wanted to be spoken to and what they thought about the brand they were being targeted by. On TV, scale might be the right metric, but that isn’t the case for mobile. On these platforms, it’s about relevance, timeliness, and using new technologies to deliver impactful advertising, relevant to the here and now.

Let’s get the cold, hard truth out of the way: post-GDPR, there is inevitably less data out there. But the data that remains, should be significantly more valuable. Consumers who opt in have a genuine synergy with the brand and publisher they’ve allowed access to their data. This increases their propensity to react and respond to a brand’s messaging, as they will ultimately find it more relevant, valuable, and interesting than they did before.

Before GDPR we were like that guy on the bus mindlessly swiping right on Tinder, only getting a match every one in a hundred times or less. Now, it’s a match every time.

Old dog, new tricks

You don’t need to be told that contextual targeting isn’t anything new. Contextual targeting campaigns have brought us beer adverts on TV during the football, the newest lipstick range advertised on beauty blogs and witty takeaway ads at commuter stations. Now it is even easier to reach the right someone at the right moment with the right message; and it feels far more personal and relevant to the user (providing they give us permission to!). This way, an ad can fit into the daily activity of a consumer and add value to their experience of the content they are consuming, rather than disrupting it.

Context works. But it’s about understanding who someone is moment to moment, not only making assumptions based on demographics and putting them in the same boxes all the time. A female aged 25-34 can be one person all tied together: a mother, a friend, a trendsetter, a globetrotter and a colleague; but they can also be each of those things at a different time and in different places. Each of those personas entails unique behaviours, values, and interests; and brands which are relevant for them in one context aren’t necessarily right in another.

Right here, right now

Context comes from the Latin contextus meaning to ‘weave together’. And context in advertising today is a more exciting tapestry than it ever has been. Brands have the opportunity to be more innovative with their use of data to adapt to various contexts and embrace the limitations that GDPR has (rightly) placed upon us.

Take Channel 4. After a scene in Made in Chelsea where everyone’s fave characters had been making viewers envious by drinking wine in a swanky West End bar while gossiping about who had kissed who; the ad break that followed featured an ad for a well-known wine brand. That’s not product placement; that’s savvy marketing, which pushes propensity to purchase through the roof without diminishing the quality of the content which the ad accompanies. In other words, maximum points for creative contextualisation.

You can’t talk about real-time moments without mentioning location.

Location brings a whole new perspective to context. Consider if an alcohol brand wanted to advertise to a football fan. Real-time location data could find consumers who are leaving the pub after England played the World Cup semi-final. Historic behavioural data verifies that they’re the right person. But when they’re leaving the pub is probably not the best time to show them the ad! So use location data to find them when they are at home or have reached the next bar before you target them with an ad. And remember that contextual brand messaging in these circumstances should be engaging, timely, and reactive to maximise impact. If you’ve gone to all that effort to find the right person, don’t waste the opportunity to get their attention with weak creative.

Naturally, GDPR has and will continue to place limitations on marketers – but in doing so it has crafted smaller audiences who should love your messaging more. It has also unlocked the opportunity for more creativity and innovation in contextual moments. So, my advice… don’t be afraid of our post-GDPR world of data. And like the gentleman we mentioned earlier on Tinder… Think quality, not quantity, and remember, size isn’t everything!

Interested in hearing leading global brands discuss subjects like this in person?

Find out more about Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) Europe, London, North America, and Singapore.  

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