To Build an Audience, Start With the Individual

By Kurt Hawks, SVP of Cross Device and Video, Conversant

In the 60+ years since segmentation was first introduced as a marketing tactic, it’s become abundantly clear: consumers want relevant content. Today, we talk about reaching the right consumers instead of audience segments, as technology enables us to be even more precise and focus our efforts on individuals with personalized messaging.

As marketers, we know the importance of a single view of each consumer. What’s more, we know strong consumer profiles build strong audiences. But fragmented technology solutions are preventing many from achieving a person-level view of each consumer, and creating a single view of each consumer is difficult. Most technology solutions are stitched together and are poorly integrated. They’re cookie based, so they only know what consumers browse over a short period of time.

Understanding Today’s Consumer

Instead, consumer profiles need to account for online and offline data to paint a complete picture of an individual. Technology now enables companies to do this in a privacy-friendly manner, such as pseudonymizing all data so that the consumer is not directly identifiable. Profiles should focus on the following six areas:

Who they are

Knowing what to say to consumers begins with knowing who they are. Demographics and lifestyle data help you tailor messaging accordingly, but life experiences and interests of people the same age can vary greatly. Why, for example, do some marketers try to message dads between the ages of 18 and 34 with the same ad? The more demographic and lifestyle information we can apply to each of those individuals, the better we can reach them with relevant messaging that acknowledges their differences and who they are.

What they buy

If you know where consumers are spending their money, you can predict how and where they’ll spend money in the future. Pay attention to data and trends such as consumers’ purchase cadence, loyalty and rewards info. It’s also important to keep in mind when and where they’re most likely to convert (is it desktop or mobile?) and details such as if they like to purchase in bulk or small quantities.

What they watch

Insight into consumers’ broadcast and digital video consumption provides insight into their interests and intent. If recent reports are any indication, digital video will continue to be a predominant factor for years to come. Adults in the U.S. watch, on average, an hour and 13 minutes of digital video every day, up from 53 minutes in 2014 according to eMarketer. By 2019, time spent with digital video is expected to be an hour and 21 minutes.

What they browse

In knowing where consumers spend their digital time across websites and mobile apps, you’ll know what they care about and where they’ll be most receptive to receiving messages, across all channels. Are they more likely to visit a sports or news website on their desktop? When they’re on their smartphone or tablet, are they getting information via mobile web or in-app? According to a 2016 eMarketer report, 85.7% of all smartphone time is spent in-app.

Where they go

Understanding consumers’ location and proximity habits over time provides rich information for advertisers as they develop consumer profiles and determine the most relevant messaging. And marketers are eager to use location data to steer shoppers in-store. Location-based mobile ad spend was $9.8 billion in 2015 and is projected to reach nearly $30 billion by 2020 according to research and consulting firm BIA/Kelsey.

How they connect

Data from Mary Meeker’s 2017 internet trends report shows that adults spent 5.6 hours with digital media in 2016–3.1 hours on mobile, 2.2 hours on a desktop or laptop and 0.4 hours on other connected devices. You need to stay with consumers as they hop from device to device to complete an activity and ensure your messaging adapts based on individualized purchase journeys. In order to do so, you have to connect consumers across multiple devices and constantly refresh these connections.

Though it’s tempting to cut corners, omitting even one or two of these dimensions can lead to a fragmented understanding of your consumer.

Let’s say, for example, that a consumer visits a basketball website. A cookie-based solution might think it would be the perfect time to serve this consumer ads for men’s basketball shoes. But cookie-based solutions know only a sliver of information about this consumer. They know that this consumer is interested in basketball — so they assume the consumer is male, since most visitors to this website are men. So they start serving ads for men’s basketball shoes. Easy enough, right? Little do they realize, the consumer is a woman. They’re spending precious ad dollars serving her the wrong ads.

Knowing consumers across these six areas seems like a lot to ask, but the reality is that the most digital savvy brands are already doing it. Consumers are beginning to expect the same level of personalization from every brand as evidenced by the fact that 71 percent of consumers prefer personalized ads according to a 2016 study conducted by Adlucent. To prepare, brands need to adopt a customer-centric mindset through a people-based marketing approach.

Aligning Delivery and Measurement

Reaching the right individuals and audiences is only half of the equation. Marketers increasing their digital media spend in hopes of driving customer retention and customer acquisition should still be prepared to expect the unexpected. That’s to say that while augmenting investments in digital is a shrewd move, there’s no guarantee that the online attribution they are measuring is accurate.

The problem is: digital campaigns are too often measured based on perishable attributes such as a cookie or mobile device IDs that do not reflect the actual consumer purchase journey. Far too often, brands and agencies don’t actually have the conversation with ad tech providers about what their view of the consumer is based on and how long they are able to stay connected to this view– is it based on a cookie, for example?

In order to ensure they’re getting a full and truthful picture of the consumers they believe they are intending to reach online, and understand campaign effectiveness, marketers must first understand the limitations of traditional digital attributes; subsequently, they must ensure that consumer profiles include a single view of consumers across devices as well as online/offline. Marketing plans and digital measurement must reflect the customer journey from beginning to end.

The Flaws

There are numerous perishable digital attributes that are often used to measure campaign effectiveness, but marketers should take into consideration the potential flaws they’ll encounter.

Do you lack clarity around attributes? Terms like “uniques” and “individuals” have been casually thrown around, taking on various meaning along the way. Unique cookies? Unique devices? Unique households? Unique consumers? There is room for misinterpretation around these definitions.

Even if you have clarity around attributes, many digital attributes have short shelf-lives. If measurement is based on a cookie, it’s flawed. The average life of a cookie is 30 days. Consequently, every cookie that received a marketing message 30 days plus prior has been lost and any actions taken as a result of a message cannot be tracked back to the campaign.

Fragmentation across devices is real. According to Kantar US Insights, 60% of digital interaction time is spent on mobile/ tablet and 40% on a PC. I’m seeing that the average individual consumer has 19 cookies, 3.4 digital devices and three email addresses.

The path to purchase is varied. It’s been well established that consumers jump across devices to complete an activity. Five years ago, 67% of consumers followed that pattern according to Google; I’m sure that number has jumped significantly since then. Six percent of purchases take place on the device on which the consumer was messaged, while 11% are cross-device; the balance of sales transactions (83%) still occur offline.

The Solutions

Individual-based measurement gives marketers a much better understanding of reach and overlap by unifying profiles across all consumer devices, and purchase data.

The goal is for marketers to be armed with the correct tools to validate or debunk claims around profiles, which drive the link between digital campaign delivery and attribution. Marketers must clarify, question and trust (but verify) claims around consumer profiles.

Clarify key terminology and buzzwords. Work with partners to establish a common language and agree on a set of terms and their assigned meanings.

Question key elements of how a provider establishes its consumer profile. Seek to understand how a partner establishes a foundation of the online profile (e.g., solely based on perishable cookies, or based on an actual, verified sales transactions) and determine what data is included in the profile and subsequently identify what the sources of the data are. Determine how data points such as offline data and device associations are matched to a consumer profile. Are the data and matches directly observed or modeled based on assumed probabilities? Does the accuracy of these matches vary based on scale?

Also, question key elements of how a provider manages and refreshes that profile. Determine how a partner maintains a connection to consumers over time. Is this connection lost when a cookie is deleted or when a consumer utilizes a new mobile device? Importantly, determine how a partner measures and evaluates campaign performance. Is tracking ad delivery and measurement solely based on a cookie or mobile device ID?

If you are employing a test vs. control measurement approach that is based on cookies, the control group will be contaminated as cookies expire. Is your partner able to measure offline activity that is associated with online marketing? Do these capabilities align with what you know about your consumer’s individual purchase journeys? Answers to these questions will direct you onto the right path to determine capabilities — or flaws — of campaign delivery and measurement.


A 2016 survey of 220 executives conducted by Econsultancy on behalf of Epsilon and Conversant found that while marketers recognize the importance of not only having a single view of each consumer but the ability to reach that consumer across devices — 75% said it was vital to their growth — few are able to do so. Fourteen percent of respondents said they could match consumers across devices and even fewer (12%) said they understand their consumers’ behavior over time. The message is simple: The end game for marketers should be to establish a persistent connection to a verified consumer, from ad delivery to campaign measurement.

Remember the consumer visiting the basketball website? Let’s say her anti-virus software clears her browser history three days later or her cookies expire. An incomplete solution loses what little information they had about her, and can’t even serve her ads for men’s basketball shoes. Using perishable attributes alone can make a loyal customer look like a prospect, and then you have to start all over. You can’t build a lifetime relationship with her if you’re constantly starting from scratch.

Put simply, without a single view of a consumer, you can’t use one identifier (e.g., mobile device ID) for campaign delivery but measure campaign performance based on another (e.g., a cookie). The most effective marketing strategy needs to reflect the customer journey from start to finish. It makes the concept of an online profile — an actual pseudonymized consumer as opposed to say, a cookie — imperative. Establishing the right measurement strategy at the outset, by tracking real consumers, can make the difference.

As more brands move away from cookie-based and fragmented solutions and towards unified individual profiles and sound measurement, “dealing with it later” becomes less of an option. To market to actual customers, you need to re-evaluate your technology and make sure that your investment is paying off. Ask your tech partners how they’re planning to address pitfalls that come with using fragmented solutions. If your tech setup doesn’t match your strategy, you will need to get it right.

About the Author

Kurt Hawks is SVP of Cross Device and Video at Conversant, where he is responsible for the development and execution of Conversant’s cross-device and video strategic objectives.

This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of Admap.