Ad relevance can be the magic bullet. As long as we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot with it.

At a recent client meeting we were engaged in a lively debate about various media tactics—television, outdoor, online banners, PPC, etc.—and their relative effectiveness. Everyone had an opinion based on his or her own personal experience—the proverbial “focus group of one.” A couple of anecdotes from the discussion brings a critical media planning issue into focus: relevance.

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Questions bounced around the room: “Do you remember any online banner ads you have seen lately?” “No. Do you remember any outdoor boards you have seen lately?” “No.” But then someone chided in, “Well, wait a minute, I remember seeing ads for wrinkle cream everywhere I go online.” But why did she notice these ads? Well, they were relevant to her. Who among us doesn’t agree with the idea that we block out ads—online, offline, print, broadcast, outdoor, whatever—until one of them hits us over the head with, drum roll, relevance. It’s not which ad screams the loudest, it’s which ad connects best with me and my individual circumstances, wants and needs.

So of course media planners work as hard as possible to put relevant ads in relevant places. And there is no more powerful technology available for that than behaviorally targeted (and even further, remarketed and retargeted) online ads, with which advertisers can serve ads specific to the context of an individual web user’s recent online activity. Our media director spoke to that point at this particular client meeting. In fact, these kinds of targeting techniques can be extremely valuable to specialty brands, since their key audiences—category enthusiasts—will tend to exhibit very specific, interest-related online behavior.

Which brings me to the second anecdote. One woman in the meeting said she was a bit annoyed that every website she went to seemed to be promoting a product for menopausal women. Why did she notice these ads? Relevance, of course. But at what point does the creepiness factor (that feeling that someone is stalking you when you think you’re being anonymous online) actually negate the relevance benefit of behavioral and contextual ad targeting?

As savvy consumers become more conscious of these marketing techniques, do they see them as negative, neutral or positive? It would be great for an advertiser to know which individual viewers of their ads had a high “creep-out factor.” This way they could refrain from sending the same ads to those people as often as they do to the ones who view this relevance targeting as a good thing. Some online advertising networks are working hard to strike the right balance, especially because the entire issue could at some point be rendered moot by regulatory efforts to force users to “opt in” to cookies. And content providers, such as Hulu, for example, let viewers weigh in with a mouse click as to whether a particular ad is relevant to them. They even let viewers choose from one of three ads they prefer to watch.

So the industry continues to work rapidly toward the kind of accepted, perfectly targeted advertising messages that were portrayed as futuristic just a couple of years ago in the movie “Minority Report.” What do you think—will we become more and more accepting because all we really want is relevance? Or will the creep-out factor push things backwards to a point where more anonymity is better?


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