Target niche markets with user-inspired content

One of the defining characteristics of interactive media is complexity. This is partly due to the technologies involved, but it is also something that will be familiar to people with a background in DM.

Anyone who was around at the dawn of internet time – about 1995 – will recall that one of the promises of the new medium was of personalised advertising. Because the internet allowed us one-to-one communication with consumers, we would have the ability both to construct precisely targeted marketing messages and to deliver them to the individuals concerned.

Almost 14 years on, you could be forgiven for thinking we’re still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled. All the fuss this year about behavioural targeting has highlighted the fact that a combination of privacy concerns and lack of data seem to have resulted in the industry delivering ad targeting of only the most rudimentary sort.

Away from display advertising, however, there are powerful examples of personalisation in action. It should be no surprise that the email marketing sector, with its roots in traditional DM, should have embraced targeting so effectively, tailoring each message to each consumer according to the response to the one before.

The power of segmentation is also, somewhat belatedly, starting to be recognised in the world of website design. Etailers in particular are increasingly using simple A/B splits to present regular visitors to their sites with a different landing page to that served up for newcomers. But there is a problem with personalisation, and it was summed up by a senior Procter & Gamble digital marketing executive at a conference earlier this autumn. “We want to be able to offer different creative to different people,” she said. “But we don’t want to pay a lot more for it.”

This suggests a rethink of the economics of marketing. In the DM space, it’s not a problem, since the technology exists to personalise  marketing emails automatically. In media too, ad serving systems are developing to the point where targeted ads can be delivered to specific groups, provided the data exists to identify them. The problem is developing the number of creative executions required for increased personalisation.

Microsoft has developed an interesting solution to this problem with its current “I’m a PC” campaign. The initial phase used offline media and Microsoft’s own high-reach properties, such as MSN, and asked people to upload short video clips of themselves, explaining why they were a PC and what they did. These clips were then tagged and served as ads on appropriate specialist sites. So a clip made by a surfer would appear on a site about surfing, for example. This theme of creating content aimed at specific groups was continued by interviewing Microsoft engineers and posting the interviews on YouTube. When I spoke to Microsoft’s general manager of advertising and customer engagement, Gayle Troberman, she said this micro-targeting of content to niche sites was one of the most effective parts of the campaign.

It also raises some interesting issues. As Troberman pointed out, the cost of creating the niche content was almost nothing. She also said that companies should be freer with their brands, allowing customers to help tell the brand story. Of course, if you’re Microsoft, you can afford the broadcast advertising required to generate that customer involvement. But she also made a crucial distinction between user-generated content, which was what made the I’m a PC campaign work but which is ultimately just another technique at a marketer’s disposal, and user-inspired content, which is a matter of getting closer to the customer.

This idea of spreading media spend across niche sites runs counter to prevailing practice. Internet budgets have historically been concentrated on ten or 12 buying points, and even now those top sites account for over 80% of spend. What’s more, in a downturn, brands and media agencies will be loath to move away from the big portals in favour of unproven niche sites. But personalisation advocates would argue that it’s on those sites that wastage is reduced and the possibility for dialogue with customers greatly increased. Think engagement rather than reach.

However, the most interesting thing Troberman said was that the funding for the extra creative work required should come from a reduction in media spend. Partly this reduction comes from the rise of “free” media channels, such as YouTube; partly it arises because niche sites are cheap places to advertise. But it also needs to come from the same change in thinking, from reach to engagement. If you believe that talking to the right people will deliver better results, your priority becomes

finding those people and delivering the right message. The delivery technology is developing fast. Changing attitudes will inevitably take rather longer.

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