When the movie "Minority Report" was released in 2002, it was pure Hollywood that depicted a world where personalized screens would follow a shopper's every move -- whether walking through a mall or entering the local Gap store. Fast-forward 10 years, and this world of personalized screens is actually a reality driven by the sheer number of mobile devices consumers have access to today. This "ubiquity of screens" combined with the untethering of shopping from physical stores, has created a highly fragmented marketplace making it a greater challenge for brands to engage with consumers in the right context.
However, with change comes opportunity. A consumer's shopping mode can be turned on at any moment, not just when they're in the store or watching TV, but when they see something that piques their interest (think of the rapid rise of Pinterest) and want to explore or buy at that exact moment. The smartest brands are shifting their media investments to be in direct alignment with the shopping actions of the consumer by leveraging new and unique marketing channels that directly intersect with the path to purchase.
But the complexity of these shopping channels still remains. Since we're all in this to make money, the core question is "How do you define a target consumer for purchasing your product?" Simply put, your audience can easily be defined as anyone that meets the following criteria: Those who might buy your product; those who have purchased your product and need reinforcement of their purchase; and those who can influence others to buy your product.
The methods that exist to effectively target consumers today lack the basic capability to meet the above criteria. When a consumer is visiting a generic content site, it's almost impossible for us to know what exact product that consumer is shopping for. Even with third party intent data (which is only available long after the intent was manifested), you're at a loss unless you happen to be a mind reader. That means the "best" thing you can do on a content site is to make a large ad buy and hope that enough of your target consumers just happen to see your brand at a point when it is relevant to their current shopping mindset. This is the very essence of wasted impressions.
Google and other search engines have found a way to insert themselves at the top level of "intent" within the shopping funnel. However, paid search is only one of the starting points of the purchase process, and consumers don't always use search as their main source of navigation. We see more and more that consumers are now going directly to retail sites as it pertains to shopping research for both online and offline purchases. In fact, according to Google, nearly half of in-store purchases today are influenced by online research.
If you don't have a magic wand or research team that can help you define your target audience with the criteria above, then let the market define it for you. The great thing about advertising within retail is that your entire addressable audience is pre-qualified for your message, given the fact they're researching your products within relevant categories. Your retail partners (online retailers) will be the easiest source for helping you define "who" your target audience should be.
With this new capability you'll no longer have to make ad buys on content sites and guess which impressions actually matter. If someone is shopping in the baby category on a retail site, it's pretty obvious that this is a powerful opportunity for related brands to own the "mommy" audience. There's no "spray and pray" strategy involved here -- it's highly targeted and richly contextual. Media buying has never been more precise.
Beyond owning impressions in your brand's category, the "when" of targeting your audience should be obvious for most: It's about attacking the points of intent within retail. Some straightforward examples would be things like targeting keyword searches within retail or when specific products are added to a shopping cart. In addition to that, sometimes reaching your audience right after they've left a retail site is still a prime time to reach your consumers. Some are in the middle of planning their offline shopping trips and remain in the shopping research mode. Visiting an online retailer is a fantastic signal, but don't be afraid to follow take your audience with you, if possible.
In closing, no matter how much technology changes advertising, one thing is certain: It's always best to engage consumers while they are shopping and researching products. The vehicles may change but research and product exploration will always happen. As long as there's e-commerce, personalized brand advertising is the most powerful method in targeting your preferred audience.
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"Portrait of a happy girl choosing" image via Shutterstock.