Why you should abandon ad personas

Despite the rise of new technologies and techniques, marketing has largely stayed the same. New data-driven targeting methods are just a more precise form of the kind of targeting marketers have been doing for years, and geo-hyper-local approaches are yet another way to better execute concepts that we know work.

Every once in a while, though, a technology comes around that truly changes how we think about marketing. There is no question that social media has dramatically impacted the relationship between brands and audiences, for instance -- but I am not going to talk about that here. Similarly, real-time bidding and programmatic media buying have transformed some of the most fundamental ways we think about reaching audiences via advertising -- but I am not going to talk about that either.

What's really changing the face of marketing is the confluence of those trends -- the phenomenon of real-time advertising. In a nutshell, this is the practice of recognizing trends and topics as they emerge and then instantly tailoring an ad campaign to reach audiences when they are engaged in conversations about those trends. Yes, on the one hand we have been doing this via social channels for a while -- think Oreo during Super Bowl 2013, or JC Penney's during the 2014 Oscars. A lot of brands see this as just another form of ad targeting. But, peel back a layer, and you see that it changes some of our fundamental marketing operating principles -- namely, how marketers identify the types of people to push ads to.

Consider how brands and agencies define audiences today. At a minimum, audiences are labeled and given a list of attributes. How many times have you heard, "We want to reach college-educated, upper-middle class moms"? One step more sophisticated is the persona. A bit more valuable, a persona attempts to put a little meat on the bone by describing an audience group's situation, their intent and even a bit about their personality: "We want to reach college-educated, upper-middle class moms who want to feed their children healthy meals." The intent is right on -- audiences are not comprised of flat demographics; they are people with interests and goals. Personas head in that direction. But they stop short.

This is because they are static. They never change, no matter how much that audience may grow or change. I have seen agencies and marketers use the same personas for years. But audiences are not static. In fact, they are highly dynamic with interests that change daily, weekly and even by the minute -- and the internet has essentially thrown gasoline on that fire. We have accepted defining audiences with static personas when in reality we know (because we are part of those audiences) that our attention constantly changes, and we engage in all kinds of different conversations over time. Just think about how many different websites you have visited this morning -- some for work, some for your kids, some because you wanted a laugh.

That is what real-time advertising captures, recognizes, and delivers. Beyond the value of placing your advertising where your audience is looking at that moment, it also returns insight back to the brand about what that audience cares about in real-time and over a period of time.

Imagine a brand that runs an ongoing real-time advertising campaign, much like they might run search advertising. Over the course of a year, they connect audiences with relevant topics every day and test those connections by tracking advertising performance. With this information, they now move beyond the classic static persona and start to build a more dynamic persona that better accounts for interests as they change over time.

This approach can illuminate a number of compelling audience attributes. For example, let's say you know your mom audience is interested in recipes. That makes logical sense because she wants her children to eat healthy. But, what else is that audience interested in? They can't possibly only care about recipes 365 days per year. Real-time, trend-driven advertising connects audience interests you knew about to those you didn't. Perhaps your recipe-loving moms might also be interested in education (logical), tennis (makes sense) and hip hop (what? Cool!). More importantly, you can evaluate what kind of ad inventory is associated with those topics and you can see how the moms engaged with advertising placed against each of those topics.

At the end of the day, this information creates a moment-by-moment view of what your audience is interested in and how they respond to it in an advertising environment. Take a few steps back and you may find that there are trends based on time of week, time of month, or time of year -- for instance, maybe moms really only care about recipes on Sunday when they're planning for the week, and the rest of the time, they don't cast a second glance at food blogs or magazines. Interests you knew existed may become more or less important over time or change when associated with big events -- maybe moms change their routine and go crazy for recipes at Thanksgiving. Topics and interests you had no idea existed may emerge to suddenly deliver significant ad performance and thereby inform ad creative, media targeting, and other marketing strategies.

The point is, we all know we aren't static human beings. It is time advertisers moved past the moldy old ad personas and embraced a dynamic, real-time approach to defining audiences. Maybe moms' ad response rates skyrocket whenever Kanye releases a new album. Then again, maybe not. But you'll never know if you aren't advertising in real-time.

Adam Kapel is SVP, marketing and insights, at Taykey.

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