Intro to Display Ad Targeting on Adwords/Google Ads and Programmatic Platforms: The 101

How do you target display ads?

Here’s the easiest way I go about explaining it to new PPCs I’m training.

On targeting display and programmatic campaigns. Think about the targeting like this:

There are two levels of targeting. One is the “macro” (high-level/general) way to target them, and the other is the “micro” (low-level/detailed) way.

Let’s look at the “micro” levels first. They are the tiny little options you can configure on how to target.

  • Where are they, physically at the current moment, or where do they regularly go?
  • What is their age, gender, or marital status?
  • Are they on a desktop or mobile phone? What operating system are they using? Are they using an app?
  • Are they on any lists of people, like people you’re remarketing, or other lists you’ve created? Note that on the major programmatic platforms (but not Google Ads/Adwords) you can choose audiences from many different vendors, of absurd amounts of granularity. Also note that by a “list of people” I don’t necessarily mean “John Smith at 650 Main Street” nor specific users of specific platforms, but more cookies placed in browsers by other sites, etc.

There are many detailed options and you will find them all if you’re obsessive about clicking every button everywhere; many are a lot less subtle.

But now let’s talk about the higher-level, macro ways to target them. Every platform uses different terminology for these groups and sometimes conflates them, but these are a very useful way to break them down. These are the general, high-level way to configure and think about how to target people in display or programmatic campaigns, beyond the minor tweakings above.

Let’s look at each of the three.

First, you can target by the “subject of the page/site/app they’re on at that moment” — what site/app which the person happens to be at that moment. So, you tell Google Display (or any programmatic platform), “I want to show ads only web pages about dating” and then they show your sites to anyone visiting a page about dating. Since you will also apply the micro-targeting requirements, like the ones I mentioned above, you can limit it within that pool by those other factors (this applies to all three high-level targeting options). Think of this as targeting by what the user is doing right now. In short, anyone who is on a particular page sees the ad.

Second, you can target ads by “characteristics of the person doing the searching” or we could say “interest group or demographic groups”. So, you can tell Google Display (or any programmatic platform), “I want to target people who are interested in climbing mountains”. Think about this as “interest” targeting, but it could be any broader demographic targeting. If you use the phrase, “I want to target people who are like [xyz]”, then that’s this type. “I want to run ads targeting Hungarian expats!” Note: this is separate from what page they’re on now; if I want to show an ad to Hungarian expats, maybe it shows up when that Hungarian expat is on a porn page or wherever completely separate from the first targeting (where they are now). But of course, it is subject to the other micro-targeting options you configured above.

Third, you can target people by their “intentions” and that includes their “purchase intention”. In other words, people who are LOOKING TO DO SOMETHING. It’s usually people intending to buy something, but not always. For example, I want to target people intending to vote, or people intending to travel. People who are looking to buy wedding dresses, people planning a trip to Malaysia, people planning to buy a car, etc. Also, note that this is separate from the first two. If you’re looking to show an ad to someone whom google knows wants to buy a car, that ad may show up when they’re on websites about other topics, and it could be any type of person at all.

Note that the 2nd and 3rd macro categories often confuse people, so it’s hard for a lot of people to separate them. Let’s say for example there’s a hypothetical person that loves camping and always reads about it and goes camping once per month and let’s call him “Lyudmil”. And let’s say there’s another person who hates camping but goes on an overnight “camping” trip once per year with his buddies and is miserable for every moment of it but loves being with his friends. It’s the “camping” itself that he hates. Ugh, outdoors! (These examples are completely hypothetical).

But both people happen to be reading some camping site info about some tent or something. Both Lyudmil and Morgan are reading the same web page. Note that this example gets at all three ways to target display or programmatic campaigns on the meta-level. The first category–what page you’re on now–would get both of them when they’re reading the same page. The second category–interest groups–will get Lyudmil and not Morgan since Lyudmil is interested in camping but not Morgan. The third one–purchase intention–will get Morgan since he’s looking to buy a tent.

In short, the three macro ways are: who you are; what you want to do in general; what you’re doing at this moment.

Every platform deals with these differently and the details are different but this is what it boils down to. As an example, some platforms may use wording like “contextual campaigns”, which show ads in the context where the user is at the moment. So that would be the first category. In what context do you want the target to be, when he sees the ad?

One clarification about the three higher-level ways of targeting: on most platforms, you can target people who are in 2 or 3 of those or even a few different ones of each. Think about it this way: most platforms let you define an “audience”. An audience will have one set of those targeting options (like option 1 or 2 or 3) and you can define dozens of audiences. Then you can set your ad group to target people who are in both Audience A and Audience B, thus getting at multiple audiences at the same time.

Sound interesting? Want to discuss display or programmatic campaigns in detail? Drop me a line!

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