One of the distinguishing features of the internet is the vast amount of personal information that it can collect about ordinary people. Facebook, for instance, collects information about users’ interests, and their online activities and social connections. Twitter collects data about their followers and interests, while Google collects data about users’ search history, and LinkedIn collects data about their work experiences and connections.

Mobile operating system makers can collect data on which apps a user has downloaded and how they use them, and online retailers can track a user’s purchasing habits and collect credit card information.

Another distinct advantage of the internet is the ability to personalize and target advertising to the individual. Unlike television, where all viewers watching a program see the same advertisements, on the internet, ad servers can direct different ads to different users.

The abundance of personal data, combined with the ability to personalize and target advertising, allows marketers to finely target their advertisements to maximize the effectiveness of their online advertising campaigns. Here are some common approaches that advertisers use to target viewers:

  • Behavioural targeting: By collecting data about a viewer’s online behaviour, across several websites, advertisers are able to create a picture of the viewer’s interests, and direct advertisements that relate to these interests.
  • Retargeting (also known as behavioural retargeting or behavioural remarketing) is online advertising targeted to consumers, particularly those who, by their actions on the marketer’s website, expressed interest but did not convert. Those relevant actions taken by a prospective user are captured by means of a tag, which sets a cookie in the prospect’s browser. The advertiser can then “follow” the prospect on the net and direct ads via an ad exchange.
  • Demographic targeting.
  • Geotargeting (geographic location using, for instance, the Internet Protocol [IP] address or a phone’s Global Positioning System [GPS] receiver).
  • Persona-based targeting: Advertisers may group viewers according to traits that allude to their objectives. For instance, landing pages, or traffic sources (i.e., referring site), keywords searched, or event based (e.g., filling a form, or buying something). This information may be used for delivering relevant advertisements.
    Access to user profiles on social networks allow for targeting based on a wide variety of interests, activities, skill sets, behaviours and more granular demographics.
  • Contextual/ semantic targeting is a method of delivering ads that are related to the content of the webpage where they appear. While this approach can be effective in placing ads in brand-safe environments that align with a brand’s core values, it can be challenging to implement on a large scale. Advertisers are often concerned with brand safety, as the appearance of an ad next to questionable or inharmonious content can detract from the brand message and have a negative impact on brand image. For example, if an ad for a chocolate brand appears next to news on obesity, it may not be well received by the audience.
    Misplacement of ads is a significant challenge that social media platforms are still struggling with. Advertisers have pulled their ads from platforms when they appear next to inharmonious or offensive content. To address this issue, platforms are using various measures to ensure brand safety, including manual review of ad placements, automated filtering, and allowing advertisers to block certain content categories.
  • Interest targeting aims at specific audiences based on their self-reported interests, abilities, activities, browsing history and so on.
  • Custom/tailored audiences: On social networks, advertisers can target consumers known to them (i.e., sourced from CRM database) by suppling contact details such as email addresses, phone numbers etc.
  • Lookalike Audiences: Advertisers may also target prospects that match the profile of some other group of people, for instance, a high-value customer segment.
  • Connection targeting: Access to social graphs on social platforms, allows advertisers to target prospects who are connected by page, app, group, or event.

Effective targeting increases the relevance of advertising to viewers, thus improving the advertiser’s return on investment. There are limitations particularly when IP addresses are employed for targeting audiences, or even when a cookie or web storage is used. Social networks, however, are blessed with extensive information that their users are prepared to share, and they do not need to rely on these methods to craft the identities of their users.

Internet advertising is also highly transparent. Advertising platforms allow marketers to track and measure the performance of their ad campaigns by means of analytic tools that trace users as they click the ad and traverse the destination site. Advertisers are able to gauge the number of leads and increase in sales resulting from the ads.

It is important to note that the collection and use of personal data for targeting purposes also raises concerns about privacy, data security, and the potential for misuse of personal information. As a result, there are regulations and best practices in place to protect user data and ensure transparency in how it is collected and used.

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