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As search marketers, we are well aware of the power of audience targeting. We got a taste of it with remarketing, which blew away our conversion rates and left us scrambling to restructure campaigns.

For years, I’ve been chronicling the shift toward audiences in articles such as Searching for searchers and Developing your audience targeting strategy. Search marketers have long been preparing for a new era of search based on more targeting, more personalization and more intelligence, even though it’s been unclear exactly when or how it would come.

Demographic targeting

There are many ways search marketers have been targeting their audiences: through user behavior, demographics, interests, device and location, but what’s been missing is an additional layer of demographic targetings, such as the company someone works for or their job title.

The newly announced Microsoft Audience Network, (MSAN) is pushing the boundaries of search forward as it modernizes traditional native advertising and enhances targeting capabilities to pull in the powerful data available from the Microsoft Graph, which includes LinkedIn data no one else has.

What does this mean for marketers? It’s now easier than ever to reach specific user sets throughout their purchase journeys.

How easy?

  • Whereas search ads used keywords and are predominately text-based, audience ads are image- and feed-based.
  • Whereas keywords waited for your customers to search, audience ads use artificial intelligence to find and reach your specific targeted audiences.
  • Whereas keywords use algorithms, audience ads use AI and predictive analytics.

Thanks to audience ads, marketers now have access to more targeting ingredients for a perfect ad. Let’s take a look at those ingredients.

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More native ads

The future of advertising is non-advertising!

How do you know if you’ve delivered the right message to the right person at the right time? When consumers don’t even realize an ad is an ad. Today’s advertisements should be designed to serve today’s customers along their daily journeys, not interrupt them.

Salesforce research shows that by 2020, 51 percent of consumers expect that companies will anticipate their needs and make relevant suggestions before they make contact.


Recent research by Bing (my company) also found that native advertising will gain more and more popularity as search engines continue to grow into digital assistants. Based on our research, within two years, 54 percent of consumers will expect their digital assistant to make purchase recommendations. This number jumps to 85 percent within five years.

Here is an example of an audience ad for a fine arts school that showcases how an ad can be part of the landscape without even looking like an ad. The ad format allows for responsive, visually compelling images that adapt to the layout of whatever device they appear on.

More storytelling

Each and every one of your customers has a story. Audience ads give advertisers the opportunity to reach specific customers at various points throughout the purchase journey. How do your products fit into their stories? Focus less on the “what” (your products) and more on the “why.” Why do your customers want your product(s), and what is driving their behavior?

As for me, I’m a busy mom who likes running, craft beers and using red-eye flights to catch up on sleep. My time is at a premium, and I appreciate customized offers that make my life easier. According to Salesforce research, 63 percent of millennial consumers and 58 percent of GenX consumers are willing to share data with companies in exchange for personalized offers and discounts.


Bing research also found that consumers are open to sharing data. We found that consumers were least likely to share their home address and full name as compared to their gender, age, email address, or even purchase behavior/history, in exchange for getting free or personalized offers from companies. Here is the breakdown of what we saw in our research:

Bing research

Audience ads don’t require users to share data, but they do invite you further into consumers’ lives. Consumers want you to become a part of their story, especially when you bring value. Today’s marketers must now put on their storyteller hats as they design creative that speaks to individual customers in contextualized moments.

More visual content

Over the last decade, we’ve seen different forms of paid media become more visual in nature. Think about the evolution of paid search ads: They started with a title, two description lines and a uniform resource locator (URL).

Today, while the ads still contain a title and description, we’ve got additional features and extensions making them more visually compelling, including site links, product ads, image extensions, locations, reviews and ratings.

We’ve also seen visual image components added to ad formats, paid search product ads, paid social carousel ads, and even with dynamic remarketing ads in display. The shift to visual ads will continue with audience ads, so search marketers will need to continue to evolve their skill sets to think about how images and text can help them better connect with their target audiences and customers.

More intelligence

As artificial intelligence (AI) becomes more common across ad platforms, look for solutions that have the AI capabilities of machine learning and predictive analytics built into them.

For instance, the Microsoft Graph applies machine learning across a multitude of anonymous data signals from search and web activity, LinkedIn professional profiles and demographics to identify audiences to reach. The power of AI is officially at our fingertips, and brands should look for the growing number of native and audience targeting solutions that have intelligence integrated into them. Making the switch of targeting specific placements to targeting audiences.

More quality partners

Today’s marketers know that high-quality partner sites are the cornerstone of successful ads. While many early display networks lacked in quality and visibility, today is very different. Marketers have many strong choices when rolling out an audience strategy. Over time, audience ads will continue to appear in new places and new forms, including digital out of the home, the latest social platforms, and maybe even mixed reality.

More efficiency overall

At the end of the day, we’ve come a long way from this ad:

This was an actual ad from a campaign I managed back in the mid-2000s, and it nicely represents the opposite of today’s audience ads. This ad could literally be targeting anyone, for any type of Office product. The title is nostalgically simple and reminds us of how far we’ve come.

In our incredibly fast-paced world, efficiency is no longer a luxury but a necessity. We live in a time when consumers want to be targeted, heard, valued and reached in smarter ways with automatic reorders, customized offers, form auto-fills and walk-out payments.

While audience ads are certainly not the final format in search advertising, they represent a step in the right direction as we continue to strive for the perfect native, storytelling, intelligent, high-quality, efficient ad.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

​Christi Olson is a Search Evangelist at Microsoft in Seattle, Washington. For over a decade Christi has been a student and practitioner of SEM. Prior to joining the Bing Ads team within Microsoft, Christi worked in marketing both in-house and at agencies at Point It, Expedia, Harry & David, and Microsoft (MSN, Bing, Windows). When she’s not geeking out about search and digital marketing she can be found with her husband at ACUO crossfit and running races across the PacificNW, brewing and trying to find the perfect beer, and going for lots of walks with their two schnauzers and pug.

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