Why digital advertising is like online dating

When you take all the technology, algorithms, sales bluster and slick presentations out of the equation, advertising is the same as it always has been.

When you take all the technology, algorithms, sales bluster and slick presentations out of the equation, advertising is the same as it always has been. It’s about finding the right audience for your company or product and building a relationship with them. A simple premise, but finding that audience isn’t always easy, and doing so is key to whether a brand can build a lasting connection. In many ways, digital advertising is like online dating.

I took the plunge into online dating myself recently, here’s what I found.

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Specifics, or the the lack of them

I set up my profile with the usual information, layer by layer adding more detail: Gender, location, age, interests, non-threatening photo. I did the works, figuring that the more information I provided, the more accurately I would represent myself.

When I was done, I set the parameters on the various search filters, broadly defining the type of person I’d like to meet – initially just by geographical radius, gender and age – and then began looking through the profiles that popped up.

What really surprised me was the lack of information people had provided. I wanted to know what their interests were, what music they liked, perhaps what their top five movie trilogies of all time were*, their tolerance for football and anything else that might give me a better idea of who they were.

The point wasn’t the specifics, it was the lack of them. I had such limited information to go on in many cases that what I’m sure could quite easily have been great dates were sidestepped on the grounds of not wanting to take the risk that there wouldn’t be any compatibility.

Data drives decisions

After all, you go on a dating website because you want a relationship right? Probably a long-term one too. And that’s when the similarities with advertising online become apparent. Advertisers are trying to reach audiences who are right for them, who have relevant interests and fit a demographic profile, with the goal of building a long-term relationship with their brand.

The trouble is, advertisers currently typically only make decisions on which audiences to reach based on demographic information, the same basic levers I was pulling to set things like gender, age and location. I would argue that those bits of information give you the profile of a population, not the profile of an audience.

It’s only when you can dig down and find out what interests people have that you can start to determine whether they’re compatible. If they don’t seem compatible, why waste time trying to build a relationship that ultimately has a small chance of working? Similarly for advertisers, they shouldn’t waste time and considerable budget trying to reach consumers who may fit a demographic profile but whose interests bear no relevance to their brand.

Right person, right person, right person

Of course compatibility is only the first step. Building a relationship with someone takes time, communication, trust and shared experiences. That’s as true for dating as it is for for brands and consumers. But it’s a strong foundation upon which to start.

The old adage of being able to reach the right person, in the right place at the right time has become something of a cliche in digital advertising circles. It’s rolled out to loosely validate a plethora of technology offerings, but as a general framework it holds true. Unless advertisers can identify and segment audiences using data-points that create a three-dimensional profile of their target consumer, worrying about the right place and the right time becomes redundant.

*In order:

Posted by simonholliday