Why the future of digital marketing is understanding the person – not targeting the cookie

This article originally appeared in Real Business on 16 September

Big data is changing how businesses speak to customers. The internet has made the world smaller, more connected, but it’s made your potential market larger, more complicated, and harder to understand. Big data is stepping in to fill the void.

But we’re still trying to fill a digital hole with an analogue peg.  It’s understandable that marketers might want to treat online as a digital extension of the physical world.  Media buyers (the clue is in the title) buy media, and even those who now talk of ‘buying audiences’ – usually define audiences by the offline demographic terms that have served us since the Mad Men era. And as long as TV remains king that’s not going to change. Even in digital the majority of spend is direct, through a publisher or ad network, because that’s what we know.

Programmatic buying & real-time bidding is changing this. Instead of buying a publisher’s audience, you target a user, wherever they may be. What started out as a technical means to sell ‘remnant inventory’ is now, for some, the primary mechanism for ad sales.

Publishers have mixed views on this. Some are terrified by the prospect of eroding the value of direct sales, while others embrace it as a means to trim sales teams.  Whatever the view, it’s happening, and if the person, rather than the platform, is your ‘target’ it follows that the better you understand that person, the better chance you have of connecting with them.

This narrative isn’t just relevant in the narrow field of online adverting. It has profound implications for the way businesses and people communicate. Taking a purchasing decision as simple as buying a chicken, for example, there’s an abundance of choice – corn -fed, free-range, economy, pre-basted etc. Demographics can guess at what media ‘those people’ read, and analyse what prompts ‘those people’ to choose one above the other, but such purchasing decisions are more closely linked to personality – what kind of person they are.

But understanding personality is incredibly difficult. Brands are remarkably sophisticated when they profile, and mass media advertising can send out signals in the hope that they are paying attention, but how does that work in a modern digital ecosystem when we have to go to them? Who is the person behind the cookie?

VisualDNA’s patented personality profiling technology uses data from visual quizzes to create an online persona. And from these, we use an inference algorithm to scale particular traits into anonymised segments that are used in targeted advertising.  The market for data in advertising is still dominated by demographics, but things are changing.

Having witnessed a shift from targeting the media people consume, to targeting the person direct (as defined by the data created through cookies), big data is helping us understand the person behind the cookie. But we still have a long way to go.

Products like WHYanalytics, powered by VisualDNA’s profiling technology, can help marketers better understand their customers’ psychological profile. By making that information useful for marketers, in real time, and in a way that’s relevant and valuable to the consumer – we can focus more on understanding the person, and less on targeting the cookie.