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Defining Reach in The Age of Microtargeting

Today’s column is written by Bryan Noguchi, an independent media and advertising consultant.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of reach recently. My background is mostly mid-sized to large ad and media agencies, so reach has largely been a volume term expressed as delivery of percentages of broad demographic targets with fairly robust budgets.

Thresholds for effective reach are traditionally quite high, and despite efficiencies gained through volume, the out-of-pocket expense can be significant enough to all but eliminate smaller advertisers.

Recently, I was consulting for an independent creative shop and found myself sorting through what could be achieved with smaller media spends. While the budgets in cases like this often leave much to be desired, it’s been important for me to take a step back and remind myself that spending nothing achieves nothing, and that I would never counsel a client not to advertise.

So, what do you do with more modest media budgets? Do you have to abandon your loftier goals, such as pricier campaigns on TV or some OTT platforms, to accommodate the budget? Be satisfied with ineffective advertising? Or are some of the conventions around media due for an overhaul?

I’m netting out at the latter, and here’s why.

New Definitions

The thing is, our industry is nearing an amazing inflection point where “reach,” as we’ve traditionally understood it, is about to be replaced with an as-yet-unnamed metric representing “the right people, at the right time, in the right mindset.” For the purposes of this discussion, let’s call that new metric “R-Cubed.”

R-Cubed is more than microtargeting, which as we all know is completely achievable. I can find narrowly-defined audiences across a variety of media almost at will, but still have a difficult time controlling for frequency and context. We also find ourselves expending a lot of energy cobbling together “enough reach” from these varied sources and then struggling to deduplicate that delivery once we have it.

The reason for this investment of resources and energy is that right now, that volume appears to be the only guarantor of measurable desired action. That means (surprise!) that you need to have a really good handle on both your objective and how you intend to quantify success.

As you can imagine, you probably need pretty high volume if you’re trying to move the needle against a soft metric like awareness. In fact, conventional agency wisdom would have us telling clients not to pursue objectives like this on small budgets, but I’m starting to believe that this is bad advice and possibly just flat-out wrong. And it’s wrong because we’re applying a two-dimensional yardstick to a three-dimensional problem.

Perception And Ubiquity.

While we’re fundamentally concerned with the basics of objective setting and target definition, this is also a resetting of the very definitions of those key objectives. By way of example, I think it’s time to supplant the notion of “awareness” with the objective of establishing brand ubiquity in an individual’s mind. This is a subtle but key distinction – I’m looking for “minds,” not “masses.” It doesn’t matter if 100 random people know who we are if all we really need are two of them, but it’s critical that those two people believe that we’re everywhere and understand their needs each time they’re exposed to our brand.

Three things become implicit. First, I mean “everywhere” in a good way – it’s not useful or productive to put an item in front of someone if they bought that thing a month ago. (Incidentally, this is basically our current advertising state, and it happens to me every day!)

Second, if the context is so disjointed that the only message that comes through to the target seems to be “Hey, we know you were looking for this thing a few weeks back,” you’re doing it wrong.

And finally, it’s clear to me that we have to get comfortable with a reach of “two” vs. “200” – or 2 million for that matter. I can’t tell you how terrifying a reach of “two” is to the traditional media guy in me, but if we can cover the tenets of R-Cubed, then I think I’m OK, and you should be, too.

Every Touchpoint Is A Beachhead

Ad technologies are only getting better, but as with all power tools, if you’re clumsy with them, you’re going to hurt yourself. And if your reach is small, your mistakes are going to be amplified, so treat every touchpoint as a beachhead, and select those concentration points carefully.

I’m amazed to find that even today, many advertisers don’t know who their targets are. In the context of R-Cubed, knowing the “who” isn’t even table stakes – I need to know what they’re thinking, what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and how these factors will drive what ads they’ll see in a variety of contexts and environments.

I actually believe that the data and AI exist out there to triangulate effectively on each of these factors, but am waiting for the transformation to begin. I think that wait has been caused in part by the fact that we’ve been mesmerized by only one part of the solution.

Outcomes, Not Efficiencies

One of the promises of programmatic platforms has been the “democratization” of media buying. The delivery on that promise has stalled a bit because not all inventory types are suited to the open-market platform models that are characteristic of digital display.

Programmatic in cross-media scenarios offers tremendous potential for targeting and efficiency, but it has also been one of the main sources of unchecked frequency. The thing is, efficiency becomes a tertiary concern when you stop caring about volume – all your value is derived on the back end.

I like this: It means that I pay what I think the impressions are worth to me, not based on what they’re worth to everyone else. If R-Cubed works, then your dollars can operate at closer to 100% efficiency because when you can reliably add the dimension of “mindset,” you’ll be optimizing to outcomes, not efficiencies. And I’d rather be cobbling together results over reach.

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