How to Build an Audience Targeting Strategy From Scratch

Audience targeting is becoming more important by the day in the world of online advertising. Search advertising is still a massively important piece of the puzzle, but without additional audience targeting to supplement that search strategy, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for companies to grow their user base.

Crafting an audience strategy can be a daunting task for many advertisers.

  • Who should I be targeting?
  • What channels should I be using?
  • What targeting options are available?

There are a number of similar questions that can make audience targeting seem like an insurmountable task when you’re first jumping in. But it doesn’t have to be.

Below, I’ll outline a simple process to get you started with audience targeting that can help you generate audiences one step at a time without diving in head first.

Start by Looking Inward: Existing User Lists

The easiest place to start is with audiences that are already built. Begin by analyzing users who have already engaged with you in the past. The goal here is to utilize the native audience analysis tools to understand who your current users are and what they can tell you about who you should be targeting in the future.

Cookie-Based Retargeting & Custom Audiences

There are two types of audiences that can be used for this analysis. The first is a cookie-based audience. As long as you’ve had retargeting active on your site in the past, cookie-based retargeting lists are some of the easiest audiences to come by. These users have visited your site at some point and have most likely taken any number of actions that can give you insights into their interests and desires.

The second is custom audiences. These are folks that you have in your CRM database that have done business with you or given you their contact info in the past. It’s beneficial to upload your current customer base via custom audiences to understand them as well. Although it’s not mandatory, I try to analyze both of these audience types when getting an understanding of my customers as each can have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Audiences Insights

Once you’ve uploaded your lists, hop on over to the channel’s tools for insights into audiences. For Google AdWords, this will be in the Shared Library > Audiences section of the interface, then click on whichever audience you would like to analyze.

There you’ll find a list of the top insights from your audience.

You can then click on any of the individual insights to get a further look at how your audience compares to the benchmark set for your country.

Or you can choose any of the other segments along the top that will let you look further into one specific category of information, like Demographics. Which will again let you click on anything in the colorful charts to the left to see further insights against a country level benchmark.

The same types of analysis can be done in the Facebook Audience Insights report as well. This section can be found in the Plan section of the main navigation in Facebook Business Manager.

From there, the same types of analysis can be done as in Google, but Facebook arguably has much more insights for you to take advantage of. It also continues to show you the data in your list compared to benchmarks on Facebook for your chosen location, which is valuable when determining which are meaningful insights and which are simply the norm.

The overall idea of this type of analysis is for you to get an understanding of how these channels see your high-value audiences. When you’re able to translate your audience into a series of targeting options in a channel, it’s much easier to then take that insight and let it inform your audience strategy moving forward.

Merging Top Insights

Now that you’ve been able to gain some insights into how the channels see your customers, it’s time to start leveraging those insights to create new audiences. I usually like to start by looking at the insights results from two angles:

  • Which insights reaffirm what I already thought about the audience? What matches well with my idea of who the customers already are?
  • What are the biggest surprises? What insights did I think were the most interesting or took me by surprise?

By using both of these angles of the audience, you’ll be able to test both your preconceived notion of the audience as well as something you did not expect to find, giving you a bit wider reach on the initial set of targets altogether.

I recommend taking some time and writing down the top 3 insights from your audiences for a number of targeting options to get you started.

In Google, that could mean you note which are the Top Insights, which Affinity Audiences are most closely tied, and the strongest demographic insights. In Facebook, maybe you write down the top 3 Lifestyle Audiences, Education Level, and their top Page Likes.

The top insights will change for every business. There’s no right or wrong answer here.

Our goal is to simply come away with a better understanding of our existing audiences through the lens of the advertising channels themselves. Once we have some idea of who our existing audiences are, it’s much easier to begin building audience models designed to target net new users without taking guesses based on our gut.

Lean On Similar & Lookalike Audiences

Just because you’ve done analysis on your existing lists and you have your top insights doesn’t mean you’re fully prepared to jump into audience targeting. Sometimes you need a little more handholding to get you there. That’s where audiences modeling comes in.

In Google, they’re called Similar Audiences and on Facebook, they’re called Lookalike Audiences. And although the names are fairly similar, these two function a bit differently.

Facebook Lookalike Audiences

For Facebook, the process is pretty simple. You may have even noticed the audience upload tool prompt you to create a lookalike audience when you added your customer list.

Once your audience is in place, simply head to the Audiences tab, click Create Audience, and choose Lookalike Audience.

You’ll then be prompted to choose your Source, which in this example will be your uploaded customer list, Country, meaning country you want to target users in, and the Audience Size.

I recommend always starting off with the basic 1% audience match for the first audience you’re putting together. Leave the little toggle on the 1 where it defaults to and once you’ve chosen your Source and Country, choose Create Audience. You’re all set!

Google AdWords Similar Audiences

Unlike Facebook, Google doesn’t give you control over your Similar Audience creation. Instead, it takes the reigns and creates them for you.

For today, I’m only going to talk Similar Audiences for Display as it’s the easier model for reaching net new audiences beyond our keyword lists. Similar Audiences for Search can be a post for another day.

Here’s a snippet from the Adwords help section on Similar Audiences for Display:

“A similar audiences list is created from a remarketing list with at least 5,000 cookies and enough similarity in characteristics and interests to create a corresponding similar audience.”

So unlike Facebook, Similar Audiences require a certain number of cookied users to create a model, but also needs them to have enough similarity in behavior to create an audience.

This means that only when Google is able to create a “persona” for your list will it make a Similar Audience for it. If there’s not enough similarity for Google to determine any type of pattern within the user list, you simply won’t have a Similar Audience for a corresponding retargeting audience.

You’ll be able to check which do/don’t have Similar Audiences associated with them by checking the Audiences page in the Shared Library.

Leveraging Similar & Lookalike Audiences

Although they might have their differences, Similar Audiences and Lookalike Audiences can be leveraged in a pretty simple manner when you’re just getting started with them. Since they are created based on a model of your current customer list, the channels are able to take into account multiple points of similarity to create your new audience. Essentially, on the marketer side, you’re adding just one audience to a campaign, while on the platform side, it’s matching to any number of comparison points to deliver the most relevant users.

With that said, I always recommend adding in your top insights from your existing audience analysis to your Google Similar Audiences campaigns. These lists are a bit less precise than Facebook and benefit from the additional targeting layers.

For Facebook, I’ve seen performance do pretty well without having additional layers in place. That said, if you find that you’re not hitting goals with Lookalike Audiences by themselves, it might be worth testing additional layers as well.

If you’re completely new to this type of targeting, its best to start small and work your way up from there. Start off with smaller daily budgets until you get a sense of performance. Your budget can be anything you want it to be, but it’s hard to make progress with any pace if you’re spending less than $20/day.

In both Facebook and Google, you should also take a bit of time in your first set up to ensure you’re putting your best business foot forward. The platforms and their audience modeling tools are taking care of the users you target, but you need to make sure you’re covering your business’s bases and have the proper piece in place for the following:

  • Devices: Don’t run on device types your website doesn’t support.
  • Business Hours: If your ads are time sensitive, don’t let them run when the user can’t call or take advantage of your offer.
  • Exclude Categories or Block Sites: Both the Google Display Network and Facebook allow you to exclude certain types of content from your campaigns. If these are things you want, make sure you set them up at the get-go.

And those are just to name a few. Even when starting out with a new targeting type, don’t forget the basics.

Audience targeting can be a bit overwhelming when you first jump in without really knowing who you should be targeting or what options are out there. But hopefully, the simple process above has at least given you some ideas of where to start and what you can do in the two most popular ad channels at the moment.

How do you use audience targeting? Are you using Lookalikes or do you build your audiences from scratch? Share with us in the comments!