What to Do When Digital Behavior Isn’t Enough to Target Who You Want to Reach

How the Ad Council used an attitudinal-based survey to identify its audience

The advent of digital marketing brought about a step-change in the ability to target precise audiences. Terabytes of behavioral data allowed us to see everything consumers were doing online: What they were searching for, what they were reading and interacting with, even what they were buying.

All this behavioral data represented a giant leap forward in our ability to understand consumers and better reach them at the right moment, in the right environment and with the right message.

But behavioral data does have some limitations. It can’t always tell you how a consumer feels. What do you do when your target isn’t defined by a behavior, but rather by how they think or what they believe?

Attitudes and beliefs can cut across demographic, socio-economic and age segments. Many are hard to tease out based on behavioral data. Sure, strongly held opinions, such as strong political affiliations, can be identified via behavioral signals, but what about those in the “messy middle”?

How do you find the people who don’t have extreme opinions about a particular topic, but might also be most persuadable one way or another?

Beyond digital behavior

Last year, the Ad Council faced exactly this challenge during its “It’s Up to You” public service campaign aimed at convincing those hesitant about the Covid-19 vaccine to embark on their own personal education process to build confidence regarding the shots.

As we all know from the long lines at vaccination locations when vaccines first became available, there was a group of people who were fully convinced the vaccine was a good thing and jumped to get it. We also know that there was a group of people who wholeheartedly believed the vaccine was a bad thing and would probably never get it. Both groups had strongly held opinions that no amount of messaging was going to change.

But there was also a large group of people in the middle. They still had questions about the vaccine. They weren’t sure whether they should get it or not. They hadn’t yet decided to get it, but also hadn’t yet decided not to.

This group could be persuaded, and it was the group that the Ad Council was trying to reach with its campaign. The goal was to give them access to credible resources and information so that they could make the right decision for themselves.

The “vaccine hesitants,” as we called them, cut across demographic and age groups and location and socio-economic lines. There were no digital signals that could show us who they were. Their hesitancy was a thought and a feeling, that often wasn’t even shared with friends, family or co-workers.

To find the “vaccine hesitants,” Ad Council and ENGINE collaborated using ENGINE’s Digital Audiences, a methodology for building audiences that starts with an attitudinal-based survey to first identify how people felt about the vaccine and then connect those who were hesitant to digital behavior that we could target with media.

The versatility of survey-based validation

Survey-based validation already has a proven track record in many areas of research and can be quickly deployed by advertisers today to generate a high-quality target segment composed of those who share similar attitudes.

Well-designed surveys with carefully constructed questions that minimize ambiguity can be deployed to reach a sub-segment of those sharing an attitudinal similarity. The quantitative results, vetted and analyzed to eliminate outlier responses and other potential statistical errors, can then provide a template for the common behavior characteristics of those sharing the same point of view.

Survey-based validation can boost targeting precision across all platforms, including mobile and desktop, banners and online video (OLV), connected TV (CTV), and native content distribution.

Many campaigns are already proving that potential audiences developed with the results of a well-designed and validated survey routinely outperform more traditional targeting segments based on demographics or behaviors, in some cases by as much as double-digits.

In the Ad Council’s case, the added insights made it possible to eventually forgo targeting based on segments such as race and ethnicity, even as the “It’s Up to You” campaign scaled massively.

The quantitative insights developed through a survey-based validation program can also track and quantify changes in the attitudes or even the make-up of targeted audience segments, over the course of a campaign. And in the case of critical, urgent messages—from public health to climate change—these additional insights could not only improve campaign effectiveness, but also save lives.

Attitudinal segments have been used for years by marketers. Many brands have developed brand personas based on attitudes. Other brands target customers open to information or new products, such as in the Ad Council example. Brands can even identify customers who either have a high opinion of their brand or are open to considering their brand.

Traditionally, these kinds of segments have been difficult to target in digital environments with real precision, but survey-based validation now makes these targets not only actionable, but scalable.

Campaign innovation for good

I and all of ENGINE are so proud that we were able to bring this innovation to the Ad Council in support of the amazing work they did on the “It’s Up to You” campaign.

It’s campaigns like this that make you remember the importance and impact of the work we do. It’s campaigns like this that make me excited for the future. We are looking forward to working with the Ad Council and other clients to finally bring attitudinal-based segments to the digital world.

Kasha Cacy has more the 25 years of experience spanning media, data and analytics, performance marketing, content, and consulting. She currently serves as the Global CEO of ENGINE where she oversees the company’s 17 offices across North America, the U.K., Europe and Asia Pacific. Powered by technology, driven by insight and fueled by imagination, ENGINE is a marketing and media services company built to meet today’s unique needs of marketers, agencies and publishers.