As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, marketers will be aware that the lockdown led to changes in audience behaviour. Not only the obvious changes in physical behaviour but also digital behaviour, such as the sort of products and brands different audience groups engage with, the content they consume, or how and when they consume it.

For brands, it’s never been more important to understand who your audience are today, compared to six months ago, and to establish how they are interacting with different digital channels and publishers. Are they using the same platforms as before? Are they watching videos or listening to podcasts? Where is your audience, not simply in terms of where they live, but also how they move? How many are going out? How many are commuting? How many are visiting public places? Where are the eyeballs I need to reach? 

Media plans typically draw on a range of data sources to learn as much as possible about a brand’s target audience. This could range from mobile location data, which might be based on activity during the previous week, through to census data that might be anything up to a decade old.

Before the pandemic and the lockdowns, a strategic marketing plan could be reasonably expected to remain valid for at least six months to a year. However, post-pandemic, the shelf-life of marketing decisions has shortened significantly. Today, if you are making media plans and targeting customers based on data that’s even a few months old, the chances are you’re basing decisions on information that’s dangerously out-of-date.

Understanding & managing change

Going forward, benefits will be gained from using data assets that are updated daily and have a long window for retrospective analysis. This means organisations can take a view on what has changed since the start of the pandemic and quickly understand how it continues to change as the world opens up again. This analysis helps organisations impacted by a shift in audience or behaviour during COVID and informs their response.

This sort of analysis has been particularly welcomed by businesses that rely on physical customers, such as gyms and rail operators. The image below shows the difference in train operator’s audience between Q1 2020 and Q1 2021. Overall, there has been a drop of more than 50% in audience volume. However, this drop is not consistent across demographic groups or geographic locations. 

The darker locations signify locations with the most dramatic reduction in usage, while the lighter locations are those that have shown the greatest resilience. Using this information, train operators are able to understand who and where they should target their communication aimed at getting passengers back on their network. 

Any one of these insights could have a major impact on the success of a media plan if not successfully identified and acknowledged. This is an illustration of the benefits available to advertisers that stop relying on out-of-date, perishable data to target their campaigns.

Focusing on what matters, not what is easiest to count

Over the next 18 months, agencies and advertisers will need to balance new ways of working, with the need to adapt to a rapidly changing digital landscape. There will also be a focus on accessing, analysing and testing the use of non-personal targeting signals such as context, time and location, as the industry tries to ready itself for further data deprecation and respond to the privacy-first trend more generally. 

The move away from a reliance on third-party cookies will prompt advertisers to take a broader view of how their marketing channels are performing against key metrics. It will also help seek out external data sets that are rapidly updated, but not linked to walled garden platforms.

For performance marketers, leveraging such data assets can provide many benefits. These insights enable them to understand up to the minute consumer behaviour and apply it to their marketing in real time by translating them into efficient campaign optimisation and measurement opportunities. 

Performance marketers can also leverage this data to understand the performance of all media channels and the aggregate impact of different channels in combination. Rather than counting patchy cookie numbers and monitoring click through rates, this data allows marketers to understand their campaign’s impact on key metrics that matter to the business, such as incremental growth and market share gain.

This is a key moment for our industry. It is an opportunity to reduce our reliance on the things that are easiest to count and focus on making decisions that are backed by a holistic analysis and measurement framework and are strategically aligned to business goals. The future of data driven targeting is bright and a new approach can restore trust in marketing and advertising among advertisers and consumers alike.