Social Targeting: Are Advertisers Being Smart or Stalking You?

Photo of man all in black pointing camera in our direction

“Social” has always had a positive connotation to it, but with social targeting, I’ll let you decide.

What is social targeting?

Social targeting is an advertising placement method used by online ad publishers that’s based on your conversations and interactions in the social media space.

Ad publishers use data such as your status updates, tweets, photos and other online actions to help determine your interests and, therefore, determine the relevance of potential ads targeting you.

Social targeting also looks at your connections and the strength of your connections across certain networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Advertisers assume that people you are strongly connected with will share similar interests and then will target them with similar ads.

How social targeting works: An example

You go to a brand’s website or Facebook page and buy a certain product, download something or sign up for a service. When your top friends (people you interact with most on your social networks) go online, they will see ads for the same products and services that you bought, downloaded or signed up for.

The idea is that, as Glen Calvert of Affectv says, “understanding what consumers are sharing, who the influencers are, and who they connected to, provides advertisers with an opportunity to reach consumers implicitly interested in their products, and discover new audiences based on their social connections.”

Creative or creepy?

Making ads more relevant obviously makes a ton of sense. However, as someone who values privacy, I still get creeped out by targeting methods that use planted cookies to track me.

My preference is still semantic targeting—the cookie-less form of online ad placement—which I’ve discussed here before, most recently in The Consumer-Friendly Wave of Digital Advertising.

If you’re not sure what semantic targeting is, read more of what I’ve said in Catch the Wave, the Third Wave of Digital Advertising.

But, I don’t want you to take my word for it. Let me know what you think. How do you feel about being tracked on the web and having that data being used by advertisers?


The Consumer-Friendly Wave of Digital Advertising

“In a world in which ads are becoming optional for users, the key to our industry’s success in the future will be delivering ads that people love, remember and share.”

Man in front of board pointing at "emotion"

This quote comes from Google’s Sandbox summary of their “There’s a Perfect Ad for Everyone” presentation. Their premise is that, right now, too many people are ignoring ads or using software to block ads. Advertisers and ad publishers need to find ways to counter this and get people not only to stop blocking their ads, but to actually engage with them.

Most advertisers, I hope, would agree. The key to success is delivering ads that people love, remember and share. It’s also respecting what consumers want and respecting their space and time.

This is where semantic advertising comes in.

In his article, The 3rd Wave for the Ad Industry, J. Brooke Aker (CEO of ADmantX) describes the first two waves as:

  1. The Internet media explosion of connectivity and multiple devices
  2. Technology that makes advertising efficient but leaves the user as an afterthought

No consumer wants to be an afterthought, right?

Semantic advertising is a more thoughtful method of online advertising. One that actually takes the reader’s emotions, behaviors, motivations and intentions into consideration. Ads are then placed on web pages based on the way the visitor to that page would react to the original content there.

Current digital advertising placement is often based on getting your ads in front of as many people as possible.

Semantic targeting is about getting your ad in the right place at the right time to elicit the right response from consumers.

You can get the response you want from digital advertising without annoying your customers, but you have to be willing to get your feet wet and catch the semantic advertising wave.

Get more details at Catch the Wave, the Third Wave of Digital Advertising. And if you have 36 minutes to spare, watch Neil Mohan’s entire speech on the future of display advertising.

Semantics. Advertisers, They’re Not Just for English Majors Anymore

Last week, I talked about ad puke—a thoughtless way of advertising that just wants to get in your face. This week, I’d like to introduce you to a more thoughtful approach—semantic advertising.

Digital advertising is not easy. You usually don’t have much space to get your message across and emotionally connect with the audience.

As I said in a recent post on, if you’re not responding to the emotion of consumers, you’re wasting your advertising dollars. So, the question is: How do you catch people emotionally in digital advertising?

The answer? Semantic targeting. 

Semantic targeting measures the sentiment of the content on the web page where your ad will be placed. The ad publisher then places ads on that page that relate to that assumed sentiment or emotional response of the reader. The intended result is that the reader is more likely to respond positively to your ad.

Ad placement with semantic targeting is much more nuanced than with keyword or contextual targeting.

Contextual targeting simply scans each page for keywords that match your criteria. You may be familiar with some of the mishaps that can occur using this method. If not, check out Econsultancy’s blog post (and try not to gasp in horror).

The picture below is a preview of what you’ll see there—and a reminder of what poor ad placement can do to your brand reputation.

Story about teacher hit by car with Toyota ad pop-up

Behavioral targeting is another method—which some advertisers love and many consumers hate. It relies on tracking consumers’ online behaviors by placing cookies on the page visitors’ browsers. Then it shows ads that relate to that history of behaviors.

In fairness, sometimes these ads work very well (see an example here). But they can feel a bit creepy too—like someone is watching your every online move. And the FTC is currently considering creating a “Do Not Track” system for easy opt-out of these ads—more reason to consider a new approach.

As a consumer, I like semantic advertising because it makes me feel safer and I don’t feel like someone’s watching me. I feel like there’s more of an effort to show me ads that fit.

As an advertiser, I feel smarter because I’m targeting audiences based on their thoughts and feelings, not just on keywords. This helps me place ads that relate to consumers’ motivations to buy.

What do you think? Out of the three—contextual, behavioral and semantic—which do you prefer?