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Identity 101: Best practices for reaching your customers online

Many marketers start with a seemingly easy goal: “I want to reach real people with my marketing message.” It’s a simple concept, yet in an ecosystem of complex digital solutions, achieving this requires careful evaluation of the vendor and reading the fine print.

Like most marketers, you desire simplicity, but the online environment produces a complex set of data that moves, changes or decays over time. When you add the varying methods of calculating reach, what seems simple is not. Only through proper evaluation and understanding can you sift through the deluge of information to find the elements that actually produce good marketing outcomes.

Reach is the number of “people” that a platform enables marketers to communicate with. I put “people” in quotes because how vendors define a person online is a real challenge for many—and one that has consequences if done incorrectly. If you aren’t speaking to a real person, how do you develop a relationship with them over time? How do you know you’re sending the right message to the right person on the right device?

Reach is one of the five building blocks of effective identity management, and the methods vendors use can disrupt proper targeting, attribution and measurement of performance downstream. This hampers your long-term goal of curating important relationships with customers and prospects.

Here, we’ll talk through some of the issues you may face with reach and how to overcome them by looking at the fine print and asking the right questions.

Examining the fine print

The analyst in me often reads charts, stats, marketing collateral—anything really—with an eye for footnotes, fine print and methodology statements. I’ve never met a marketer that wasn’t analytical, and many already have this habit.

However, I would be remiss to write about reach without highlighting the importance of asking questions and reading the fine print. Here are a few that I’ve observed over time:

Fine print observation #1: The definition of “people”

"People” are defined in different ways online. Some vendors calculate reach by totaling all cookies and devices and using them as a proxy for real people. The consequence of this is overstating the number because it’s not collated or connected to a real individual. This sets a false expectation that the campaign speaks to real people when it’s just cookies and device IDs.

The average person has six devices and cookies tied to their digital profile. Cisco predicts there will be 13 networked devices and connections per person by 2021. 

Fine print observation #2: The great reach expectation

I’ve seen companies claim to reach 400 million Americans, which is interesting because there are only 327 million people in America. It's probably 400 million American devices and cookies, but not individual people. These vendors aren’t properly connecting cookies and devices to a single person and counting what is really one person as multiple people.

In the desire to talk about a platform’s scale, vendors can over-state the reality. It’s important to ask:

  • Are these devices and cookies active?
  • Can I deliver a message to them?
  • Will they be connected across a single person’s touchpoints?

The impact of this can be poor match rates, choppy marketing conversations, wasted ad spend and, ultimately, a negative customer experience.

Fine print observation #3: No explanation of messaging impact

Poor identity connections start a ripple effect of poor performance, creating drop-offs in ongoing conversations and no way to judge the true impact of your marketing over time.

The question to ask is: Is it a “who” (an actual person) or a “what” (a cookie or device) being messaged? If it’s a “what” conversation, then there is no way to ensure that the messaging is curated across a person’s devices. This can lead to less relevant and thoughtful conversations over time because those “whats” might decay (cookie decay and device churn) or actually be multiple people.

Reaching the right audience at the right time

If you can’t reach your intended audience, you won’t get your desired outcome. Depending on the goals of your campaign—which could be anything from building brand equity and driving a transaction to increasing your customers’ frequency of purchases—you would look for the right audience that has the greatest inclination to take that action.

If the first step is flawed, it can lead to the following:

  • Less relevant messaging due to messaging the wrong people.
  • Potentially invasive messaging, such as bombing—or sending a message out to all cookies and devices at once—leading to ad waste and a very bad experience for your audience.
  • Due to the amount of device and cookie churn (just think about how often someone gets a new phone), marketing effectiveness weakens over time. If you are connecting those devices and cookies to real people, you can attach new cookies and devices to drive a persistent identity. This is critical for many measurements that marketers look at over time.
  • Data loss due to inaccuracies or passing the data through too many vendors in the digital marketing process.

Reach diminishes as data passes through gates. Match rates can erode by 75%, leaving a quarter of an audience for activation. 

Driving opportunity with reach

People-based reach is an opportunity for you to drive an action from your audience without wasting marketing dollars. But it has to be accurate and stable to succeed. By establishing one consistent view of each customer, you can learn your customers’ habits and behaviors over time.

As an example of how reach can—and should—continue over time, let’s look at a large home goods retailer with a file of loyal customers. If a customer purchases a sofa, they likely won’t be purchasing another one soon. But that doesn’t mean the brand should stop their conversation with the individual; instead, they can use it as an opportunity to message them about other categories and items, like pillows for the couch or a new coffee table. Reach continues that conversation over time, allowing you to know where each person is in the buying process and make smarter decisions about how you talk to them next.

The key takeaway is that if you can’t reach your customers over time, you won’t be top-of-mind when it’s time for them to make a purchase.

Measuring reach and the downstream benefits

Like all marketers, you want the best of both worlds: Maximum scale to reach all audiences without sacrificing accuracy. So, how do you know if your online reach is accurate?

Again, it’s important to remember that some vendors cite cookies or devices as individuals, which inflates their reach. They may say that they have massive scale because they have a huge audience, but they could count the same individual multiple times without even realizing it.

When it comes to measurement, you need to know exactly how your vendor is measuring reach. If they rely on the total number of devices and cookies they can reach, they probably aren’t giving you an accurate number. Reach should primarily be a conversation about the individuals a vendor can reach for potential messaging, and then the number of cookies and device IDs that connect to that individual.

Interested in learning more about how to reach your customers? Read our latest e-book, Five building blocks of identity management