One of the biggest benefits of digital marketing is the ability to be highly targeted.
Want to reach mothers in Clemson, SC who have two children in grade school, use their mobile phones to buy toys on Amazon, drive Toyotas, and have a 700+ credit score – but only on days it’s raining? Done.
As unsettling as it sometimes seems, digital ads offer unmatched hypertargeting and the ability for advertisers to reach who they want, where they want, when they want.
But what if we told you the targeting options provided by big ad platforms like Google and Meta are sometimes used more as guidelines than rules, and that location tracking is an imperfect science?
The truth is, no matter how many targeting parameters and restrictions you put in place, there is no guarantee that ads will only be served to those you intend to see them.
Here’s 4 reasons ads may show to people outside of your target audiences or locations:
1. You may have audience expansion enabled.
Audience expansion allows an ad platform to serve ads outside of the targeting parameters you set to individuals it believes are likely to respond favorably. Essentially, it’s a free license for the algorithm to use the tracking you put in place as a guideline or starting point.
Meta, Google, and LinkedIn all automatically enable their own versions of audience expansion for new campaigns:
- Meta: Advantaged Detailed Targeting
- Google: Optimized Targeting (for display and video)
- LinkedIn: Audience Expansion
While this can be beneficial to campaign performance, if you need strict control of your targeting, you’ll want to turn those off.
2. Meta likes to serve you your own ads.
We routinely hear of industry leaders being served their own ads on Meta. When Meta identifies someone as associated with a business page that is running ads, it often serves them “preview ads.” This can occur even if that person does not fit within a campaign’s audience or location targeting.
Per Meta, there is no charge for preview ad impressions.
3. You may be targeting people with a “presence or interest in” your location.
Google Ads defaults to targeting people who are in, regularly in, or who’ve shown interest in your target location. If you don’t change this setting to only people in or regularly in your targeted locations, you’re more likely to see impressions and clicks from external markets.
Even once changed, the “regularly in” option could still result in ads showing to people who frequent your target area but live outside of it.
In addition, Meta changed their targeting options earlier this year to remove the ability to separately target people known to be living in vs. recently in vs. traveling in a location.
The social media giant now only offers the option of reaching people “living in or recently in” your target location, without the ability to separately target potential tourists vs. locals.
4. The technologies used to determine a person’s location are not 100% accurate.
Platforms like Analytics, Google Ads and Meta use IP (internet protocol) targeting to help determine a user’s location. While highly accurate at the country level, accuracy decreases for localized geotargeting.
Estimated U.S. IP Geolocation Accuracy*:
- Country: 95% to 99% accuracy
- Region (State): 55% to 80% accuracy
- City: 50% to 75% accuracy
*Source: MaxMind GeoIP®
One reason for this is that IP addresses are often tied to the location of the internet service provider’s (ISP’s) data center, rather than the user’s home, which can be in a different city or even state.
In addition, public Wi-Fi networks and the use of dynamically generated IPs on mobile devices can result in mobile phone locations being misidentified.
Even in instances where a device’s location is known, the user’s IP could be masked by a VPN, web browser, or email client. For example, Apple began masking IP addresses with their iOS 15 update in September 2021.
For these reasons, most advertising platforms use other methods in combination with IPs to identify a user’s location, such as: user-provided location information, GPS data, and Wi-Fi triangulation. However, none of these methods guarantees complete accuracy.
And here’s a bonus reason some people you want to reach may not see your ad at all.
5. The number of “unknown” users is increasing on the web.
Increasing concerns from consumers over the amount of personal data being collected about them and how that data is used are leading to industry changes and new privacy regulations.
- As of April 2021, mobile apps on Apple devices using iOs 14.5 or later must request permission from users before they can track them.
- In 2023, four more U.S. states plan to adopt statutes similar to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which include giving user’s a right to request that personal information be deleted.
- In 2024, Google will begin depreciating support for ‘cookies’ used by third-party advertisers to track website browsing habits.
At Crawford, we are seeing increasingly higher percentages of users in Google Ads and Analytics where age or gender is “unknown,” and more frequent use of statistical modeling by Meta to estimate conversion results when full data is not available.
So is digital advertising still worth it? Absolutely.
For all its imperfections, digital ads still remain the most highly trackable and directly measurable forms of advertising. They offer a unique opportunity to make data-driven decisions using multivariate testing, reach people across channels and devices, and shift marketing dollars based on real-time results.
It’s important to remember that the digital advertising industry is still young. In fact, Google paid search ads are only 24 years old (first tested in 1999 and publicly made available in 2000), which makes them an adolescent in comparison to the 82 year old television advertising industry.
With that in mind, we are bound to go through setbacks and growing pains as regulatory guidelines evolve and technology advances (I’m looking at you GA4). However, change is inevitable, and as long as we remain flexible and open to professional growth, we will only come out stronger.