Display advertising: 3 ways to improve your campaign targeting

Are your display ads in need of some help? Columnist Jacob Baadsgaard shares three ways to use your data to optimize your display targeting strategy.

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As many marketers are well aware, click-through rates for display ads are typically less than impressive. But is that really a surprise? After all, what kind of results can one expect from placements like this?

Aflac Advertising Fail

In all seriousness, though, getting the right people to click on your banner ads is a significant challenge.

Now, don’t get me wrong, display advertising can be a great way to market your business, especially if you’re trying to build brand awareness. The trick is knowing how to use your analytics data to ensure that your ads are showing up in the right place at the right time.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at three easy ways to improve the performance of your display ads. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that you’re using Google AdWords and Google Analytics, but these principles apply to a variety of other platforms as well.

1. Picking your placements

When it comes to display advertising, Google wants you to get impressions… lots and lots of impressions. However, they don’t really care whether or not those impressions actually turn into paying customers. You get an impression, they get paid, and they’re happy.

As you can probably imagine, that means it’s in Google’s best interest to make setting up a display advertising campaign as easy as possible. All you have to do is put together a few ads, create a campaign in AdWords, pick a topic to target, and your ads will pop up all over the internet.

For example, a business with a marketing-focused SaaS (software as a service) product like Moz or Salesforce might look at their topic options and go with “Business & Industrial > Advertising & Marketing > Marketing.”

Seems pretty rational, right? I mean, they’re selling marketing software, so targeting the “marketing” topic makes a lot of sense.

That’s true, but there’s a flaw in this thinking. Yes, the topic is relevant, but not every website that Google defines as a “marketing” website will be the sort of website that Moz or Salesforce wants to be on.

For example, I imagine that a business like Moz or Salesforce probably wants their ads to show up on sites like Inc.com or Search Engine Land. Those websites have a highly relevant audience.

However, their ads also show up on GetJar (as I discovered while researching this article):

Marketing Topic Targeting

Now, I might be wrong, but I’d be willing to bet that when Salesforce and Moz put their marketing strategies together, “Likes hacking Instagram passwords” wasn’t one of the defining traits of their buyer personas.

Even if Moz and Salesforce are targeting by interest, rather than by topic, GetJar probably still isn’t a great place for them to show their ads. After all, even if you’re an Instagram hacker who also happens to be the IT decision-maker for a business (now, that’s a scary thought), if you’re on GetJar looking for an Instagram password-hacking app, you’re probably not in CRM-research mode.

Improving your placements

As you can see from the example above, targeting a relevant topic or interest doesn’t mean that your ads will show up on the right sites or in front of the right people. Odds are, if you’ve been using topic or interest targeting, your ads have been showing up in all sorts of surprising places.

To see where your ads are actually being displayed, open up your display campaign in AdWords, click on the Display Network tab and click “Placements”:

Display Network Placements

This report will show you exactly where your ads were displayed during your chosen time frame (I recommend looking at the past three months or so) and how many impressions, clicks, conversions and so on your ads received on that site.

As a quick aside, websites you specifically told AdWords to display your ads on have a “Managed” status. Any site that Google picked for you has an “Automatic” status.

Digging into this report should give you a lot of insight into which websites you should be targeting and which ones aren’t worth your money. For example, if you’re getting a lot of impressions but very few clicks from a certain site, that may be a good site to exclude. Alternatively, you may get a lot of clicks from certain sites, but those clicks have a high bounce rate, which might mean that you have some sort of mismatch that needs to be addressed (for example, wrong audience, wrong ad or wrong landing page).

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always a bad idea to use topic or interest targeting. Topic and interest targeting can be a great way to identify new sites that deliver awesome results. However, if you don’t consistently refine your targeting and ads, giving Google the reins on your display campaigns can be a great way to waste a lot of money.

2. Refining your keywords

At first glance, it seems a bit odd to talk about keyword strategy in a display advertising article, but contextual targeting can be a great way to run a display advertising campaign — provided you’re using the right keywords.

Unfortunately, as in our interest and topic targeting example, just because a keyword seems relevant to you doesn’t mean that the sites Google picks using your keywords will always be relevant.

Let’s face it, Google bots are still pretty hit-or-miss on semantics.

Of course, you can (and should) use the process we discussed in the last section to improve the performance of a contextual targeting campaign, but if you really want to get the most out of your contextual targeting, you need know how your target audience talks about your business niche.

Identifying the best keywords

Fortunately, if you’re also running paid search campaigns, this is actually pretty straightforward. Open up a relevant paid search campaign in AdWords, click on the Keywords tab, and then click “Search terms”:

Search Terms Report

If you’re looking at a reasonable time frame (again, I like three months), you can see exactly what sorts of queries trigger your ads, get clicks and even drive sales. This information is incredibly helpful, both in terms of picking keywords and for actual ad design.

As you look through your search terms report, you’ll probably notice that many of your best search terms have particular words or phrases in common. These words or phrases should form the foundation of your contextual targeting keyword strategy. An approach like this doesn’t guarantee runaway success, but it will produce much better results than simply picking words that seem relevant to you and plugging them into your campaign.

3. Looking at demographics

Compared with the last two tactics, demographic targeting seems almost too simple. However, many marketers fail to use their demographic data to improve the performance of their display campaigns.

You can think about it like this: If 90 percent of your revenue comes from millennial women, does it really make sense to show your ads to Baby Boomers? What about men? Odds are, even if you miss out on a few conversions, limiting your targeting to women under 35 will deliver much better results overall.

Fortunately, if you’re not quite sure what your target demographic is and you get fairly decent traffic to your site, Google Analytics can help you identify your target demographic. Simply open Google Analytics, click on “Audience > Demographics > Overview” and pick the “Converters” segment:

Google Analytics Demographics

Looking at the GIF above, it seems like running display ads for anyone outside of the 25-44 age range would be a waste of money. In fact, it might be interesting to try excluding women from this client’s display ad targeting to see if that would improve results, since only about 18 percent of their conversions come from women.

If you don’t have the data to run this report in Google Analytics, you can use the AdWords Report Editor to see how different demographic segments are responding to your ads.

Here’s what the same client’s click data looks like in the Report Editor:

Report Editor Demographics

Not surprisingly, this client gets almost three times more clicks from men than they do from women. Clearly, men between 25 and 44 are the primary audience for this client’s ads.

But now, let’s take a look at the demographics this client is actually targeting (To do this in your own account, open your display campaign in AdWords, click the Display Network tab and click “Demographics”):

Display Network Demographics

The good news is, this client is mostly showing their ads to men, which fits the demographic profile of their target audience. However, about 45 percent of their impressions seem to come from people that fall outside of the 25-44 age range. Since this client only gets conversions from visitors inside that age range, that means almost half of their impressions are being wasted on people with no real chance of converting.

Can you see how powerful your demographic data can be? Simply by changing their targeting to exclude anyone outside of the 25-44 age range, this client could free up a third of their display advertising budget! That budget could then be focused on getting more results from this campaign or other campaigns.


When you get right down to it, the success or failure of your display advertising campaigns depends on how well you use your data to optimize your targeting strategy. Do it right, and you can get the clicks and brand awareness your business needs.

Fortunately, by using the strategies outlined in this article, you won’t have to worry about turning off potential customers. Instead, you just might catch their eye… and earn their business.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Jacob Baadsgaard
Jacob is passionate entrepreneur on a mission to grow businesses using PPC & CRO. As the Founder & CEO of Disruptive Advertising, Jacob has developed an award-winning and world-class organization that has now helped over 2,000 businesses grow their online revenue. Connect with him on Twitter.

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