Targeted Advertising Explored: Is My Phone Really Listening to Me?

Advertisements, they are everywhere!! But how and why are these specific advertisments landing before you? We explore the methods used to target consumers




We’ve all felt that eery feeling, a passing conversation with a friend about taking a trip to Las Vegas / Ibiza or Timbuktu even. Within hours or days whatever it may be, there you have it, in all it’s glory, “15% off if you stay at the Intercontinental Timbuktu”. You’ve been targeted with an ad and I won’t lie it is a bit creepy and all a bit Big Brother-esque.

In this week’s blog, we will delve into the murky waters of targeted advertising to show you how through the clever tactics employed by marketers all around the world to reach their target market, unbeknownst to the consumer themselves.

Voice-Activated Advertisements

Is your phone actually listening to you? By definition, no it is not listening to you, but it can hear you.

“Hearing is simply the act of perceiving sound, unless you are hearing-impaired, hearing simply happens. Listening, however, is a conscious effort, you choose to do. Listening requires a concentration so that your ‘brain’ processes meaning from words & sentences”

So what does that actually mean? The apps that you have installed on your phone that use your microphone for recording yourself talking into your camera, videoing the concert you’re attending or sending that late night rant about Mary from Accounting. When downloading the app you’ve willingly (and without doubt unknowingly) agreed to allow that app access to your phone’s microphone to use as they deem fit.

Appalled? Ok, so before the paranoia kicks in and you dust off your tin foil hat, it is important to understand the following:

  • Advertisers Are Not Recording You:
  • You Are Not Being Recorded 24/7 There are 4.68 Billion Mobile Phone users in the world, and despite what you may have been told by your parents growing up, unfortunately you are not that important for large corporations to record all of your conversations and storing them. It is quite simply impossible and financially infeasible to generate & store that quantity of data on a daily basis.
  • You are Triggering the Recording Yourself So what are they recording? It is the very same approach as is used by Apple Siri, Google Home and Amazon Alexa. Using trigger words you activate the microphone which records and interprets what your command or request is. The very same thing is happening in this instance, other than the trigger word has changed and it is now something to the effect of “Are there any Pizza places near here?”
  • You Have Allowed this to Happen Every time you’ve downloaded these applications to your phone and provided the application with access to your microphone, you have enabled this. Within your End User Agreement these Apps have included a statement which allows them to use your device in this manner. You’re fully entitled to go to your settings and turn this function off but best of luck to you if you think your 180 second Instagram story of the recent Spice Girls Gig is going to feature your angelic background vocals. Your followers however, may wish you did tweak the settings it off…
    They Couldn’t Care Less About What You Say In all seriousness, the likes of Google really do not care that you want to go on an all-inclusive holiday to the Dominican Republic or that you’re in the mood for some pizza, but what they do care is that you fall into the profile of someone who desires them. This means that Google can offer (and ultimately charge) advertisers ad space to place advertisements in front of people who are more likely to indulge. In essence, the idea here is to provide worthwhile advertisements to people who are interested in a specific product / service, optimising the entire experience for both the consumer (who sees adverts that they are interested in) and the advertising company who’s ads are landing with engaged audiences.
    They Will Most Likely Be Able to Target You in Multiple Other Ways Even if you do go to the extent of turning turn off the settings within each of your apps, the cold hard truth is that advertisers will still be able to reach you by profiling you based on several factors, tracking your online behaviours and creative advertising based on your location and attendance at events. We will go through each of these in the following sections.

Social Media Targeted Advertising

The most common of all the targeting approaches is Social Media Targeting. It is the function used by advertisers to display adverts and certain posts to a specific audience that is defined by the advertiser or poster. The tactic is used across all Social Media platforms, with it being particularly prominent on Google, Facebook and Instagram.

It’s practically impossible to flick through three consecutive Instagram stories without being hit with an advert and almost every third post on your Facebook feed is an ad of some sort or another.

How exactly are advertisers doing this and why are you seeing these specific advertisements?

Advertisers are setting up their ads to target audiences that fall into a certain profile, to explain we will use the Facebook Framework as an example:

  • Geo-Targeting (Location Based): Ads can be targeted to people based on their respective locations (e.g. region, country, county, city etc.).
  • Age: Ads can be designed to target people based on Age Brackets that they fall within.
  • Gender: Ads can be targeted towards males, females or people of all genders
  • Languages: Ads can be targeted at users of specific languages.
  • Detailed Targeting: It is possible to include or exclude people from the target audience based on criteria such as the demographic that they fall within their interests (e.g. Ads they’ve clicked on) and/or behaviours (e.g. Pages they’ve engaged with).
  • Connections: Include or exclude people from your audience based on their connections to your social presence

What the criteria above does is create a profile of someone that the advertiser would like to reach with their respective posts. For example, a nightclub promoter in Dublin would more than likely target males and females in Dublin between the ages of 18-32 who have a keen interest in music and regularly attend concerts.

In short, the reason you receive the adverts that appear on your feed is because in the grand scheme of things you are not that unique. You typically will fall into a number of profiles and for that reason you will be targeted with similar advertisements to people in your network or other like-minded individuals.

Retargeting (Targeted at Engaged Audiences)

Retargeting is the process where an Advertiser can consistently advertise across the web and social media to users who have either visited their website or are active leads within their existing customer or lead database.

  • Website Visitors: Using Future Proof Media as an example, what happens during retargeting is the following: 1. A internet user is casually searching online for a new pair of runners and visits 2. Upon visiting the website the user has been tagged with a virtual cookie ( 3. Nike can use this cookie to target Nike related ads specifically to the people who have visited their website across Google, YouTube & all Social Media channels which will bring them back to the website. 4. The user sees all these ads and returns to complete the purchase.
  • On-Page Behaviours: It is also possible to track the on-page behaviour of users in order to send extremely specific and targeted advertisements to users who have performed an “event” (Any action on your website) during their website session. Expanding on the Nike example above, imagine the user had added a specific pair of runners to their cart and then left the website without completing the purchase. What Nike can do, provided they have their settings in order, is carry out detailed & targeted advertising to the user with a specific advert related to that precise pair of runners. The user will then be more likely to return and complete the purchase.
  • Email Lists: Over time businesses will collect a large repository of emails, from existing customers, to prospective customers to people who have provided their email in exchange for a company’s E-Book or Podcast etc. What business are doing, is using these email lists as a database to upload to facebook in order to enable retargeting. Once uploaded these email lists are converted into a target audience to be targeted with specific advertisements.
  • Lookalike Audiences: Having created these retargeting audiences of engaged leads (website visitors, prospective customers etc.), it is possible to create what is called a Lookalike Audience. Basically, the lookalike audience will be a new audience that can be targeted that have the attributes and characteristics of your existing retargeted audience. It will identify people who are extremely like your existing audience in order to target them with advertisements as they have the characteristics of an individual who would be interested in your product / service.

The Digitisation of Out-Of-Home Advertising

You may have noticed already that the days of the paper billboard seem to be numbered. Over the past number of years to move to Digital Out-Of-Home (DOOH) in Dublin alone has been huge. It is estimated that Digital Out-Of-Home accounts for up to 23% of all marketing spend globally.

And the benefits are obvious to the owner of the Ad Space and the Advertiser, more dynamic quality content can be displayed, it is hugely convenient, efficiency. We all see a Digital Billboard and the ad on display but does anyone ever question, why is this particular advertisement appearing on this particular Ad Space.

Targeted DOOH, the future of OOH advertising

Traditionally Ad Space was purchased based on location alone under the assumption that the most prominent placing would result in maximum impact. But in a world now where advertisements are all around us and people are desensitised to their surroundings, how can advertisers ensure that their billboard is actually reaching the correct audience and is it possible to find out and identify the type of people who look at your billboard.

  • Programmatic Out-Of-Home: Simply put, companies can now purchase Ad Space on Digital Billboards or Signage in a fully automated way using online marketplaces and automatic computer programs. Traditionally, an advertiser first contacted a network owner directly to negotiate all the specifics of the campaign, which took a lot of time. Through programmatic’s automation, it removes a lot these steps. Rather than negotiating each campaign, a media buyer accesses the available OOH properties (Billboards & Signage) and books the screens they want, when they want, according to a defined price and established criteria, making the process more efficient for all involved.
  • 3rd Party Data Integration: Currently, Digital Out-Of-Home properties have the ability to dynamically change their content depending on a number of external feeds from traffic, weather to footfall. There are some really creative approaches to this: 1) Guinness: A very clever campaign that allowed Guinness to directly target and direct fans of the RBS 6 nations to nearby pubs that served the drink in a completely dynamic way alerting people to an upcoming match and its kick-off time, as well as the distance to the local pub. Participating pubs then used sensors to capture footfall data and, if they got too full, would trigger a change in creative to direct fans to alternative venues. 2) McDonald’s Traffic Busters: McDonalds ran very clever campaign targeted at evening commuters travelling by road in the UK. The premise of the campaign was that the creative or the content of the advert changed dynamically based on the speed of traffic.  During fast free flowing traffic tantalising shots of McDonald’s well-loved burgers, fries and shakes are features and when congestion levels rise and traffic slows, the creative switches to longer form contextual copy lines like “Stuck in a jam?  There’s a light at the end of the tunnel”. 3) With Google’s impending arrival in the DOOH scene, it won’t be long until we have a holistic approach to Digital Marketing, capturing all data sources to provide primely placed ads before our very eyes. As Bloomberg summarised: “a train full of Borussia Dortmund fans arrives at Munich’s main station ahead of the Bayern Munich fixture, the advertising hoarding changes to show soccer cleats or beer”
  • Actual Audience Measurement: One of the newest tools to arrive on the scene is the use of Actual Audience measurement provided by companies such as Quividi. Using face detection (not face recognition), it is possible to identify the presence of “a” face that is engaging with a billboard, and it can perform the following: “Software can only determine if some anonymous individual is looking at a given interest point, for how long, estimate their basic demographic characteristics such as gender and age, and mood” For each detected watcher, Actual Audience Measurement estimates: Gender, Age, Presence of Facial Features (e.g. Glasses / Beard etc., Mood, Total Dwell Time, Total Attention time & total footfall in front of the sensor. The data is used to allow advertisers optimise their creative and produce relevant content that appeals to their target audience.

Proximity / Location Based Marketing:

Proximity marketing is the process of communicating with customers at the right place, the right time and with highly relevant and personalised messages, on their smartphones.

Now even where you go can be used as a marketing tool, there are some cutting-edge technologies after coming on the market that can be used to advertise to users based on where they have actually gone through the use of sensors, satellites and many other elements.

  • Geofencing: Geofencing is creative marketing technology that can put a business right in front of potential customers when they enter a target location. It enables marketers to send targeted, personalised messages to their users when they enter the defined area Geofencing uses GPS, cellular and Wi-Fi data to create a perimeter pinpointed on a map. Customers that enter, dwell in or exit that location can be targeted with a suitable in-app message or advertisement. Geofencing has wider targeting abilities than iBeacons. The minimum targeting range starts at 100 metres and expands much farther than beacons.
  • Beacons: On the other hand, beacons use Bluetooth to estimate your proximity to the device. As it uses so little power, a battery can last up to three years before you need to replace it. When you get within proximity of a beacon, it triggers a personalised in-app / push notification that you have entered its range. This is particularly prevalent for shopping centres or for major events like the NFL SuperBowl.

Should I be worried?

Overall, we would recommend not worrying or getting too caught up with the various forms of targeting.

Each method is designed to optimise the sales experience for both the customer and the seller by providing people with information and adverts that are tailored to their specific wants and needs.

If anyone would like to discuss any of the topics covered within this article, make sure to reach out to Future Proof Media