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If you are an online marketer, you are probably familiar with advertising via email, Facebook, Twitter, and third party display buys. 

And they probably all work OK, at least in relative isolation of each other.

Annoyingly, all the above channels operated mutually exclusively. That is, until now. 

Welcome to 2014, the age of Custom Audiences: the biggest revolution in email marketing since… email marketing. 

If you don’t know what Custom Audience targeting is, or if you want to learn more, or if you want to see a picture of a bunny with a pancake on its head, read on.

Don't forget your digital passport before travelling around the interwebs

I bet you have a Facebook account, and a Twitter account.  And for that matter, LinkedIn, iTunes, Amazon, and who knows what else. What do they have in common?

When you log in, you need to give your credentials: an email address and a password. (Sure, you can log into Facebook using a phone number… but do you actually know anyone who does this?)

The only thing that connects you across all these disparate sites is your email address. In essence: your email address is your digital passport.

Think about the last time you went on holiday. When you boarded the plane, you had to show your passport. When you got to immigration, same thing. When you checked into your hotel, same thing.  Your email address is the same thing, but for your online voyages.

Without your email address, you can’t board FacebookAir, or get into TwitterLand. And don’t even think about going anywhere near LinkedInVille. Without your email address, you effectively don’t exist online. 

If you take away one point from this post, take away this concept: that your email address is your digital passport. 

Just imagine if you got permanently locked out of your primary email account – how big a pain in the ass would that be?  You would effectively cease to exist as a digital citizen. You’d be stuck in one country for the rest of your life, never leaving and never travelling. 

You’d be the equivalent of Sarah Palin in 2007. You could see Russia from your porch, but you’d be unable to get there.

Putin and Palin love each other

So why does a digital passport matter?

Previously, when people invested in advertising on Facebook, Twitter and in email newsletters, they were generally broad demographic buys. 

Someone “likes” bunnies? Target them. Someone “follows” you? Target them  Someone receives a newsletter from a specific title? Target them. Throw a bunch of poop at the wall and hope some of it sticks.

The problem with this is clear. All these media buys happen in isolation from each other, and also everything else for that matter. 

The results are usually middling, because the targeting is not based upon where your prospects and customers are in their buyer journey; instead, it's based upon a "like" button they clicked when drunk. 

Further, and perhaps more importantly, there’s no easy way to determine the aggregate effect of advertising via these channels together.

See, this is the thing to bear in mind: advertising works.  For sure, right? But also, advertising works better when a campaign is integrated across channels. And, analytical marketers love it when you can determine the uplift delivered to a campaign per channel – that online marketing Valhalla called "multichannel attribution." 

But this has always been hard. Very hard. Many an Excel geek has been flummoxed by this very problem.

Why Custom Audiences are the future of integrated campaigns

If you don’t know what Custom Audiences are, don’t worry, you’re not alone. And if you’ve heard about them, and maybe even had a bit of a play, great – but read on nonetheless… there’s lots more to be said about them.

In case you are confused, here's my promised picture of a bunny to help you feel better about marketing, Custom Audiences, and perhaps even life in general:

Bunny with a pancake on its head

In a nutshell, Custom Audiences are a new targeting method available on Facebook, Twitter (although they call them 'tailored audiences') and in email newsletters.

To set the scene, does this sound familiar to you: 

I’ve spent thousands of dollars and/or pounds and/or other currency units building up a huge email list and I send them periodic emails about stuff – newsletters, competitions, offers and the like.

But, depressingly, when I'm having a good day, 20% of people open them.  And of those 20%, I have no way to connect with them on other channels, like Facebook or Twitter. 

And the 80% who don’t read my stuff at all – I’ve got no way to connect with them other than sending out more emails!  (Which is a good strategy – see here – but it’s not the only strategy…)

With Custom Audience targeting, you can upload a list of emails to Facebook, Twitter or LiveIntent (which offers Custom Audience ad targeting in 3rd party email newsletters.)

Only people with whom you already have relationships will see ads. No more wasted spend from shoddy demographic ad buys. No more mistargeted creatives trying to sell people things when they aren’t in buying mode. No more uncertainty about who is seeing your adverts (or for that matter when and where.)

So think about this. You have, for example, a list of dis-engaged email users who don’t read your emails. You can now connect with them on three disparate, third party channels by using their digital passports as a targeting mechanism.

Another quick example: say you’ve got 1,000 people who purchased from you last week. You can re-target them with upsales and cross sales messages.

And if you want to go completely cray cray, you can robustly calculate out the engagement uplift you deliver by combining response rates from both email and Custom Audience channels, since you can see who purchased when they check out… because they get their invoice sent to their digital passport.   

Welcome to multichannel attribution Valhalla

Remember: You have a digital passport – and so do your customers.

For years, we’ve thought of email as a pure direct response channel, and social and third party media buys as acquisitive, mutually exclusive media buys.  But this is no longer the case.

Your email list is now your unique access point to your customers across the channels that they use on a daily basis – Facebook, Twitter, and 3rd party email newsletters. You can now target people via social and display channels at the logical point in their buying cycle.

If you want to travel around the world, you need a passport. If you want to exist on the internet, you need an email address. 

Don’t get stuck in Alaska. See the world. Experience life. Live the dream. And importantly, start using Custom Audiences.

Parry Malm

Published 11 April, 2014 by Parry Malm

Parry Malm is the CEO of Phrasee and a contributor to Econsultancy. Connect with him on LinkedInTwitter or Google+.

25 more posts from this author

Comments (12)

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Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

Not totally sure what the author means in detaill, but +1 for the bunny. I think it's pretty much like this chart, which I'm going to link to in the least spammy way I can. Other real-time marketing platforms are available.

Imagine "Real-Time Data for CRM or Analytics" is hooked up to facebook:

about 3 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

@Pete this is it - for quite some time now, cookie-based targeting has been the norm. However, this relies on people coming to your site first... CAs give you the chance to connect with dis-engaged customers/users who haven't been to your site for a while.

It's of course not the solution to every marketing challenge, but is an under-used targeting mechanism currently IMO.

about 3 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

@Parry - cookies have never been the norm for email marketers :-)

I think you're talking about combining cookie-based id for channels where that makes sense (like Web personalization) and email-based identification for channels where that makes sense (like bulk and real-time email). Which of course is the right thing, going forward.

Your comment relates to the differences with these approaches, because cookie-id is good for rapid-fire, high frequency engagement, but the marketing messages are typically ephemeral adverts so if you try to maintain engagement over a long time it gets creepy and counter-productive. Whereas email-id is better for long, low-frequency engagement and reconnecting.

about 3 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

@pete I feel like we are on the same page. Retargeting via cookies works for purchase engagement... But CRM retargeting wins for the first engagement phase. Anyhoo. Thanks for the food for thought!

about 3 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Parry

Thanks for an interesting read.

What provisions (if any) are made by Facebook et al to reduce the risk of spam from email lists that are bought and rather than earned?

I could so a deluge of poorly targeted marketing via custom audiences in the same way that email inboxes have been cluttered with rubbish for years.

Is it even possible for the social networks to police email list quality?

I guess for them, the more spent on ads the better, though if the quality is low and response rates drop, they would inevitably lose out as marketers pull back.

I can see how it will be a potentially useful marketing opportunity for people who are focused on quality targeting as part of the bigger picture.


about 3 years ago


Catherine Allan, Communications Manager at Ten Group

Hi, this sounds great, but are there any data privacy issues with uploading a list of private emails to a third party?

about 3 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

@james for sure... Just like email, some spamming b*St*RDS will ruin it for the rest of us. I think the key to success is not using CRM retargeting as an isolated measure. And importantly, to not be creepy about it. I'm sure controls will be put in place at some point.

about 3 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

@catherine the mechanics of CRM retargeting is based upon a hashed (encrypted) transfer of personal data, most common of which is MD5.

Good description of the concept is here:https://www.liveintent.com/news/advertising-strategy/whats-an-email-hash-anyway/

about 3 years ago


Alexander Croucher - Croucher Edwards

@james - Re: spamming and list quality, you're totally correct. And I can only imagine that, just like in Adwords, click-thru rate will play a big part in how (list) quality is measured; if list quality is cr@p then CTR will be low and so Facebook et all will stop impressions altogether. On the flip side, if it's a good list then engagement/CTR should be high.

@parry - Another great article. Thanks

about 3 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

@alex indeed there is some sort of BIG DATA involved to optimise CTRs... The key is to make sure the ad creative reflects the stage in the customers buying cycle. Cheers for the compliment BTW!

about 3 years ago


Josh Emert

Great write-up @Parry. I run product at GoChime and we're seeing lots of client success around two strategies - retention targeting based on email behavior (really a lack of behavior) and customer acquisition targeting lookalikes based on link clicks within emails.

We're on a mission to eliminate the the need to constantly upload csvs by creating real time secure bridges between ESPS/CRMs to the social ad platforms offering custom audience interfacing. Would love to chat with you in further detail if you're open to it. Thanks

about 3 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

@josh cheers - the secret sauce is indeed integrating customer behaviour with CRM targeting.

And lookalikes - yep! For a future post, baby steps... :)

Drop me a line, let's chat.

about 3 years ago

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