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Utilising Audience Targeting in Paid Search

audience targeting

Audiences are crucial to any Paid Search success and should be part of any best practise tactics. Here I review what they are and how they can be implemented – sharing some of my own thoughts about how they work for us.

I am not here to write a memoir about my career in paid search, but I have been in the industry long enough to say things like, "I remember when 'this is the Year of the Mobile' was told to me by Google reps for approximately seven years" and "I remember when Google Ads was Adwords, and you could only target keywords."

Similarly to the everlasting' Year of the Mobile,' another seemingly never-ending industry buzz term has been 'audience first strategy'. It feels like we are firmly entering this phase with ever-diminishing search query data, a new consent mode world, and increasingly collaborative tactics with our paid social and programmatic peers.

Without further ado, do you want to know what audience targeting is, and how you can best use it in your paid search accounts? Then please follow along.

What is and what is the purpose of audience targeting?

In a nutshell, audience targeting is an added layer of detail you should all add to Paid Search, Shopping, and Performance Max campaigns. You can identify who is more likely to buy/contact you and, therefore, who is worth more to you and is happy to pay more for.

You can get this from Google-provided audiences, your own data linked to the platform, GA4, or your own created custom audiences.

Much like the right keyword at the correct bid can capture your next potential consumer at the time of intent to purchase/contact you – adding a layer of audience detail can make this a more efficient click, CPA, ROAS, etc. 

Why would you use in-market, affinity, demographics, first-party data, GA4 audiences, and custom in Google Ads?

Quite frankly, and I will be frank with you, if you are not using audience data to help inform your tactics and performance, you might as well be throwing money in the bin. Audience use is now as crucial to paid search as keyword selection and ad copywriting.

However, maybe it would help if I summarised what each audience is:

  • In-market: ready to buy, actively looking for services or products that are similar or the same as yours (i.e. home décor for rugs)

  • Affinity: I call this the hobby audience; they have an interest or associated interest in a service or product similar to or the same as yours (i.e., a runner and you sell running trainers).

  • Demographics: the core details, age, gender, location, device—however, I am seeing many unknowns appearing here, so it is not always the most reliable source of truth. In fact, in one of my accounts, my unknowns have reached 45%. Use with care. If you want to target 30-40-year-old men into running, I wouldn't filter by demographics anymore. However, please contact me to debate or discuss this further—I am happy to be proved wrong.

  • First-party data (aka Customer Match): yours (if you're client-side) or your client's data, as a data upload or platform link up with CRMs such as Salesforce and Hubspot (also super helpful link up if you're in the lead gen business). Examples of use: once loyal but since gone cold, signed up for the newsletter but have yet to make a purchase.

  • GA4 audiences: Some of this may be modelled data since the last consent mode changes, but it can be filtered based on your website behaviour, such as classic, abandoned basket, added to wish list, no purchase, or made contact.

  • Custom: a way to combine users who may cover interest and intent buckets (i.e. music fans and festival attendees), browse similar websites, and search for specific terms or types of apps.

  • Combined: any of the above for maximum targeting. For example, targeting someone planning a wedding who has visited the site and added bridesmaid dresses to their wishlist, signed up for your newsletter, but gone back to search for more inspiration.

Audience performance graph of CTR and CVR, December 2023 to February 2024.
Image source: our MCC over the last three months, December 2023 to February 2024.

Can you add audiences to Performance Max?

Yes, through audience signals—and I recommend testing this. We have seen better campaign results from using audience signals, especially if you have first-party data. Google says audience signals help the machine learn who is the best audience for you and ensure this best audience sees your ad.

But I cannot stress test this enough, either formerly in an A/B scenario (recommended) or just adding audiences ad hoc. This is one of a few ways you can control Performance Max, so you should utilise it. 

What is the difference between observation and targeting audiences?

Targeting audiences means you want to target only these audiences. Think remarketing (RLSA and the like)—you can still leverage the bid, but you won't capture anyone outside these buckets. Observation is the opposite; you can see how an audience performs and still leverage the bids, but you won't show your ad only to that bucket of users.

Don't forget Microsoft Ads…

How could I? The underdog (the only time that Microsoft is considered an underdog) is the same. Except you also have LinkedIn audiences at your disposal. Now, I have had mixed results with LinkedIn audiences in Microsoft Ads, but much like anything in search, they are absolutely worth a test.

How do I write ad copy for my audience?

Ad copy should always be written with your brand's tone of voice and your audience in mind. It should not be cookie-cutter or based on what Google suggests. This will ensure your relevancy remains high, and user engagement should follow. We've all been victims of awful ads; let's agree that awful ads are not the future.

Take our bridesmaid dress shopper as an example; we know they are looking around, but we can't call them out on that. If you are running Remarketing ads using targeted audiences (such as first-party data or GA4 website data), you could test a Promo Code unique to search. Either way, your ad copy should be different from your evergreen search ad copy.

Likewise, when running an audience to an in-market observation audience, my advice is not to lean in too heavily to the call to action but to identify why your product or service would appeal to someone actively looking for exactly what they are searching from – if you have a good SEO team (like we do) the likelihood is that you will appear twice on the results page. Ensure your paid ad copy differs; use this opportunity to appear twice to your advantage. 


In summary, using audiences is a must in Paid Search, and you have lots of opportunities to do this. Test and keep testing; don't rest—your audience will evolve the lower down the decision journey they go, and they will change. Learn this and ensure your paid search tactics follow this.

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