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On a blisteringly cold winter day, nine-year-old Nick trudges down the snowy sidewalk lugging a big thermos of hot chocolate. He arrives at the public ice skating rink and holds up a handwritten poster that says "HOT CHOCOLATE!!!" He walks among the shivering spectators, selling $1 cups. The ice skaters, tired and cold, shuffle off the ice to buy a cup, too.

Pleased with his success, Nick decides it's time to grow his business, so he gets into digital marketing. He wants more hot chocolate drinkers to visit the ice rink or buy a cup right from his house.

The once-simple business—based on being at the right place, at the right time, with the right audience—now becomes complex. Where do local hot chocolate drinkers hang out on the Internet? When would they like to see my ads? How do I even know whether they're engaging with my ads?

The digital world forms a maze between Nick and his audience. Though Nick might decide to give up on online advertising, we marketers don't have that luxury. We're under immense pressure to grow our audience; meanwhile, the Web is a double-edged sword... It can complicate our task, but it can also make advertising far more accurate than ever.

If you want to make sure your ads are seen by the right audience, it's time to combine some digital marketing tools and strategies that make targeting (almost) as successful as selling hot chocolate at the ice rink.

1. Behavioral Targeting

Traditionally, digital marketers have targeted places, not people. To reach young affluent mothers, we advertise on a mom blog. However, that approach ignores the rest of a mom's internet experience.

Behavioral targeting solves that problem by letting you advertise to one user profile across multiple outlets and channels. The profile—in this case, young affluent mothers—is based on thousands of attributes derived from Web searches, browsing patterns, multivariate testing, and other actions.

Behavioral targeting is a logical first step to improve the accuracy and efficiency of your advertising campaigns.

2. Use Offline Info Online

When you're targeting people online, offline data can help distinguish your real audience from the crowd.

Offline data vendors can provide location data, in-store purchase histories, political donations, census data, and other information that behavioral targeting may exclude. That data is powerful because it can answer very specific questions.

For instance, if you want customers to buy drill bits from your store, you want to target people who have purchased power drills from a brick-and-mortar location. Offline data can identify those people.

3. Device Matters

When you're target consumers who own a smartphone, tablet, and desktop, which device you also target makes a difference.

If, for example, your fast food chain wants to advertise breakfast coupons, don't bother serving them on desktop. If people are sitting at a desktop computer, they're probably at work, post breakfast, and they don't want to print a coupon just to get a dollar off fast food. If people are going to use your coupon on the go, then target mobile devices.

On the other hand, if you sell B2B software and want people to download your freemium product, target desktops.

Just make it as easy as possible for your audience to take action.

4. Viewable Impressions

To guarantee that real people will see your display and video ads, buy viewable impressions.

Cost-per-thousand (CPM) impressions and cost-per-click (CPC) models were always a gamble because fraudulent bot traffic was rampant and ad technology couldn't tell whether ads were actually seen by visitors.

With viewable impressions, you are charged only if the ad appears on the user's screen for a minimum standard duration (display, 50% of pixels for one second; video, 50% for two seconds). And bots cannot deceive viewability technology. However, because viewable impressions are relatively new, many ad services will sell viewable impressions only at the industry minimum.

So, be sure that you can buy guaranteed time slots (e.g., 5, 10, or 20 seconds) from your provider, especially if you plan to run video ads. With a 10-second slot, you'd be charged only if your ad was continuously viewable for 10 seconds or longer.

What you pay will reflect the amount of time your audience spends with the ad.

* * *

Because online identities and motivations are complex, reaching your audience on the Web can be difficult. The more services, products, and information people seek on the Web, the more challenging it becomes to distinguish your audience from the crowd.

Metaphorically, you want to be selling hot chocolate at an ice rink to freezing-cold people. When you combine behavioral and offline data, target by device, and pay for viewable impressions, you create the best odds of doing exactly that.

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How to Make Digital Advertising as Successful as Hot Chocolate at an Ice Rink

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image of Ted Dhanik

Ted Dhanik is CEO of engage:BDR, an advertising technology company.

LinkedIn: Ted Dhanik