Build A Brilliant Google Ads Audience-First Strategy (Even If You Don’t Want To)

If you’ve been working with Google Ads / AdWords for a while, you know that it’s great for intent targeting.

By showing ads against keyword searches, you can promote your product or service to someone exactly when they’re looking for it.

But the “almighty keyword” loses its power.

Not because keyword targeting is ineffective, but because Google Ads skews away from content and keyword targeting in the first place favor of the masses.

As we lose control of exact matching, we have two (seemingly) undesirable options: get better at audience targeting first, or lose market share to those who do.

But, if done right, audience targeting in Google Ads is a great way to reach your target market and generate demand for it.

So, let’s take a look at the changes and how to win in the new “audience-first” landscape — even if you’d rather stick with keywords.

Ahead of the crowd – first for the alphabet

Whether or not the no-keyword approach is in your company’s interest, it certainly works well for Google subsidiary Alphabet.

This graph shows reported annual revenue (in billions), with an overlay for product releases that don’t contain keywords.

Screenshot from Statista, April 2021. Overlay product names added by author.

Obviously, Google’s success is due to more than just offering ads without keywords. But expanding its inventory is no small feat.

Potential customers spend much less time searching for a product on Google than they do Not Search for a product on Google.

If Google can get to them when they are online but not on the SERP for a particular query, the chance of a paid click becomes almost unlimited.

Your audience at any time:

Small circle represents SERP, slightly larger circle represents content targeting, large circle represents anywhere onlineScreenshot by the author, July 2022

This expansion is great for Google’s bottom line, but what about yours?

Here’s a step-by-step look at how to build an audience-first strategy that keeps you competitive.

Create your audience strategy first

An audience-first strategy is not the same as an intent-first strategy, but you will need to reframe how you target potential customers.

Set your campaign goals

The campaign objective reveals the best approach to take with strategy and targeting. Consider the most popular audience question:

“Should I exclude remarketing from audiences in my campaign?”

If the purpose of your campaign is to reach new audiences, it makes sense to exclude previous visitors or customers.

However, if the goal is to reach people who are familiar with your brand, this exclusion will be a killer for this campaign.

Knowing your goal will make choosing a successful audience much easier to think about.

Define your audience and segments

No, we’re not going to imagine a specific user avatar, what color shirt he’s wearing, and what they ate for breakfast this morning.

Instead, consider the attributes that make your audience unique in how they shop for, rate, or use your product or service.

Consider things like:

  • who are they.
  • Why are they like this.
  • How do they solve their problem today.

You won’t generally find these answers in Google Ads data.

It requires off-platform work (such as surveys or interviews) to research the characteristics of your customers.

Let’s say you sell veggie burgers.

Your audience may include multiple segments:

  • Beef lovers who need to reduce their consumption of red meat Or would like to try something new.
  • Devoted vegans who want an alternative For drying black bean patties.

These two groups have different desires, motivations, and alternative choices.

They will respond better to different messages, possibly different landing pages and offers.

We will need a segmented messaging strategy to get the best results.

Configure audiences and segments in Google Ads

Once you know who you are trying to reach, you need a plan to reach them.

To reach vegans who might enjoy veggie burgers, we can target:

  • convergence > Food and food > Vegetarians and vegans
  • custom slide > interested / buy Intentions > Vegan recipes and products
  • custom slide > Similar sites > DTC Vegetarian Sites (Boca, Morningstar Farm, Korn)
  • custom slide > Similar sites > Botanical Publications (Vegetarian Times, VRG, Vegetarian Mag)
The Google Ads user interface displays
Screenshot from Google Ads, April 2022

The types of audiences available in a particular campaign will depend on your audience Campaign type or network you are using.

For example, you can target life events (such as marriage, graduation, or moves) on screen, but not on search.

You can create new segments from Audience manager Or directly in your campaign or ad group masses tab.

Some campaign types now require that you define an audience before adding ads or other marketing assets.

Create distinct and specific ad groups and campaigns

As with keywords, there is no sense in creating structured, thematic audiences just to roll everything back into one ad group with generic ads.

Our Beef Lovers segment needs its own ad group and ads, separate from the Veggie segment.

An exception to this rule are search campaigns, where the intent is strong, and audiences can be segmented into keyword targeting without separating them completely:

Audiences on Google AdsScreenshot from Google Ads, June 2019

But for non-search campaigns, your audience segments fill in the purpose of keywords, so you’ll want to separate your featured segments.

Create ads targeted to your segments

You can tailor your ads to each market segment using an audience-first strategy.

  • Our ads can for a vegan audience Promote benefits like cruelty-free flavoring With the confirmation that these burgers are, in fact, vegan.
  • Our ads can be for beef lovers Advantage health benefits without sacrificing taste.

Test different messages and treatments for your ads to see which work best for your segments.

Track and improve your slides

You can stack multiple similar segments within an ad group.

If the same person matches more than one segment, Google Ads uses it Hierarchy What kind of audience gets the credit:

Chart showing descending priority: Customer Match, Remarketing/Similar Audiences, Combined Audiences, Affinity/In-Market, Detailed DemographicsScreenshot from the Google Ads support page, July 2022

You’ll also find a lot of audience data in Audience Manager.

of tools and settings > Audience managerSimply click on the name of your data segment to see details such as:

  • sector members.
  • Match rate.
  • Network eligibility (incl section size).
  • sectoral distribution.
  • Part use.
Google Ads Audience ManagerScreenshot from Google Ads Audience Manager, April 2022

Evaluate your audience’s performance and adjust your settings to optimize and optimize your campaigns.

The Caveats About Targeting Your Audience First

  • Don’t target arbitrary attributes. Build audiences and targeting around meaningful attributes, not random observations. Categories like age and gender are easy to keep track of, but they won’t usually define your market.
  • Do not use conflicting settings. If your goal is to run remarketing ads, don’t also select “enhanced targeting,” which will reach people who haven’t interacted with your site.
  • Don’t “set it and forget it.” Just like keyword optimization, audience optimization is an iterative process. Pay close attention to overly broad terminology on dedicated slides.

Do to target audience first

Google Ads support pageScreenshot from the Google Ads support page, highlighted by the author, July 2022
  • Anticipate the learning curve. Google Ads is developing its functionality and term over the past several years, making it seem new and unfamiliar. Be patient with yourself as you (re)learn the ropes.
  • Do you know the rules. Your industry, government restrictions, and other requirements will affect if and how you can market. See Google Ads Support documents And updates regularly, so you can stay in the loop.
  • Don’t understand VUCA. VUCA is an acronym that stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. No matter how narrow your targeting you set, you will never achieve 100% accuracy. Could you See how your ads are personalized here. Expect some chaos.
Google Ads settingsScreenshot of Google Ads settings, April 2022


The Audience First strategy in Google Ads will help you anticipate and reach your target market.

Knowing how to group and speak to individual market segments will improve your performance and increase your chances of success.

More resources:

  • 4 Smart Techniques for Targeting Your Advanced Google Ads Audience
  • 7 ways to segment your audience for successful retargeting
  • Winning at Retargeting: Tips for Reconnecting and Converting

Featured image: Alones / Shutterstock

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