We can all appreciate that the internet has changed. We only have to look at our behaviour to see that we no longer use the web just for search and gathering information – it has become a place where we connect, with our friends and family, sharing ideas and content.

With the rapid rise of social networks, the influx of affordable handheld smart devices and a never-ending introduction to “social” applications, the evolution will undoubtedly maintain this momentum over the course of the next few years.

As advertising technologists who monitor consumer behaviour, we cannot overlook this valuable insight. The IAB estimates that over £4billion is now invested in online advertising in the UK annually, but with so many platforms and channels available to communicate with their audience, how can we be sure we’re making the right choices?

Do we need to re-evaluate our approach to the internet and should we be adjusting our online marketing strategies as we navigate this congested social environment? Here is my best practice advice for anyone looking to get the most from an online marketing campaign.

Track connections not behaviour

Online behavioural targeting is nothing new – it’s a well accepted practice and has proved its value in recent years. However, as the internet evolves, we can take this method one step further, and instead of targeting consumers based on their ‘website visiting’ behaviour, we can actually target them based on their interactions with their closest connections, improving relevance and scale by building audience segments around their affinity of interest, demographics and psychographics.

Facebook has observed that the rate its users are sharing is increasing exponentially and has had some success in this area with its ‘social graph’, however, there is a limit to what it can offer. The next step in online advertising is to look at people’s implicit sphere of influence and interest – but this requires a significant change in thinking, and literally turning existing practices on their heads.

Online advertising shouldn’t be about following users around the web, but becoming part of the conversation and accompanying the user based on their shared interest, influence and closest connections. By creating a bottom up approach, advertisers can turn the advertising funnel upside down, helping them target ever increasing numbers of relevant consumers by building out the audience based on the influence and interest of just a few.

Look beyond Facebook

For online advertisers, segmenting audiences within a social network, based on their likes and discussions, is undoubtedly useful. However, if we’re to target based on our social connections, we need to examine them across the whole web. A social network by definition represents a walled garden and goes against what the internet now stands for – openness.

According to Nielsen we visit an average of 200+ URLs per month and comScore recently reported that 9.9 per cent of online time is spent on Facebook, meaning there is still a colossal opportunity to target the remaining 90.1 per cent of the online audience at a different stage on their virtual journey. We need to look at the open web and consumers’ meaningful connections outside of their social networking time for a more representative picture of our potential customers.

Understand your audience’s implicit graph

The main issue with the majority of social media advertising campaigns today is that they struggle to reach a large, scaled audience unless the campaign receives the highly desirable ‘viral’ status or has a large amount of advertising supporting its growth. To gain effective reach, a successful targeting campaign must be supported by intelligent advertising, which involves understanding a consumer’s sphere of influence and connectivity.

To put this into context, consider the fact that it’s not uncommon for a Facebook user to have in excess of 400 friends, ranging from family, close friends, co-workers, passive contacts, and acquaintances. However, one could argue that half of the content a user sees on their newsfeed isn’t relevant – it isn’t the content from family and close friends, more often than not it’s about everyone else.

By taking the fewer connections that are much more meaningful and closer to the consumer, and defining those by the amount of interaction they have, you will increase your audience size and relevance. This results in advertisers targeting a more defined and socially engaged audience, and as far as is possible, delivering improved ROI.

What does this all mean?

Being able to target relevant audiences across the entire web on multiple devices will be a game changer for advertisers. Not only will it prove to be a real differentiator in online marketing campaigns, it will shake web advertising to its very core.

Advertisers not only need the option to target their potential audience online, but also the ability to scale audience through connections of their advocates, as opposed to just implementing a quantitative approach and, pretty much, flying blind. It means relevant brand messages can be delivered at optimum times which will achieve the fundamental objective in any online advertising campaign – generate engagement, higher conversion rates and improved financial returns.

We’ve seen that the web is now a myriad of social communication and transaction, which is increasingly at the control of consumers’ fingertips across multiple devices, from PCs to mobiles and tablets. Understandably, customers determine what befits their needs and desires anytime, anywhere, and this must be reflected in businesses’ advertising practices.

Appreciating that the internet has significantly evolved, and putting foundations in place which are capable of adapting to different models that emerge, will put brands in the best possible position to glean optimum ROI from their online campaigns.