How You Can Use Google’s Display Network to Learn About Your Customers for Under $1000

December 27, 2018

Early on in my career I worked at a small SEM agency out of a shared office in San Francisco. There we were surrounded by small startups with little to no marketing budget and zero idea as to who their ideal customer really was.

A common misconception we saw was that most of these folks assumed that their target audience was just like them. After-all, most startups are born out of necessity – someone sees something is missing from their life or current industry and say, “hey wouldn’t it be great for me if there was a company that did X?” Almost every company we worked with that kept this attitude to launch always failed miserably.

These businesses had failed to see that your customers are almost never, “just like you.” You are too close to the product and you may not even be the ideal customer! Customers may share certain characteristics, like working in a similar industry – obviously they have the same problem you are trying to solve right? But the ideal customer almost always:

  1. fit into different demographic or psychographic buckets
  2. Come from a segment of the population that you never would have guessed needed your service or product


I must have explained this over a thousand times, and almost every time they would come back and say, “Well I don’t have any budget to pay for market research so I’m going to stick with what we know.” It’s true, buying a forrester research study on your vertical is expensive. A lot of market research companies charge exorbitant fees to get these insights. They know that this information is worth the cost because it can help make your business successful.

What if I told you that you don’t have to rely on expensive subscriptions or one-off reports at sky-high prices to get this market information? Would you believe me? I didn’t believe it myself until my time in San Francisco. Armed with marketing budgets some would call “pocket change” and my own firm desire to help these companies be successful we had to get very creative.

You may say, “But Stephen, I have Google Analytics gathering all this great data on my site visitors already; why should I spend money to get the same information?” Well yes, Google Analytics does give you great data about people who are visiting your site, but it doesn’t tell you about the people out on the web that have NEVER been to your site. If you are a small business the people that have been to your site are there for only a handful of reasons: they are probably family, friends, coworkers, maybe some folks you met at a meetup and told about your site, etc. But they are definitely not a representative slice of the audience that makes up your target market.

Luckily we found a way to get detailed customer data for only a tiny fraction of a typical market research report: the Google Display Network.


How does it work?

Over the last few years Google has added a ton of great customer data to their Ads platform for free. Any display campaign you run will include details of demographics: Age, Gender, Parental status, and household income

They have also added “Topics,” basically the category of websites your display ads might appear on (e.g. Arts & Entertainment, Finance, Health, Auto, etc). This means any campaign run on display, when set up correctly, can gather all of this information for you.


How is it so inexpensive?

Ads on the Google Display Network (GDN) are Pay-per-click (PPC), so you only pay when someone actually clicks on your banner ad. This means that your ad could be served on websites to potential customers over one million times, but until someone clicks, you pay absolutely nothing.

When you combine these two elements you can set a relatively low budget, say $500, for your campaign and still gather a significant amount of data about your customers.


Here’s an example.

I’m Jim, I started a new business selling jewelry online but I haven’t invested in online advertising because I don’t have a marketing budget and I’ve relied on word-of-mouth for my customers. Now I’ve refreshed my site and I’m ready to grow my business but I’m not really sure who my ideal customer really is.

Well Jim (and you) can follow these steps:

  1. Setup a Google Ads account
  2. Create a Display campaign by selecting a goal of “Website traffic” then selecting the campaign type “Display”
  3. Set a bid. Low bids mean less expensive inventory, but that doesn’t always mean poor quality. A lot of big sites that typically only do direct media deals for ad placements will backfill their remnant inventory with Google AdSense, meaning you have the opportunity to appear on these sites, even at a low bid. Lower bids mean your smaller budget will go further.
  4. Add Observational Audiences – when you are in your campaign, select Audiences from the second nav, then click on the blue icon with the pencil and select “Edit Ad Group Targeting.” Select the ad group and then on the next screen ensure all demographics options are selected from within the targeting section:

audience demographics

Then below the Targeting section, click on “Add Observations” in the “Additional observations” section” and choose “Topics”

audience topics

From here, select every topic available. Since this an “Observational” audience overlay, you’re not restricting your ads to only show on these topics. Instead this gives the signal to Google that you want reporting data on these topics as they relate to the web pages your ads appear on. Next you’ll need to:


  1. Confirm your daily budget.
  2. Create a responsive ad or two. Just make sure to try a few variations of message and design in each. Not small changes like button color, but entirely different banner concepts.
  3. Add your banners to your campaign along with some keywords that describe your business – in our example, Jim might add “Jewelry store,” “Neighborhood Jeweler,” “Buy jewellery online,” “quality jewelry,” etc.
  4. Activate your campaign and run ads for at least a week.

You can, and should, check in on the reporting data by simply clicking on the respective option in the left nav.

left nav reporting

From these sections you can then see how various demographics and topics work for your business.

You’ll get insights such as which demo sees your ads more often, which age group clicks more often, and if you have conversion tracking setup, you’ll learn which of these audience segments are converting best on your site.


Some things to remember:

Google thrives on high volumes of data and your decisions should be based on high volumes. If you see an audience has a high conversion rate, but only 3 clicks, that doesn’t mean that that audience is a winner.

Poor conversion volume may be a sign that your site just isn’t that great at getting people to take the tracked action. Despite this, you can still see who is clicking your ads and the topics that generate the most interest in your brand

If you only run one or even two ad variations, or you only run ads of one size, you may get misleading results. If your creative doesn’t resonate with people they won’t click, therefore you won’t learn. If you only run one ad size, you limit the visibility of your ads to specific pages and placements. I recommend running at least 4 variations in at least 5 different ad sizes.

You don’t have to make perfectly designed banners. At my agency I used Google’s free tool to create simple banners (unfortunately this tool has since been sunset) with various messages and imagery. I built them in about 15 minutes. Remember: you are in a learning phase. You can optimize your ads once you determine what audience and messaging combinations win, then iterate from there.


BONUS! Learning from existing site traffic:

You can also utilize Google Ads Remarketing audiences to do a similar test on your site visitors. This works best when you have a decent amount of site traffic (250+ unique visits/day).

Once you have your site tagged and setup to build this audience you can setup a separate test campaign, and set your remarketing audience as a targeted audience but keep all of your other overlays. We would often setup both tests at the same time as the users from the first test would ultimately feed the remarketing test and give us more insights about those users who would come back to the website more than once.

There you have it. You can now go forth and get detailed market information about your target customers for less than $1000.