The old saying that there’s never too much of a good thing may or may not apply when it comes to audience targeting. It all depends on your perspective. Certainly, digital marketers think they can never have too much consumer data, while others – including consumers – may think there’s a line over which marketers shouldn’t go.

Consider all the attention Facebook received in recent months by constantly refining and enhancing its audience targeting capabilities. From new ad tools that can follow users from desktop to mobile and back to the slightly spooky cursor tracking capabilities, the social giant clearly understands that advertisers have a nearly insatiable appetite for tracking consumers and capturing data. That’s especially true in our fragmented, multiscreen world. Big data is only going to get bigger – not to mention more valuable – as we learn to capture ever more information about consumer activities and behaviors across every digital channel.

But, as many parents tell adolescent children, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Or, to put it another way, advertisers and publishers must think carefully about using these high-powered targeting tools. Will this new data have value beyond the obvious application of faster and more targeted advertising and more efficient programmatic ad buying? Or is there a risk that consumers will feel stalked?

I say yes and yes. So how do advertisers and publishers get to the optimal audience targeting capabilities? Assuming that a comprehensive and nuanced customer profile is the end game, marketers should be asking how the firehose of data from social media, digital campaigns, mobile devices and cursor movements can be used to enrich the data they already have from internal sources (such as call centers, customer service and billing operations).

As CMOs deal in data volumes that used to be the exclusive realm of CIOs, they should consider that they already have considerable “bullseye” information at their disposal. Yes, some of that data may not be as fresh as this morning’s Tweet, but the historical backdrop of a customer’s experience may provide real clues about if or when they want to see new ads in their timeline, or an email coupon, or even a targeted catalog shipped to their home.

Technology is part of the story here. Publishers and advertisers need to be ready to manage all the data as their targeting capabilities become more sophisticated and powerful. More companies are seeking to use data management platforms to manage all this data. By serving as a centralized means for gathering and storing a diverse set of customer data, DMPs can help companies enhance their primary customer records to develop better profiles, segment, communicate with, and influence customers more effectively.

According to Forrester, DMPs “ingest and normalize a wide array of data streams … provide tools to turn data into insights and targetable audiences … and create and maintain links to live channels for message delivery.” All of those capabilities are potential difference-makers for marketers.

Having the right analytics tools and approach in place is also critical. Applying discipline and best practices to the use of campaign tracking codes can help boost standardization and data management effectiveness on the front end – and to avoid the digital equivalent of “garbage in, garbage out.” This is an especially large challenge in the multiplatform environment. With that the majority of digital consumers using more than device or media (according to comScore), it’s imperative that digital marketers learn to track consumers accurately as they bounce across channels. Early adopters have embraced the use of persistent profiles and common keys as a baseline for effective, omni-channel tracking. They also offer customer experience benefits, by streamlining login processes, for instance.

From free tools to the most advanced and full-featured platforms, marketers have plenty of resources to track consumers and audience members; it’s all about knowing how to use those tools in specific and consistent ways that align to high-priority objectives.

Of course, anytime you talk targeting today, consumer privacy and the do-not-track controversy must be part of the conversation. Even as we head toward a post-cookie world, the basics still apply. It starts with knowing what data you’re collecting and why. For large advertisers and premium brands, that means gaining some recognition of what various vendors and partners are doing:

  • What data is collected by the ad serving platforms or networks you use?
  • Do the data collection and audience tracking practices and policies comply with your own standards?
  • Do you know how your vendors use the data they collect about your consumers or from your campaigns? Do they own such data?
  • If your tracking practices were to attract media attention, would it have a negative impact on your brand?

These are not philosophical issues to be debated in terms of brand values or industry ethics, but rather questions with direct implications on a range of digital operations.
One last point bears mentioning in any discussion of audience tracking: the people factor. With so much technological fragmentation and constant evolution in the space, companies must have people capable of analyzing the data, recognizing and prioritizing insights, and translating them into a business context. There is no shortage of analytical or tracking firepower out there. And certainly there is – understatement alert – more than enough data. Without context and clarity, however, it’s possible for executives to misinterpret consumer sentiment or campaign performance. In other words, just because you’re “doing” audience tracking doesn’t mean you’re doing it optimally.