Keywords vs. Audience Targeting: Find Your Target in a Complex Landscape

Is audience targeting more effective than good-old-fashioned keyword targeting? This question is widely debated in marketing circles. A closer look reveals that each targeting method is profoundly different, and keywords arguably hold the edge for generating leads and sales.

Audience Targeting, target audience

Only keywords can lock in on a user’s in-the-moment intent. Use keywords such as “buy trail running shoes” or “buy Nike trail shoes,” and you’ll target users with exactly those needs. You can virtually exclude people who aren’t likely to make purchases by putting terms like “cheap,” “discount” or “compare” on your negative keyword list.

Keywords also let you get extremely granular. Are you advertising the Brooks Cascadia 11 trail shoe?

Plug that into your keyword list along with buyer-oriented terms like “buy,” “deals” or “best price,” and you’ll cut straight to the heart of your target audience. You can’t do that with audience targeting.

Now you know the biggest difference between audience and keyword targeting. As you can see, keyword targeting is far from obsolete. In fact, you might be wondering why even bother with audience targeting if keywords are better for driving sales?

Audience vs. Keyword Targeting: Different Tools for Different Tasks

Keywords are better for generating leads and sales because they grab consumers in those moments they’re ready to buy. These consumers have already decided they need new running shoes. They’ve already researched brands, or they might have go-to favorites. They’re aware of new models, and they might have searched for best prices. They’re far along in their sales journeys and ready to get on with it.

Audience targeting can reach shoppers who are just taking their first steps. Again, think of those trail shoes. With audience targeting, you can introduce those shoes to folks who have affinities for running and other outdoor activities. Rather than push sales, you can design ads that build awareness of your brand, your store and your best products. Pique interests by advertising what makes those new trail shoes remarkable. Encourage trail runners to put those shoes on their shopping lists.

Don’t get me wrong – the point of marketing is always to generate profit. And the most direct way to boost profit is to drive leads and sales. That said, you’ll have an easier time driving sales once you’ve made that connection with customers, and that’s where audience targeting really shines.

Yes, you can do brand marketing with keywords, but audience targeting does it better.


Keyword targeting is arguably still the king of the mountain in search engine marketing. This is especially true for small business owners who are often more concerned with driving sales than building their brands. After all, small businesses can often build their brands through local sales, social media and community involvement.

Keep an eye on audience targeting though. Don’t be afraid to split test with different custom audience settings. Even when leaning on keywords, skillful audience targeting can weed out users who are less likely to become paying customers. Also, keep an eye on Google AdWords. Just recently, Google incorporated in-market audience settings with Search Network advertising campaigns, letting advertisers target consumers who appear ready to make purchases. Eventually, Google will incorporate even more audience targeting with its Search Network advertising platform.

Audience targeting is on the rise, but keyword targeting is still the savvy marketer’s weapon of choice.

For now.

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Author: Phil Frost

Phil is Founder and COO of Main Street ROI. Phil leads the company’s operations and is primary creator of Main Street ROI’s marketing training programs. He is an expert in search engine marketing, website analytics, and sales funnel optimization. Phil’s marketing thought leadership has been published on,,, and many other major business media outlets.

Phil earned his Master of Engineering Management degree from Thayer School of Engineering and Tuck School of Business and his Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Engineering degrees from Dartmouth College. While attending Dartmouth, Phil started every game on the varsity football team as the defensive safety.

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