Create 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 it’s great for targeting intent.

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” is losing its potency.

Not because keyword targeting isn’t effective, but because Google Ads is moving away from contextual and keyword targeting in public favor.

As we lose control over precision matching, we have two (seemingly) less desirable options: improve audience targeting or lose market share to those who do.

But, done right, Google Ads audience targeting is a great way to reach — and generate demand among — your target market.

So, let’s look at what’s changing and how to win in the new “audience first” landscape – even if you prefer to stick with keywords.

The benefit of the public first for the alphabet

Whether or not a keyword-free approach is in your business’ best interests, it certainly works well for Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

This chart shows reported annual revenue (in billions), with an overlay of product release without keywords.

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

Google’s success is obviously due to more than ad offerings without keywords. But the expansion of its inventory is not trivial.

Our prospects spend much less time googling a product than they do not Google a product.

If Google can reach them when they’re online but not on the SERP for a specific query, the opportunity for a paid click becomes nearly limitless.

Your audience at any time:

small circle representing SERP, slightly larger circle representing contextual targeting, large circle representing anywhere onlineScreenshot by author, July 2022

This expansion is great for Google results, but what about yours?

Here’s a step-by-step overview of how to create an audience-driven strategy that keeps you competitive.

Create an audience-driven strategy

An audience-driven strategy isn’t entirely different from an intent-driven strategy, but you’ll need to reframe how you target your prospects.

Define your campaign goals

The campaign objective reveals the best approach to strategy and targeting. Consider this frequently asked question from the public:

“Should I exclude remarketing audiences from my campaign?”

If the goal of your campaign is to reach new audiences, it would make sense to exclude previous visitors or customers.

If, on the contrary, the goal is to reach people familiar with your brand, then this exclusion would be fatal for this campaign.

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

Define your audience and segments

No, we are not going to imagine a specific user avatar, what color of shirt he wears and what he ate for breakfast this morning.

Instead, consider the attributes that make your audience unique in how they buy, enjoy, or use your product or service.

Consider things like:

  • Who are they.
  • Why are they like that.
  • How they solve their problem today.

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

This requires work outside of the platform (like surveys or interviews) to research the characteristics of your customers.

Let’s say you sell plant-based (vegan) burgers.

Your audience can include multiple segments:

  • Beef lovers who need to reduce their red meat intake or want to try something new.
  • Devout vegetarians who want an alternative for drying black bean patties.

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

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

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

Grow your audiences and segments in Google Ads

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

To reach vegetarians who might enjoy our plant-based burgers, we could target:

  • Affinity > Food and dining > Vegetarians and Vegans
  • Custom Segment > Interested/purchase intention > Vegetarian recipes and products
  • Custom Segment > Similar websites > DTC Vegetarian Sites (Boca, Morningstar Farm, Quorn)
  • Custom Segment > Similar websites > Vegetarian publications (Vegetarian Times, VRG, Vegetarian Mag)
Viewing the Google Ads UI
Screenshot of Google Ads, April 2022

The types of audience segments available in a specific campaign will depend on the type of campaign or network you use.

For example, you can target life events (such as getting married, graduating, or moving) on ​​the Display Network, but not on search.

You can create new segments from Hearing Manager or directly into your campaign or ad group from Public tongue.

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

Create separate and specific ad groups and campaigns

As with keywords, there’s no sense in creating organized themed audience segments just to cram everything into a single ad group with generic ads.

Our “beef lovers” segment needs its own ad group and ads, separate from our “vegetarian” segment.

An exception to this rule is for Search Network campaigns, where intent is strong, and audience segments can be layered in keyword targeting without completely separating them:

Google ad audiencesScreenshot of Google Ads, June 2019

But for non-Search campaigns, your audience segments fulfill keyword intent. So you have to separate the distinct segments.

Create targeted ads for your segments

You can customize your ads for each market segment with an audience-driven strategy.

  • Our ads aimed at vegetarian audiences may promote benefits like cruelty-free flavor while pointing out that these burgers are, in fact, vegan.
  • Our advertisements for beef lovers can provide health benefits without sacrificing taste.

Test different messaging and treatments for your ads to see which ones perform best for your segments.

Track and optimize your segments

You can stack multiple similar segments in an ad group.

If the same person matches multiple segments, Google Ads uses this hierarchy what type of audience gets the credit for:

Chart showing decreasing priority: customer targeting, remarketing/similar audiences, combined audiences, affinity/in-market, detailed demographicsScreenshot of the Google Ads support page, July 2022

You’ll also find lots of audience segment data in Audience Manager.

From Tools and Settings > Hearing Managersimply click on the name of your data segment to view information such as:

  • Segment members.
  • Match rate.
  • Network eligibility (including segment size).
  • Distribution by segments.
  • Use of segments.
Google Ads Audience ManagerScreenshot of Google Ads Audience Manager, April 2022

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

Audience targeting “don’ts”

  • Do not target arbitrary attributes. Build audience segments and targeting around meaningful attributes, not arbitrary observations. Categories such as age and gender are easy to track, but generally don’t define your market.
  • Do not use conflicting settings. If your goal is to show remarketing ads, don’t also select ‘optimized targeting’, which will reach people who haven’t interacted with your site.
  • Don’t “set it and forget it”. Like keyword optimization, audience optimization is an iterative process. Pay particular attention to terms that are too broad in your custom segments.

Audience-first targeting “must do”

Google Ads support pageScreenshot of Google Ads support page, highlights by author, July 2022
  • Expect a learning curve. Google Ads has evolved its functionalities and terminology in recent years, making it new and unknown. Be patient with yourself while you (re)learn the ropes.
  • Know the rules. Your industry, government restrictions and other requirements will affect whether and how you can market. Review Google Ads supporting documents and updates regularly, so you can stay in the loop.
  • Understand VUCA. VUCA is an acronym that stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. No matter how accurate the targeting you set, you won’t get 100% accuracy. You can see how your own ads are personalized here. Expect some clutter.
Google ad settingsScreenshot of Google Ads settings, April 2022


An audience-driven strategy for Google Ads will help you prospect 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:

Featured Image: Alones/Shutterstock

About Ricardo Schulte

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