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Ice cream is not exactly a hard sell.

It's creamy. It often contains chocolate. The sugar in it triggers our brains to release serotonin, which makes us feel happy. It should sell itself. But as the folks at Ben & Jerry's know, not everyone is into it.

"We don't want to be reaching everyone [with advertising,] since there are some people who might not enjoy amazing ice cream," said Mike Hayes, digital marketing manager at Ben & Jerry's headquarters in Vermont. "They're out there."

The potential to pinpoint the right people to speak to is at the heart of how digital media are changing advertising. Whether it is the psychologically deranged type capable of hating ice cream, or childless men in creative fields who drink at a beloved local bar on a Wednesday night, marketers are mining all types of criteria to personalize their ads. The hope is to cut down on the dross in ad budgets, analyzing consumer data in order to place promotional messages in front of people who may actually be receptive.

And this notion is also a key part of Facebook Inc.'s pitch to advertisers. When the social media giant reported an 82-per-cent leap in first-quarter advertising revenue on Thursday, it also boasted that 10 times more advertisers are using its targeting capabilities compared to this time last year.

Ben & Jerry's is one of them. The Unilever PLC-owned ice cream brand often advertises new flavours, but late last year it saw a need to remind people of seven "classic" flavours, including Cherry Garcia, Half Baked and Cookie Dough.

It used Facebook data to look for people who were likely ice cream fans, based on information they had shared. It also layered in third-party data from Datalogix to find people who have purchased the products before – ending up with a total target audience of about 14 million people, 90 per cent of them reached on their mobile devices. Ben & Jerry's sales from those targeted consumers rose 8.1 per cent.

"There's a lot more data in the world, and now it's about how marketers can use this data to reach people that want to hear from us," Mr. Hayes said.

Advertisers have always wanted to reach the most relevant audience. But this is becoming even more important as the avalanche of digital ad space means that people are exposed to a greater magnitude of sponsored messages every day. Consumers are training their eyes to ignore many of these ads: "Display" ads (those boxes seen at the top or sides of a computer screen) don't perform so well, Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg said on the conference call Thursday.

Facebook's solution has been to sell ads directly in the "newsfeed" of posts from friends that people see when they log into the social network. (This has to do with a greater shift to mobile use for Facebook, as well, where there is no room for the right-hand column of ads.)

The problem with these "newsfeed" ads is that the battle for people's attention is not only against other advertisers.

"I'm comparing you not just with your competitors, but with pictures of my sister's daughter or my friend's wedding," said Steve Irvine, group director of global marketing solutions for Facebook in Canada. "So there's a much higher bar when it comes to the relevance and the quality of those ads."

By targeting mothers and females in certain demographics in the U.S. coastal and southern states, a campaign for the Mondelez International Inc. cookie brand Nilla Wafers also succeeded in bringing in new buyers. Those who saw the ads spent on average 9 per cent more than those who had not.

The targeting criteria that go into making ads more relevant can be relatively broad, as in the ice cream campaign, or almost surgical in the level of detail.

Montreal-based online clothing retailer Frank & Oak, for example, has a very specific set of traits it attributes to its customers. As an e-commerce company with a well-tracked database of buyers, it has the data and the research to back that up.

The male Frank & Oak buyer, aged roughly 18 to 35, is on the first or second job of his career, likely in a creative field that uses technology. He lives in a city, has no kids, and probably uses an iPhone. (Or maybe an Android-powered phone. Most likely not a BlackBerry.) He has a favourite bar where he likes to stop in after work. He's a fan of Arcade Fire. He's probably read Creativity Inc., the book about Pixar, or it's on his reading list, at least.

When Frank & Oak tries to recruit new customers (which it has done with incredible speed in the past couple of years, jumping from roughly 100,000 in 2012 to over a million this year), one of their strategies is to look for these traits among Facebook users. The company also regularly makes use of Facebook's "lookalike" ad campaigns, which look at details on the social media accounts of current customers, and cross-reference those with other men who share similar traits but are not buying from Frank & Oak.

"We don't want to serve ads left and right, and maybe just leave people annoyed," chief operating officer and co-founder Hicham Ratnani said. "We can serve very personalized ads."

Mobile is a huge part of that for the retailer. It has found that people who have the Frank & Oak app for their smartphones are roughly 20 per cent more likely to make regular purchases. When it has done these targeted campaigns to drive people to app downloads – which Facebook offers with one-click ads that connect straight to the app store for iPhone or Android – Frank & Oak has seen a double-digit increase in downloads.

"You look at your phone around 20 times a day, at least," Mr. Ratnani said. "[With the app on a phone's home screen] you see our logo 20 times a day. That's great marketing for us."

Advertising has come full circle, Facebook's Mr. Irvine said: In the days of the local store, a business owner knew his or her customers, their buying habits, and their personal needs and quirks. Mass media brought the ability to speak to many more people, but in a much more impersonal way. Now, thanks to data and digital targeting, Facebook is selling itself to advertisers based on the return of personalization. That pitch will be part of what Facebook counts on for continued growth.

"Promoting the same products or showing the same imagery [to everyone] is a miss," Mr. Irvine said. "…You have an ability to understand who a person is."

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