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When it Comes to Ads, “Relevance” Means What Exactly?

By Kate Muhl | June 01, 2022 | 4 Comments

MarketingCustomer Acquisition and RetentionDigital Marketing Strategy and ExecutionMarketing Leadership and Strategy

It is a marketing truth universally acknowledged, that relevance is the key that unlocks consumers’ gates. Make sure a message is relevant and consumers will allow it through their filters – the literal ones (ad blockers) and the figurative ones (they’ll actually pay attention to it). How do we know this? Because we ask consumers questions like, do you prefer ads that are relevant to you? Or, when an ad is not relevant to you do you find it annoying? And – surprise! – consumers tend to say they prefer the relevant ones.

Another truth, perhaps less universally acknowledged: Sometimes a fact is just too good to check. Like, for instance, what exactly marketers and consumers mean by relevance.

Consumers and Marketers Do Not Have a Shared Definition of Relevance

All too often, we marketers assume that consumers have the same definition of “relevance” that we have. A relevant ad, according to lots of marketers, is an ad that’s personalized for the viewer. And that personalization is based largely on the demographic or location-specific data points we tend have on them. Verifying that definition is only going to slow us down. So we don’t always bother defining our terms in the surveys where we ask consumers what kinds of ads they prefer.

But here’s the rub: Assuming consumers share marketers’ definition of “relevant” can leads to bad decisions and missed opportunities. Because, it turns out, consumers don’t share our definition of relevant.

In fact, in recently published Gartner research, “Maximize Ad Relevance by Responding to 4 Drivers of Consumer Attention,”[subscription required] we uncovered not only that consumers don’t define relevant in the way we do. They also have a range of different ways they define it.

There are Four Key Consumer Definitions of Relevance

In general, consumer definitions of relevance when it comes to ads are much more personal, idiosyncratic and emotional. They see an ad as relevant when it provides new-to-them information on products and services. Or, ads are relevant when they have emotional appeal, evoking feelings and featuring music or imagery that they like. A relevant ad, according to our consumer research, can also be one that helps the consumer understand an issue or people who are different from them. Find more detail on each of these definitions or drivers in the research linked to above.

The connective tissue throughout these definitions of relevance? Relevant ads connect to something personally and emotionally specific to the individual viewer. Data points marketers gather through tracking aren’t great at surfacing this kind of relevance. 

There is still a role for targeted advertising. A portion of consumers do consider an ad relevant when it seems to be based on their internet searches or past purchases. The thing is, Apple and Google are reducing access to third-party cookies and device IDs. So data required to build this kind of relevance is increasingly difficult and expensive to acquire.

To Make Ads More Relevant, Go Old School

Faced with this definitional disconnect, what’s a modern digital marketer to do? Borrow a little from the old school marketing playbook! Leverage more population-level insights by digging in to the core values, experiences and interests of your target consumers as a group, rather than the specific user/ad viewer.

It may seem counterintuitive, but leaning into more universal truths just may be the most efficient and modern way to get to specific relevance in ads.

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

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  • Emmanuel Klotz says:

    Hi, There is a flaw in the thinking here: why on earth should there be a “marketers definition of relevance”, different from the “consumer definition”of it? Who else but the consumer should decide of what is relevant or not? An ad is relevant when consumers say it is to them, full stop.

    Your “finding” simply states the obvious, and fortunately marketers worthy of the name have known this since the very beginning. Those who believe relevance means personalization should as well consider changing job or learning marketing basics (for which there is no “old school”).

    • Kate Muhl says:

      Of course, we agree with you. That’s why we conducted the research and shared the findings. Too many marketers — including many I talk to in my role as a Gartner analyst — rely on a kind of willful blindness around the disconnect our research surfaced.

  • MB says:

    I think you have a typo here… “Consumers and Marketers Do Not Gave a Shared Definition of Relevance”