Guest author Kelly Cooper currently serves as marketing manager at ShopIgniter.

The promise of digital media in online advertising is the ability to reach the right people with the right message at the right time. Facebook, Google, and Twitter are all jockeying for the hearts and minds of customers and advertisers alike. But there are big differences in what they’re doing and how useful their understanding of their users may be to advertisers.

First, some background. Brands, which have long dreamed of advertising only to the people most likely to buy their products or services—and then evangelize them to others—have stampeded away from print. The National Newspaper Association reported print advertising has dropped 60% over the past seven years. And magazine print advertising has not fared much better, dropping 38% in the same period of time.

Reaching The Right People

Traditionally, media buyers have used targeting to minimize the waste of advertising to the “wrong people”—those not in their target market. With the rise of digital media, media buying has matured, making possible sophisticated buys that allow for targeting of specific consumer groups within broader markets.

This maturation is a direct result of the access to large data sets. The more data, the greater one’s ability is to serve targeted, contextual ads to relevant audiences. While it’s clear that print ad suppliers won’t be the winners of this race, digital players are all in contention to collect the deep data that will let advertisers accurately identify customer segments—or, better yet, interested individuals.

Which of the social giants are doing best at that? Let’s take a look at how Facebook, Google, and Twitter are using demographic and behavioral data to enable advertiser targeting.

Finding The Target Demographic

Demographic targeting is essential to create and optimize advertising for a particular audience. Smart marketers know the demographic profile of their target consumer and aim to deliver messages that are more likely to resonate with specific subgroups of people.

Facebook hosts an immense amount of demographic data and therefore offers media buyers the most options for demographic targeting. One can target a vast array of data sets—from relationship status and education level to expectant parents. Conversely, Google offers ads based on location, age and gender. Twitter, the newest of the three, offers only gender and location demographic targeting options.

Round One goes to Facebook.

Tracking Behavioral Rituals

Social networking platforms are behavioral because they facilitate communication between people. Every action a person takes—a follow, share, like, retweet, etc.—is a result of a specific behavior. And most of these behaviors can be used by advertisers to create and target audience groups.

Google search is also behavioral, although it’s comparatively limited—it focuses on a 1:1 browsing pattern, rather than a network of interactions. As a result, Google’s Interest Targeting tool works by analyzing browsing behavior to create “interest buckets”—groups of people categorized by the types of Web pages they visit most often. This allows advertisers to identify individuals who are interested in products or services that are similar to their own, even when those individuals are browsing Web pages that are wholly unrelated to whatever the advertiser is selling.

Facebook, by contrast, lets advertisers target an audience in three different ways—via “precise” interests, Facebook categories and “partner” categories. Precise interest targeting allows advertisers to group audiences by specific terms shared on their timelines. Facebook category targeting, by contrast, entails displaying ads to people who have shared specific terms on their timeline that relate to a more general interest. For example, media buyers could use precise interest targeting to reach fans of a specific basketball team, like the Portland Trail Blazers, whereas Facebook category targeting would pull in all basketball fans.

Partner categories, the most granular of the three, are clusters created by 3rd party data providers. These categories are derived from individuals’ off-Facebook activity. As such, they run the gamut of behavioral indicators, with categories ranging from purchase behavior to whether or not you are likely to invest.

Twitter’s ad platform also provides interest based targeting. Similar to Facebook’s two options, Twitter allows advertisers to group and target audiences by specific keywords shared on a users timeline or by a broader category. In addition, Twitter also has a very cool “like followers” feature. This allows advertisers to create an audience that is similar to a specific Twitter user or set of users. The tool groups “like followers” by finding commonalities between users—similar interests, for instance, or the set of accounts they follow.

Facebook has the data to allow advertisers to do this type of “like follower” targeting but reaching fans of a page that is not your own, is currently not an option.

Round Two: It’s anyone’s game on this one.

One More Time: Remarketing

Remarketing is a form of behavioral targeting that allows advertisers to serve messages to people who have previously visited a particular website. A snippet of code is placed on a webpage or set of pages and when a person visits the page, they are cookied. A cookie acts like a tracking tag and enables the ad to “follow” individuals around the web.

In Google, remarketing is used to serve ads to people as they navigate to other sites within the Google Display Network. In Facebook, it’s used to serve ads in the right-hand column as well as in desktop and mobile news feeds. This December, Twitter announced the global availability of its retargeting feature, “tailored audiences,” enabling browser-related information (a cookie ID) to be matched with a Twitter account so that it can push tailored, promoted items into users’ Twitter feeds.

Round Three goes to Google.

Google On The Hot Seat

See also: If Google+ Is So Good, Why Does Google Insist On Forcing It On Us?

It’s no wonder Google is putting more and more eggs into its Google+ basket. It’s clear that the battle is on between search and social giants, with each vying for the growing pie of digital media dollars.

With a target the size of Alaska on its back, Google must move faster, learn more, grow its behavioral and demographic database and in turn offer more ways to slice and dice audiences for tailored brand content. The clear winner in all of this: digital brand advertisers who have an endless supply of new tools, techniques and approaches to reaching audiences and subaudiences on what feels like a daily basis.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Sean MacEntee via CC