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Google’s Unskippable Labs team runs experiments with video ads to explore the changing nature of consumer attention. Here, the team’s global creative director, Ben Jones, and chief of staff, Cristina Caligiuri, share what they learned from recent experiments about the role of ad customization in driving brand impact.

In an era when quintillions of bytes of data are created every day, there’s more opportunity than ever for us as creatives to craft finely tuned stories for our audiences.

As an industry, we’ve evolved beyond rational connections — if you like cars, you’ll be served a car ad — to rely instead on deeper signals, like search intent and life events, to get a clearer picture of who we’re trying to reach. All of these signals provide a springboard to create new, more relevant stories.

This is good news for brand impact: ads served with audience intent signals have 20% higher ad recall lift and 50% higher brand awareness lift than when the same ads are served with demographic signals alone.

In a world with lots of audience signals at the ready, how much customization is necessary for your creative to be effective?

But the quest for greater relevance brings new complexities too, especially in the creative process. For one, custom creative can be costly. There’s also the brand question: At what point might different versions of your ad actually dilute your message? In other words, in a world with lots of audience signals at the ready, how much customization is necessary for your creative to be effective?

When Google announced new ways to use audience signals on YouTube nearly a year ago, we wanted to better understand the implications for storytelling. When, and how much, should brands customize their ads? We partnered with 10 brands across different categories to design a series of unique experiments to explore two questions in various regions around the world. First, what is the right amount of customization for an audience-signal-driven story? And second, for which audience signals is it most important to customize creative?

The experimental design

The hypotheses: We began with a couple of hypotheses. For starters, we anticipated the more customization, the better. We also thought that customization would be more impactful for people who were experiencing life milestones like starting a new job or buying a home.

The experiment set up: Using signal-based audiences to test creative customization

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The audience parameters: For each brand’s test, we chose three signal-based audiences to reach with customized ads. For example, for a soda brand, we aimed to reach convenience store shoppers, people who had recently downloaded a dating app, and people who are avid news readers.

The creative variants: Then for each signal-based audience within a brand test, we developed three versions of creative with varying levels of customization: a control video, a video with copy-only customization, and a video with customized copy and visuals.

We measured results using Brand Lift with ad recall as our core success metric. In nearly all cases, we gauged impact by comparing each video’s performance against a control group, which consisted of the same three ad variations with demographic signals (for example, male 18–34) as the only targeting parameter.

Level of customization needed

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Three key patterns emerged consistently across all 10 brands we tested, no matter the category or the country where the experiment ran. Below, we share the findings using a brand example to illustrate each. Think of these patterns as areas to explore in your own creative process.

Pattern 1: For short-form video ads, custom copy alone is enough to drive higher recall

Coty’s CoverGirl was among the brands we tested to explore the degree of customization required to have an impact. Using 6-second ads that ran in the United States, we built generic and custom creative for three different audiences based on signals: women in the market for dating apps, fitness buffs, and women who had recently experienced a change in employment.

In nearly all instances, the ad with copy-only customization outperformed or performed as well as the ad with customized copy and visuals. So in the case of short-form ads, the required production lift may be lighter than we expected. This held true across experiments. No matter the country, we saw that custom copy alone can help deliver more ad recall.

Pattern 2: For longer video ads, more customization may be required

A different outcome played out, however, when we tested 15-second ads. One brand we experimented with was Johnson’s Baby, a Johnson & Johnson brand. We tested the generic control against creatives specifically tailored to working moms, new moms, and women who prefer products with no parabens, sulfates, or dyes, respectively. The videos ran in India, and, in all three instances, the versions with customized copy and visuals drove significantly higher ad recall lift than the control ad. This held true across other brands and countries as well. So our original hypothesis — the more customization, the higher lift in ad recall — seemed to bear out with longer stories.

Pattern 3: Video ad customization may be particularly effective when trying to reach an audience based on mindset

To explore the audiences for which customization is most effective, we focused on signals relating to timely events, decisions, or purchases. We found that highly customized creative can be particularly effective when it reflects a viewer's mindset — like if they’re looking to lose weight or are trying to build a personal finance plan. With Czech auto manufacturer Škoda, for example, we tested the generic control against ads catering to three audiences determined by signals: outdoor enthusiasts, people in the market for investment services, and people actively looking to lose weight.

Škoda’s results indicated that highly customized ads drove the greatest ad recall lifts when they tapped into a particular mindset of people we were trying to reach — a pattern we consistently saw across other tests. For other brands, we also tested serving creative based on signals rooted in a life event, like graduation. In those instances, we again saw that highly customized ads were particularly effective, because viewers were served tailored creative that tapped into a top-of-mind event or decision.

Where we go from here

While the scenarios for which creative customization matters most will vary by brand and product, these patterns can provide helpful clues and inspire new lines of inquiry as we continue to explore relevance in advertising. What we found here aren’t hard and fast rules, but proof that creative experimentation is a best practice, particularly when it comes to determining how much to customize your video ad content. As audience signals unlock new opportunities to reach people in more relevant ways, experimentation will help you uncover specific audiences or formats where investing in customization can have the most impact.