Making Behavioral Targeting Behave

Behavioral targeting is based on the simple premise that Web browsing behavior can be a strong predictor of receptivity to certain ad messages. (See iMedia's Behavioral Targeting 101 for a primer on the subject.) The strategy came into existence thanks to two discoveries by Web publishers: first, that they could track users' paths through various pages of content on their sites; second, that they wanted to sell more ad space.

Bennett Zucker, executive director of customer success for TACODA Systems, Inc., sums it up this way: "The best content on the Web is sold out already. But the same audience that [advertisers] are trying to reach in those sold-out sites is available in other sites and sections where they may not even have thought of looking."

In other words, it's a no-brainer, for example, for a car company to buy ad space in the automotive classified section of a newspaper site. But behavioral targeting allows that car company to deliver ads to that same audience once they've left the classified section and moved on to other content -- it's a matter of buying access to people, not pages. So even when ad space in the classified section isn't available, the target audience still is.

The need for standards

Because of the incredible diversity of the Web, getting advertisers and publishers to speak the same language about behavioral targeting isn't always easy. Some larger sites have developed their own in-house tools for serving ads based on users' past actions, and even smaller sites have come up with their own naming systems and methodologies to court advertisers. In traditional offline advertising terms, "imagine if you had to negotiate with each individual radio station about the definition of 'Males 18 to 34,'" says one online media buyer. "It's a mess."

In an effort to start cleaning up the mess, two of the biggest players in the behavioral targeting space have announced new segmenting standards: TACODA Systems' TACODA Targets and Revenue Science's Audience Quality Certification(TM).

TACODA aims for the bullseye

The purpose of the Targets, according to TACODA's Zucker, is to "create a baseline standard that at least puts everybody into the game … The bottom line is, [advertisers] want an easier process. Interactive buying, planning and execution is hard enough" without having to navigate each site's system of idiosyncratic naming standards. TACODA Targets simplifies things with 22 initial groups, including Job Seekers, Auto Buyers, Sports Fans and other common-sense behavioral categories with broad appeal to advertisers.

Segments are defined by recency and frequency of visits to specific content areas. Potential segment definitions are tested to find the lowest threshold at which the definition still holds value to advertisers -- if a site user who browses certain content once in thirty days performs just as well as one who visited three times in 15 days, then both are included. The idea, says Zucker, is to reach the intersection of "the response that the advertiser needs and the CPM that the advertiser is willing to pay," while making sure that the time and effort of advertising to the segment doesn't become too small to be worthwhile.

Revenue Science: quality is key

Revenue Science's main objective is not ease of use so much as a comparison of the relative value of different audience segments. In conjunction with Nielsen//NetRatings, Revenue Science is developing a new standard using data collected from individual sites and from the widely-accepted data from Nielsen's Mega Panel(TM). The Mega Panel is comprised of several hundred thousand online households who provide Nielsen with comprehensive behavioral and demographic data. (To ease privacy concerns, all personally identifying information remains with Nielsen and is only delivered in aggregate to Revenue Science.)

The advantage of using Nielsen data, according to Omar Tawakol, senior vice president of marketing at Revenue Science, is that "it's so familiar to what [advertisers] do. We're using something they trust and are familiar with, and they don't have to change their core practices." Revenue Science uses Web-wide behavior, not just the click stream on a particular site, to give each segment a numerical composition rating (i.e. "quality level"), which is updated monthly. Such a rating "allows advertisers to make an apples-to-apples comparison of the audiences that they actually get, and allows publishers to price based on audience value," says Director of Marketing Marla Schimke.

Keeping it simple: stupid?

Since the appeal of behavioral targeting is the ability to pare the audience down to only those consumers who might be interested in your message, should we worry about standardization blunting the knife? Won't cookie-cutter segment definitions result in less specifically targeted ads?

Alan Chapell, president of data collection consultancy Chapell & Associates, doesn't see cause for concern. To the contrary, he says, new standards will attract more advertisers to behavioral targeting, resulting in more relevant advertising -- and less clutter -- overall. "When you make something easy for people to get, chances are that you're going to sell more of it. And if targeted campaigns become 20 percent of your media plan instead of 10 percent, then that's twice as many ads that at least have a shot at being relevant. So that actually helps things."

But which system will have a bigger impact on the industry? The prevailing view seems to be that TACODA's offering is appealingly transparent and inclusive, while Revenue Science's will provide more comprehensive data. Until both services are used for a significant number of actual targeted campaigns, however, it's just too early to tell.

Meanwhile, industry sources are glad that someone is at least making an effort. When it comes to online media buying, says DHD Chicago Media Director Sue Harrison, "Making it simpler can only help." And Michael Zimbalist president of the Online Publishers Association, agrees: "Anything that makes [behavioral targeting] more efficient and easier is going to be a boon to everyone."

So maybe advertisers and publishers are already speaking the same language after all.

Justin Anderson is an integrated marketing copywriter living in Chicago, where he works for 141 Worldwide, a WPP agency.  Read full bio.