Behavioral Targeting Needs a Cool Negative Name

  |  March 31, 2010   |  Comments

And why not treat advertisements as content and sell our "behavioral services" as a benefit to Web site visitors?

Consumers coined a term for the services of the direct mail industry. They call it "junk" mail. They named undesirable e-mail after a processed meat product. Why haven't they given behaviorally targeted ads a nickname? Perhaps it is because we've given ourselves a name that doesn't require further elaboration.

The direct mail industry never adopted a term like "manipulative marketing" to describe their ability to target homes and businesses with data. However, we embraced the term "behavioral," and it carries negative connotations according to Steve Smith over at MediaPost. He writes that the choice of the word "behavioral" to describe targeted advertising does a disservice to our industry:

"The label 'behavioral' has become an albatross around the neck of the industry, because the term itself has connotations that seem to raise red flags in ways that other similar practices don't."

In short, we did a bad job of positioning ourselves as publishers, advertisers, and ad networks. Perhaps we could get out in front of this now. We can't say we've arrived until we have been given an unsavory moniker by consumers.

The Benefit to the Visitor

In February, I proposed that, when a consumer opts "out" of behaviorally targeted ads, they are actually opting "in" to random ads. This means that the ads they see will be extra annoying. Thus, the services we offer can indeed be seen as a benefit to surfers. I'm not yet of an age that I need to consider adult diaper wear, and I certainly don't want to be reminded that I'm getting nearer to that day by a flashing banner ad.

So, what do we call it if not "behavioral marketing"? What would an ad consumer call it?

I believe we could start with the publishers. The publishers can most easily align their offering to the "buying" needs of their visitors. Their value proposition is the strongest:

"We can provide this great content for free if you're willing to give your attention to our advertisers. Just tell us what kind of advertisements you want to see."

Our abilities to deliver on this promise are immense. We can provide relevant, even desirable advertisements to specific individuals in amazing ways.

  • We can deliver messages based on demographics, location, browsing history, and past purchases.
  • We can deliver ads in a series to each individual.
  • We can deliver movies and animations, not just billboards.
  • We can morph an ad at the moment of display to make it relevant.

So, what do we call these services to position them as reader benefits?

  • The techies: They may prefer "user-shaped advertising" or "visitor-controlled advertising," but these are the guys that gave us "behavioral marketing" in the first place.

  • The association types: They have tested "ad choice," "ad tailoring," and "ad preference." I'm sure they brainstormed through thousands of iterations. Yet, these don't appeal to me as a consumer.

  • The optimists: They may like "cooperative advertising," "guided messaging," or "empowered ad content."

  • The bare-teeth marketer: They like "free content services," "ad wrangling," or "ad man out."

  • Consumers: They might brand us as "Jenny Jenny," referring to the oddly engaging prose found on a bathroom wall, and inspired by the Tommy Tutone hit. We may soon hear, "I can't stand visiting that site; too much Jenny."

I'd like to hear your thoughts.

Who Will Take the First Arrows?

In October 2009, Newsday, a daily newspaper serving Long Island in New York state, put its online content at newsday.com behind a "pay wall" at great expense. It was one of the first in its class to attempt this. Newsday was embracing a fundamental paradigm shift in its industry; a shift that many believe must be embraced for journalism to thrive in the U.S.

After three months, Newsday's results were dismal. It had 35 paid subscribers and its traffic had dropped substantially. It's tough to be first, but I believe Newsday will ultimately learn how to sell online content, and will have an advantage over other online news sources.

Who will be the first to take the arrows in the behavioral marketing space?

"Brian is the Mayor of Depends"

The shift may be in looking at ads as content. Ads live for a long time on YouTube; from the celebrated to the derided. Ads are content.

There are a number of businesses built around advertisements themselves:

  • Groupon.com offers daily coupons from companies close to me.
  • Foursquare allows me to build social capital while advertising local businesses. The game is quite silly, but quite viral due to its mobile features. It's like Yelp.com on steroids.
  • Blippy.com shares my purchases - all of them - with my friends. The privacy implications are enormous, yet Blippy addresses these concerns with little more than a shrug. At least they're not calling themselves "behavioral."

Publishers should find ways to make ads an integral part of their content strategy. Is there the possibility for a Foursquare-like game for ads that provides social incentives for me to take control of my ad viewing? Will I be able to unlock premium content on a publisher's site by voting on the ads I'm seeing?

Will there be a time in which I can claim ownership of my favorite brands' ads?

The Obstacles

If advertising is a core business driver for so many online publishers, why isn't there a bit more innovation in ad choice?

Publishers and advertisers really don't want anyone controlling the ad inventory. Visitor choice will, by definition, limit the kind of advertisements that can be displayed. On the flip-side, advertisers may pay more for access to consumers who've opted to receive certain ads. Publishers should be able to charge a premium for these "chosen" impressions.

Ad shaping systems will require an up-front investment. Most likely, it will be a third party or ad network that will provide such capabilities. I suspect someone is already working on such a technology. Contact me if you are.

Only a small percentage of visitors will participate. This may alleviate some of the angst about reducing ad inventories, but it probably won't dispel regulators' concerns about user control. Those that play, however, are often the influencers that can help extend the reach of an ad, even if they "vote it off the ranch."

If behavioral marketing is to thrive and avoid regulatory intervention, the practitioners are going to have to align the product with the visitors' needs. How do we position something that has served advertisers into something designed to make surfers' lives better? A new name may be a start, but we could treat advertisements as content and sell our "behavioral services" as a benefit to readers. Maybe then we'll get a cool negative name, like "Jenny."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Massey

With 15 years of online marketing experience, Brian has designed the digital strategy and marketing infrastructure for a number of businesses, including his own technology consulting company, Conversion Sciences. He built his company to transform the Internet from a giant digital-brochure stand to a place where people find the answers they seek. His clients use online strategies to engage their visitors and grow their businesses. Brian has created a series of Web strategy workshops and authors the Conversion Scientist blog. Brian works from Austin, Texas, a place where life and the Internet are hopelessly intertwined.

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