What a Pixel and Cookie Can Reveal

  |  February 4, 2009   |  Comments

A laundry list of what marketers can learn from a pixel and its accomplice, the cookie.

While I was researching this column series, Chris Vanderhook, cofounder and COO of Specific Media, shared a fascinating example with me. He told me the hypothetical story of an auto dealer who had trucks that had to be sold. The dealer couldn't find more prospects through search marketing, but behavioral marketing techniques could. For example, the dealer could target ads to prospects visiting from Orange County, CA, who listen to country music. That country music was on the palette of behavioral data was a surprise. I wanted to know exactly what data could be gleaned from visitor behavior to help advertisers serve more relevant ads at the right time to the right people.

I decided to put it all on the table. With the following information, you, the marketer, can decide if there is something valuable in this data. Likewise, you can decide if there's anything here that makes you uncomfortable.

Realize that ad networks and publishers don't generally use these data in its raw form. They use them to find patterns -- patterns that indicate whether a surfer is in the market for your product or service. To this end, they've developed a baffling set of technologies with important sounding names, like linguistic analysis, taxonomies, semantic profiling, URL normalization, and cookies.

Can ad networks track visitors on any site they visit? No, a special agent is required, an insider that will relay to them information about page visits. This mole is a single, invisible pixel, and from this small digital seed an entire tree of information springs. While cookies seem to get all of the bad press, a cookie is really just a tracking tool, a homing beacon that helps ad networks and publishers aggregate information as a surfer moves from page to page and site to site.

The counterbalance to the covert power of the pixel is a healthy fear of personally identifiable information (PII). PII is the third rail of behavioral marketing, and the behavioral professionals I've spoken to avoid it like the plague. If you get caught using PII without user permission, your reputation will be in jeopardy and you'll probably be investigated by the authorities, although laws regarding ethical use of PII seem to be in the oven still.

"ZAG" is enough, says Joe Apprendi, CEO of digital marketing firm Collective Media. ZAG stands for Zip Code, age, and gender. This information tells marketers enough about a surfer to decide which ads to serve, if any. The pixel doesn't deliver ZAG, however. ZAG comes from trusted publishers who sell non-PII data to ad networks and marketers.

Another limiting factor is the sheer amount of data. The pixel may be small, but the data it collects multiplied over millions of users and billions of page views would fill more drive space and take more processor power than is profitably useful, at least for now.

The following list is only meant to make you aware of what's being collected. Your research will define the terms and help you draw conclusions about their use. Please let me know what I've left out by sending me a comment.

The pixel delivers a list of basic attributes, many of which your IT guy will have to explain. These basic attributes include:

  • IP address, character set, and encoding

  • Language, connection, and host

  • Referrer, browser, and portal

The pixel can also pass along just about any information that the browser knows:

  • URL, server name, and posting method

  • Search keyword, keyword phrase, or search engine term

  • Time and date, time of day, day of the week, and week of the year

The URL provides the entire content of the page visited by the surfer:

  • Text, images, headings, and navigation

  • Parameters and values

  • Were they home or just landing?

The IP address can be used to look up more information:

  • Country, state, and city

  • ISP, cable, DSL, or dial-up

  • Bot, crawler, or spider

By adding a cookie, surfer data can be aggregated over time, and more can be inferred about visitor behaviors:

  • Did they hit, jump, bounce, land, stick, splash, or abandon?

  • Did they opt in or out? Were they given an option?

  • Where did they come from, and where did they go?

  • Are they new, returning, or never left?

  • When they came, did they stay? How long?

  • How did they "get their click on": text, image, skyscraper, microbar, or leaderbar?

  • Did it leave an impression?

With a little number crunching even more conclusions can be drawn:

  • The whole family of "-encies": latency, frequency, recency, efficiency, and adjacency.

  • Was the pop-up, pop-over, or pop-under popular?

  • Should they be segmented, categorized, or retargeted?

  • Did they get the e-mail? Was it opened? Did they click? If so, where and when?

If you aren't careful, you will quickly get drawn into a world of acronyms:

  • Was it CPM (define), CPA (define), or CPC (define)? B2C (define) or B2B (define)?

  • What's the PKI (public key infrastructure)? Did we get good ROS (return on spend) and ROAS (return on advertising spend)?

  • Did the IBL (inbound link) come from an IAB ad?

  • Did any CGM (define) or UGC (user-generated content) get on the site?

  • Did the PPC (define) CPM usurp the ROI (define)?

Once we get ZAG, we can start to segment visitors more accurately:

  • Where do they live?

  • What do they make?

  • What do they drive?

  • Where do they shop?

  • What is their profession, race, marital status; do they have kids; and other census data.

And when we integrate this information with other non-PII databases, we can learn even more:

  • What they buy, how often, how recently

  • Price, brand, color, and style

  • Preferences and purchase timeframe

It's amazing what we can learn from a pixel and its accomplice, the cookie. Without it, we wouldn't be able to get to the most burning of all questions: do they listen to country music? Now we know.

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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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