The Language of Behavioral Marketing, Part 1

  |  May 27, 2009   |  Comments

Why is it so difficult to figure out the differences among behavioral marketing vendors? Let's start by dissecting the vendors' Web sites.

Since working to learn about the behavioral marketing industry, I find myself floating on a sea of ambiguity, still looking for islands of meaning. Over the past five months, I've had the pleasure of interviewing a number of industry luminaries. I've heard the panels at a major online marketing conference. I subscribe to the industry newsletters. Yet, I find myself without a favorite technique, a "wow" vendor or technology I just have to try. Like most marketers, I can't devote my full attention to exploring behavioral marketing.

There appears to be some amazing solutions on the market, but I don't know enough yet to organize my explorations. Whenever I find myself struggling at something, I go back to basics. It's time to start parsing the language of the behavioral marketing world and find out once and for all what it all really means.

In this column and the next, I will use the Web sites of a number of behavioral advertising vendors in an attempt to clear the fog that surrounds this marketplace.

I can already hear the groans.

Yes, the behavioral marketers' children have no shoes, to borrow from a famous euphemism. The Web sites of the behavioral marketing world aren't necessarily the best examples of advanced marketing techniques. But I am not interested in casting stones at individual sites. I'm on a search for meaning and truth.

Here are some general observations about why it is so difficult for marketers to narrow the list of behavioral marketing vendors based on their Web sites.

Everyone's a Leader

As ClickZ author Tessa Wegert points out in her survey of ad networks, there are a lot of "leaders" in the market. In fact, most of them call themselves the "leading provider" of something. We'll see if we can find clues to what each vendor is a leader in.

Shooting at the "Other Guys"

Behavioral vendors spend a lot of time describing what they are not. They're dealing with an industry that has exploded over the past several years, a market with few barriers to entry. As a result, aggressive vendors have entered the market creating privacy issues and abusing their customers' brands in an effort to get "reach" at any price.

More reputable vendors go out of their way to differentiate themselves from these "pray and spray" approaches, writing about "premium ad networks" and "comprehensive technologies." For those of us who don't know the history, this language sounds like bravado and manipulation.

Everyone Does Everything

From their Web sites, it's very difficult to tell what these vendors do and don't do. In general, the claims to fall into these categories:

  • We have a network of online publishers -- Web sites -- that let us place ads on their sites.

  • We collect data from the people who have been to the sites of our ad network.

  • We collect data from publishers that help us target ads at visitors across an ad network.

  • We have a special technology that makes us better at targeting ads at visitors across an ad network.

  • We develop the strategies and/or creative that will make you better at behavioral marketing.

All of the vendors provide some combination of these services, but they all do them differently. Most are also courting publishers, which I am ignoring for this series. Their Web sites have a complex message to deliver, making it difficult for any vendor to differentiate themselves. They should try harder.

Valueless Value Propositions

Anyone who subscribes to the "eight-second rule," a rule that says you have only eight seconds to engage a Web visitor, is in for a communication challenge. Behavioral marketing vendors adhere to this rule, trying to fit everything they do into a sentence or short paragraph. The result is that their value propositions sound remarkably similar.

  • "patent pending, dynamic ad optimization technology"

  • "comprehensive suite of targeting technologies to reach target audiences across a Premium Network

  • "The technologies we use to deliver, target, and optimize your campaigns go far beyond established norms and standards for performance"

  • "the leading targeting platform and advertising marketplace that connect people to engaging advertising."

  • "increases the productivity of each customer interaction through our industry-leading predictive marketing solutions

In contrast, the "self-serve" sites get to the meat quickly. "Hundreds of millions of impressions a day on hundreds of thousands of sites. Click here to get started." Now, that's works in eight seconds.

Playing It Safe

The majority of the sites I'm reviewing would be called "brochure sites." The main goal of a brochure site is to look professional and successful. However, this encourages a vendor to be very careful with the content it places on the site. This is certainly the case for the behavioral marketing industry.

Roy H. Williams says, "You're not communicating effectively if you're not pissing someone off." I'd like to acknowledge those vendors who take a chance in the interest of communicating more clearly.

  • My award for "Most Helpful Web Site" goes to Dynamic Logic. Instead of telling us what is great about Dynamic Logic, the home page lists a set of research offerings. This list is not off to the side or at the bottom. It is placed squarely in the site's prime real estate: on the home page, above the fold on the left side. At the top of this list is a link to a paper by Millward Brown Global Innovation Director Duncan Southgate that sizes up the behavioral marketing scene beautifully. You should check it out. There is no better way for a vendor to demonstrate its knowledge of a subject than to teach me something about it.

  • Rocket Fuel gets my award for "Most Provocative Language." "Let's face it, most ad networks tend to suck." This is clearly the language of a company with an opinion. The site is filled with strongly worded positioning statements using metaphors and analogies. If I'm interested in behavioral targeting technology, Rocket Fuel will likely get a call.

  • My award for "Best Way to Sell Your Boss on Behavioral Marketing" goes to AudienceScience for its "2020 The Future of Behavioral Targeting" video. It's engaging, interesting, and perfect for the short attention span of the average executive.

Next month, we'll start to parse the language of the industry in a "When they say/They mean" format. I'll also feature more awards for the Web content that communicates with clarity and daring. Submit your nominations here.

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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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