Growth in behavioral targeting has increased the value of large swaths of junk ad space, good news for advertisers and publishers. But there's a downside to the boom, as ad sellers increase and media buyers struggle with different vocabulary and business processes surrounding the method.
Revenue Science yesterday said it hoped to tear down behavioral targeting's Tower of Babel by sponsoring a coalition to establish standards in the burgeoning space. Advertisers, publishers, and agencies quickly responded, Revenue Science said, to the tune of 40 sign-ups by lunch. The majority of early supporters hailed from agencies, while a handful came from publishers, vendors, and ad networks, according to Marla Schmike, Revenue Science VP of marketing.
The move might at first appear to go over the heads of a couple important industry groups: the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), an organization of behavioral targeting networks, and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). Revenue Science is a member of both organizations.
As it turns out, neither group appears likely to put forth best practices for business practices surrounding behavioral targeting. Reached by phone, NAI Executive Director Trevor Hughes said his organization prefers to focus on the privacy and consumer implications of behavioral targeting, and would just as soon cede oversight of consistency in business practices, for instance in defining terms and packaging audience segments, to others. The IAB meanwhile did not respond to a request for comment by press time, but a spokesperson said the group doesn't comment on its members' initiatives.
Robin Neifield, CEO of NetPlus Marketing and a ClickZ columnist, said the IAB would be the ideal source for standards, but the group hasn't taken up the cause.
"They are the natural leader on this because they are agnostic," she said. "They should be leading this. In the absence of that effort we just can't wait anymore."
She continued, "There's been an explosion of new players, and in what is a reasonable effort to differentiate themselves they all make up their own language. Our team spends a substantial amount of time focused on the differences between them."
A bigger challenge facing the consortium may be the absence of AOL-owned Tacoda, the largest behavioral ad player and Revenue Science's chief rival, which said it will not join up.
"To my knowledge Revenue Science is alone in forming this consortium," Nina Kryuk, Tacoda marketing director, said in a statement to ClickZ. "We will continue to work with both the NAI and the FTC on helping form standards for best behavioral targeting practices." The Federal Trade Commission has lately ratcheted up the vigor of its work around behavioral targeting. After hosting a Town Hall forum focused on the subject in November, it proposed a set of self-regulation guidelines for companies engaged in behavioral targeting.
Reached by phone yesterday, former Tacoda CEO and behavioral targeting pioneer Dave Morgan acknowledged the need for business process standards that would simplify the ad buying process for agencies. But he doubts whether it's possible to establish the kinds of standards Revenue Science may want to set. "So much value is actually proprietary. I don't know we'll see really clear standards" such as the demographic and consumer behavior segments associated with Nielsen's $q.|5&1~Q>%|#$+%Ns1}Os.h/|uYsu4(.u6?#~;v+|'>'*/|F}+|.y5MQBPBWHYDWIXEU&ci=3&si=4&pn=prizmne" target="blank">Claritas PRIZM NE, he said.
"These [standards] happen when the buy side is crying for them," he added, noting markets have to reach scale before that typically occurs.
He called Revenue Science's consortium "classic marketing," suggesting it's trying to find a way to separate themselves from competitors. "Many companies try to differentiate themselves by creating standards."
Indeed, Tacoda itself proposed a similar set of guidelines nearly four years ago. The crux of that proposal was a set of 22 "building block" segments publishers would use as the foundation for all behavior-based ad sales. At the time Morgan said the company was "not trying to put a stake in the ground... Wherever the standards go, Tacoda will follow."
NetPlus's Neifield said while the IAB would ideally lead the charge on behavioral targeting standards, action is needed in the short term. In any case, she warned that one player can't possibly dictate terms to the whole industry, and bias will spoil the effort.
"I don't think one ad network in any industry with dozens if not hundreds of ad networks, can declare a standard," she said, adding Revenue Science's success will depend heavily on "how effectively they're going to incorporate feedback from not only other networks but also other partners."
The first meeting of the behavioral targeting standards consortium is scheduled to happen at the OMMA Hollywood conference in March.
Kate Kaye contributed reporting.
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Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects.