A Magic Bullet for Behavioral Targeting Challenges? Think Again

It seems like the Internet has always been a part of personal and business lives, but it’s little more than a decade old. And though it seems like we’ve been hammering away at it for years, behavioral targeting is barely a twinkle in Internet marketing’s eye. Why, then, do we think we’ll be able to find some magical cure for all the challenges the channel is facing? Why do we think we can enact a law or write a definition and, poof! no more cookie debate, no more privacy issues, no more credit attribution or budget allocation problems?

No such magic exists. We have to work to ease those challenges and help facilitate business via a channel that’s a proven contributor.

I recently chatted with Jim Sterne, chairman of the Web Analytics Association (WAA), to discuss what he sees as the future of behavioral targeting as it relates to analytics. Sterne believes, as I do, the concept of behavioral targeting is poorly defined for the public. No organization or governing body, industry-based or otherwise, has stepped up and declared the language we need to use to define exactly what encompasses behavioral targeting. The lack of an agreed-upon definition is one reason for our consumer education problems and for the fact that poorly informed consumers and legislators label the practice wholesale as creepy and invasive.

So how do publishers participate in a public discussion of behavioral targeting without really understanding what it is? Sterne says the answer may be full disclosure and opt-in. “People are upset that they’re being tracked online, but that’s all they know,” he says. “It’s hard to explain that a cookie cannot possibly know who you are; that requires a technical knowledge that the average consumer has not the time or inclination to figure out. We have to communicate it in a better way, with opt-in. On Web sites we have to say, ‘We want you to have a good experience here, we want to make it relevant for you, but meanwhile we’ll be tracking your behavior.'”

Sterne theorizes that one reason the privacy issue is so prevalent right now is because it makes for good media copy. He reminded me that the consumer education dilemma is one we’ve been battling from the start. The first widespread alarm occurred in 1996 when it became common knowledge that browsers contained cookie files. The public seems hardly better informed over a decade later.

When we explored Sterne’s sweet spot, Web analytics, as it applies to behavioral targeting, we found roots in the test and assess methodologies born in direct marketing. This approach allows marketers to address the moving target of behaviors and behavioral targeting in a scientific fashion, optimized to a defined, desired outcome.

“The ad networks are constantly revamping algorithms to deliver better, more, and faster, and every campaign is a test,” he says. “This goes back to the classic direct mail example: You have a list, an offer, media, and creative, and you guess and test. When I make this offer to this list in that color, what is my response, and is the response better when I try a different combination? Now, if I have a few different networks offering behavioral targeting, which delivers better for that particular offer? It comes down to the fact that the end game is simply constant testing.”

As an agency, we advocate our clients test on a regular basis as an investment in their business. It requires a commitment to dedicate more time in strategic planning, more time in setup, and more time in creative development. Time, of course, is the currency most often in short supply. The supporting analytics that underpin these efforts are crucial but represent more than an approach. In good, strategic online efforts, testing should be a mindset. With the sophisticated technology we have available to us, the world of commerce is a large lab. Every program is a chance not only to meet your business objectives but also to learn something that fuels your next effort. To truly reach that ideal, we need analytics all the way down the value chain across programs and providers, tracking consistently. That requires technology coordination and cooperation and a set of common definitions. We’re not there yet, and the magic bullet is probably a lot of good, hard work by smart people committed to finding the answer.

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