Advertisers and Publishers at Odds Over User Profiles

Just when you think that the third-party ad serving controversy has been settled, yet another issue rears its ugly head…

It has come to my attention that certain publishers (who will remain unnamed) have been refusing to accept third-party serving when it involves targeting based on user profiles. These sites have been profiling users via user-declared and clickstream data and allow advertisers to target ads at users who fall within specific profiles. For instance, profiles of individuals who price cars online can be offered to automobile manufacturers.

Understandably, this type of targeting is particularly useful to marketers. However, some publishers are making it difficult for advertisers to take advantage of the profiles, disallowing third-party serving that uses these profiles.

The logic behind doing so, from the publisher’s perspective, is that an advertiser could use a third-party server to mark its users with a cookie; the advertiser could then recognize those users later in the campaign or in future campaigns, effectively “stealing” the profile from the publisher. Because publishers want to benefit from the profile data not once but several times, they disallow third-party serving in order to prevent advertisers from benefiting more than once.

It’s easy for publishers to defend this policy by saying, “Hey, we collected the data, and we should be the ones who profit from it.” However, the idea of a publisher “owning” an Internet user and attempting to dictate how that user is addressed by an advertiser — not only on the publisher’s own site but also throughout the web — is ludicrous.

When I advertise online, I do so for several reasons, not the least of which is to begin a dialogue with online users. To restrict third-party serving is not merely inconvenient; it also restricts my ability to address users in the future with appropriate messages. An acquisition message is not appropriate for someone who has already seen my acquisition message several times in the past and has already visited my site.

Currently, the best way to track a user’s exposure to my various marketing messages is through the use of the cookies set by my third-party server. To abandon the use of third-party serving in these cases is tantamount to abandoning the dialogue with consumers right after having attracted their attention.

Third-party serving is nothing new. It’s the tool that allows a media planner to do his or her job with respect to campaign maintenance. It allows for on-the-fly creative adjustments, buy segmentation, real-time reporting, and more. If we allow it to be restricted now, it will seriously affect an advertiser’s ability to manage campaigns in the future, especially with profile-based targeting becoming more and more popular.

Anyone who entered the online ad business prior to the close of 1996 knows that reporting and tracking without a third-party server is an absolute nightmare. The rise of third-party serving can largely be attributed to the efficiency it promoted in running and maintaining campaigns. Back in ’96, it allowed media shops to allocate fewer human hours to reporting and trafficking and more hours to data analysis and optimization.

Just thinking about having to return to the Stone Age of consolidating performance reports in MS Excel gives me a headache. With today’s complex online ad campaigns, we can’t take a step back by abandoning third-party serving. It’s too late in the game for that.

I urge the publishers raising this issue to consider that although they may have collected some great data from their users, doing so surely doesn’t give them the right to stake an exclusive claim to those users and to control how other sites market to them. The Internet is a big place, and it’s a very rare Internet user who visits one site and one site only. Loosen the restrictions, and let the marketers do their jobs.

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