Behaving Badly: Standardization and Reach

Remember when DoubleClick and Engage (Flycast) dabbled in behavioral targeting, back in the day? Well, everything coincidentally faded away with the implosion of the dot-com economy; as agencies struggled to keep themselves afloat, behavioral targeting was probably the least of their concerns. It was difficult enough just to convince clients to buy 468 x 60 banners.

Awakening from its four-year hibernation (since the dot-bomb) behavioral targeting has reemerged as one of the darlings in the online space today. It’s turning heads once again. However, despite its recent popularity, behavioral targeting’s current growth is still plagued by the two fundamental media components: standardization and reach.

Will the Real Behavioral Targeting Please Stand Up?

Standardization is an indication, and a natural result, of mass adoption. And to be honest, behavioral targeting is still far from reaching any critical mass in terms of industry confirmation. One of the main reasons is we have yet to reach an industry definition of what behavioral targeting really is.

Currently, multiple vendors are using different technologies and selling them as “behavioral targeting.” Some vendors use clickstream data as the basis of defining behavior. Others use IP address and personal identifiable information (PII) as the foundation. Some focus on the frequency of consumers’ online activity, while others argue recency is a much more accurate indication of a “behavior.”

Take Tacoda and 24/7 Real Media. These two have very different approaches to behavioral targeting. Tacoda’s Audience Management System profiles users with predefined characteristics and traits provided by the network’s publishers. 24/7 uses proprietary Insight ACT to track users’ clickstream and movements within its network to monitor patterns and infer “behavior.” Companies such as Revenue Science, Atlas DMT, and Drivepm (the last two under the aQuantive umbrella) have their own proprietary technology, as do many emergent players that also have their own perceived solutions of this targeting capability.

So who’s who, and what’s what again?

If you’re as curious as I am, you’d ask, Who’s better and more accurate? Depends who you ask. To be honest, probably no one knows at the moment. We have yet to reach a level of standardization at which we can impartially compare vendors.

Out of Site, Out of Mind

Reach is the Golden Ticket in a Wonka Bar for us media folks who constantly try to find ways into that chocolate factory of consumer delights. It provides access to consumers’ mental agendas and leads to a world of advertising opportunities. It’s one of the most essential, critical considerations for both branding and direct response campaigns, regardless of client or industry.

To be specific, reach simply translates into the size of the accessible unique audience.

Regardless of technology used and tracking methodology, current behavioral targeting vendors are all subject to the same challenge when it comes to reach: It’s limited to the physical size of vendors’ own networks. Thus, actual “reach” is only as broad as their current realities.

For example, Tacoda’s primary expansion method rests on publishers’ allegiance to its technology and participation in the network. 24/7, whose status as one of the largest online properties since gaining control over Lycos’ sales management, still only represents a minority portion of the Web traffic. In essence, behavioral targeting vendors’ current challenge is “out of site, out of mind.” Unless one is within the company’s own network of sites, the user’s online behaviors cannot be monitored and tracked.

What Does This Mean for Online Media?

Behavioral targetingis in a stage of transition and evolution. If we apply the product life cycle to behavioral targeting — introduction, growth, maturity, and decline — it’s barely at the mid-point of introduction. Until we come to a unanimous industry decision on the premise and definition of behavioral targeting, we still have a long way to go before knowing whether it’s a genuine stride that will advance the industry to the next level.

From the agency perspective, we are in constant search to discovery the next “big thing” to wow and pitch to the clients. Behavioral targetingis taking the industry by storm again because it has potential to offer advertiser a seemingly perfect panacea in the ever-crowding online space: ubiquitous and relevant advertising to the most targeted audience. Yet we must not forget the fact that, currently, behavioral targeting is in a fledgling state of growth. Considering its fragmented platform, current deficiencies in standardization and reach, and the lack of industry-wide adoption, behavioral targeting hasn’t even hit puberty. There’s much to learn.

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