Behavioral 2005: Standardization and Best Practice Questions

As you’ve probably noticed, behavioral targeting is having a pretty good year.

Besides commanding attention at a plethora of industry conferences and events that address this not-so-new aspect of online media, agency folks are now asking, “How can I include it in the media mix?” and, “How do I buy it?” rather than, “What’s behavioral targeting again?”

It’s refreshing and rewarding to see the adoption curve gain momentum. Media planners are warming up to the idea of an audience-centric way to buy media as opposed to the historical obsession with editorial adjacency.

Despite growing industry buzz and popularity, there are still some questions to answer before behavioral targeting can become fully legitimate in everyday media. We must proactively address them to sustain the growing momentum.

Standardization and Validation Are a Must

Standardization must urgently be addressed this year. There are simply too many players in the market place, each with its own definition of behavior and its own proprietary technology to monitor and track behavioral data.

The smorgasbord of behavioral vendors not only creates confusion in the agency side, it also discredits the legitimacy of behavioral targeting’s capabilities. After all, it’s difficult to convince a nonbeliever when there are many messiahs in the temple, all preaching different teachings.

Many of these vendors have sought refuge and validation from third-party audience measurement firms. Revenue Science partnered with Nielsen//NetRatings to audit the quality of segments sold by Web publishers; 24/7 Real Media unveiled its own audit collaboration with I/PRO; and Tacoda defined and standardized its audience segments (albeit only as applied to publishers in Tacoda’s network).

Though these efforts are noteworthy, and definitely heading in the right direction, they’re moving in a parallel, individual manner (each vendor validating its own technology). There are no signs of industry-wide regularity.

Technology Vendor vs. Third-Party Ad Server

Consumers’ online behavior can be tracked and monitored on many different levels. It can be managed by publishers or by third-party ad servers. Publishers partner with technology vendors such as Tacoda and Revenue Science to quantify and qualify the collected user data. Tech vendors, in turn, often aggregate these behaviors across many of the sites under their networks.

These online activities can also be tracked by third-party ad servers, which can conduct behavioral targeting. All banners are ultimately served by DoubleClick, Mediaplex, Atlas DMT, and others.

This raises an interesting question: Which side is more accurate and efficient?

The online reach technology vendors can provide is only as broad as the number of publishers they sign. It doesn’t help that technology vendors still work independently from one another with no industry congruence. If all ads are still served by ad servers, wouldn’t it make more sense for behavioral targeting to be conducted by ad servers, as they can aggregate data from multiple technology vendors?

Sure, ad servers are sensitive to privacy issues and personal information collection, DoubleClick being perhaps the most memorable one. But what if the personal information isn’t personally identifiable? Advertisers place cookies in users’ browsers each time they see a banner or click the ad. Essentially, that’s tracking activities and behaviors.

What Does This Mean for Online Media?

It’ll take more than a few individual audit partnerships and a trunk full of case studies for behavioral targeting to be fully embraced by the media world. We must, as an industry, determine best practices and a standard way to define behavioral targeting.

For any industry-wide movement to gain traction, online organizations such as the Online Publishers Association (OPA) and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) must provide a neutral evaluation of advertisers’ best interest. As consumers seize more control, publishers, vendors, and agencies must bear in mind behavioral targeting’s consumer benefits. Without consumer approval and support, even the most technologically advanced products could fall victim to frivolous lawsuits.

Perhaps the ultimate behavioral targeting system would be a synthesis of a technology vendor and a third-party ad server. When a small ad server acquires a technology vendor, perhaps this will happen. Small companies are more nimble in their market positioning. They don’t have baggage and company history to weigh them down.

Behavioral targeting is nevertheless on the verge of graduating from adolescence and moving into the adulthood of industry acceptance. Sure, there are a few things to work out. But if we proactively address and tackle these questions, it’s only a matter of time before standardization and validation become the norm.

2005 will be a critical year for behavioral targeting. Let’s join forces and ensure behavioral targeting becomes tomorrow’s media standard.

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