Behavioral Targeting Beyond the Network

Behavioral targeting is something we’ve all dabbled in or fully embraced, with varying levels of success. My friend James Hering wrote a great column on site-centric behavioral targeting. Now, Claria (formerly Gator) and aQuantive both promise to deliver more robust behavioral targeting by tracking user behavior across multiple sites.

That’s right — multiple sites. The potential is every click or decision users make contributes to their online profiles. That’s a powerful draw for media companies such as ours. I’m betting for yours as well.

By nature, Internet advertising lends itself to behavioral targeting, much in the way special interest magazines do offline. If a person buys a home improvement magazine, there’s a good chance that person is in home improvement mode and is receptive to relevant advertising.

So if a user shows up at an automotive comparison site, chances are that user is in the car shopping mindset. That user’s receptivity to a car-related message is likely very high. In this way, our industry has been able to leverage that notion of behavioral targeting.

Yet it’s historically been difficult to track user behavior across multiple sites. In fact, according to Claria, publishers miss 14 of 15 people in the car-buying mode, simply because those people haven’t exhibited car-buying behavior on their sites.

It’s the ability to track user behavior across multiple sites that Claria and aQuantive say they’re bringing to behavioral targeting. Claria is rolling out BehaviorLink, which it plans to sell to publishers. The service will track all Internet user behavior and deliver messages based on certain “buying signals” that may previously have been displayed, even on other sites. aQuantive plans to release a similar behaviorally targeted service called DRIVEpm.

I asked Scott Eagle, Claria’s CMO, which publishers it’s talking with and which of them has expressed an intent to implement BehaviorLink. As you may guess, that information is confidential until there’s additional progress with those publishers. I was assured the prospects were first-tier publishers. We’ll have to wait and see who signs on.

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose Yahoo subscribes to BehaviorLink. Yahoo has the ability to do something similar with its Fusion Targeting, so long as the user displays buying signals within Yahoo’s network. What makes BehaviorLink interesting is Yahoo could theoretically target people on its sites based on buying signals exhibited on MSN, AOL, or anywhere else online.

You may wonder, “Why not go directly to Claria instead of buying inventory from publishers?” Among other reasons, you might want to deliver your ad on the publisher’s page within a contextual/editorial environment rather than in a pop-up. In some cases, associating a brand with a certain publisher lends it credibility.

What about ad formats? Will BehaviorLink deliver messages via pop-ups? Formats will be determined by the publisher. Presumably, any ad format can be used in this manner.

Sounds fantastic, right? I like the technology. But I’m concerned how the industry as a whole will embrace BehaviorLink, Drive PM, and other next-generation behavioral targeting services.

Remember the DoubleClick/Abacus fiasco several years ago? DoubleClick had planned to offer ad targeting that included clickstream and personally identifiable information (PII) through a merger with Abacus Direct, a database and market research company. Privacy groups rallied, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) looked into it, and, ultimately, DoubleClick excluded PII from the offering.

Claria’s (and others’) answer to this concern is no PII is used in targeting. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if DRIVEpm, BehaviorLink, and other forms of behavioral targeting rile privacy groups.

Questions still remain. How many of Claria’s users knew what they were downloading? Do they realize their Internet usage will be monitored to sell more targeted messaging?

I’ve heard the argument this monitoring benefits the user through relevancy. And I believe it does. Truth is, Claria’s ability to generate results is real. We’ve used Claria for numerous clients with great success. There won’t be a debate concerning whether this method is an effective targeting strategy. At the end of the day, you’ll decide for yourself if you can overlook the lingering questions.

Have opinions on this type of targeting ability? I’d love to hear them.

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