Behavioral Targeting: Fad or Essential?

Is behavioral targeting in danger of becoming just this season’s must-have item because of overexposure, under-education, and unrealistic expectations? Not to trivialize a remarkably powerful marketing approach that serves the needs of both consumers and marketers, but the recent explosion of offerings and discussion surrounding behavioral marketing have drawn in users who expect miracles from what should be one tactical element in a fully formed plan. Behavioral targeting isn’t a strategy by itself. That little black dress may be wonderful for the right occasion, but it doesn’t constitute a wardrobe. You’ll be disappointed if you expect it to serve all needs.

E-mail was the media darling for awhile. E-mail companies were hot, and offerings bred like bunnies. Then spam came along. With unwise, ill-informed, and unrealistic expectations, e-mail took a hit and our infatuation turned to search. Did e-mail go away? No, but it retracted considerably and changed. Investors were hurt. Consumers got angry. (Note: anyone else sensing a huge resurgence in acquisition e-mail offerings just around the corner?)

Search has staying power, but it’s dominated by a few huge players smart enough to continuously evolve. The same offerings are never really the same. Some marketers, particularly direct marketers, tend to overinvest in search because they see quantifiable results. We like to fund what we can quantify. When mainstream analytics grow up and smart marketers can effectively assign conversion credit along the consumer pathway, not just the last stop, they may be forced to reevaluate. But search has been the must-have item for years now. Marketers are longing for another focus.

Behavioral marketing is sexy. It’s logical. It’s easy to sell up the ladder, and it has wonderful street cred. Marketers are buzzing about the results they’re seeing, and case studies are bountiful. Every recent industry event has had some focus on behavioral, and every major publisher, and most of the minor ones, have responded with a behavioral offering to keep up with growing demand.

Behavioral targeting isn’t a service offering, but an approach that can be expressed in many venues (think sites, portals, or networks) and in many different ways (think retargeting, channel targeting, plus many others). Behavioral targeting’s basic premise is to read consumer cues to provide more relevant messaging. That those cues are present in surfing behaviors gives online marketers the opportunity to more quickly and finely detail the work marketers have always done.

Marketers have always tried to predict consumer response to commercial messages. Ads are crafted and tested, but the promise of dramatically reducing ad waste by delivering ads to only those populations that have exhibited desired behaviors has driven interest into frenzy. Frenzy isn’t good. Frenzy eats up inventory, drives up prices, and produces a flood of providers who rush product to market before it’s ready. It creates an atmosphere in which buyers throw money at sellers without appropriate due diligence and level setting. It creates confusion as a myriad of sellers try to differentiate themselves with names and programs that obfuscate rather than educate. It overexposes a potentially sensitive audience to desensitize them, just the opposite of our intentions. It doesn’t allow the time for the market to mature and respond.

Is behavioral targeting in danger of becoming a fad?

Not likely.

Whole industries are springing up around behavioral offerings. For the most part, these aren’t upstart, me-too, no-name companies. They’re respected Internet elder statesmen that have invested heavily in building and promoting behavioral offerings. The language and approach are seeping into other, non-media focused areas. Most notably, we’re making strong, logical connections to search behaviors.

What could hurt the future of behavioral targeting and its long-term staying power?

  • A cavalier attitude toward the consumer. Privacy concerns are real and must be addressed.
  • Technology gone awry, including an overdependence on technology to fill the marketing intelligence gaps. It’s a tool, not an answer.
  • The tendency to use behavioral isolated from other marketing tactics. Effective behavioral marketing requires integration with other areas. This could damage its credibility with marketers with one-trick plans and unrealistic expectations.
  • A glut of suppliers and duplicated inventory sources that aren’t disclosed.
  • Damaged credibility stemming from vendors who can’t or don’t deliver. Bad stories circulate twice as quickly as good ones. In the gold rush that’s behavioral targeting right now, there are sure to be some less scrupulous or less adept players. Our collective reputation is at stake.

In an industry that changes so quickly, it’s natural and expected that new options will capture attention. Some of these options will become accessories to try for a season then give away. Some will become staples we rely on and reach for all the time. By all measures, behavioral targeting appears to be a solid staple, like that little black dress. If we understand it doesn’t work on every occasion, treat it well, and take care of it, it should serve us well for a long time.

Related reading