Behavioral Targeting: “Macarena” or “Step in the Arena”?

You remember the “Macarena” from the mid ’90s, don’t you?

The ubiquitous airplay of the summer hit song by Los Del Rios lingered long after the summer ended. Some additional song info: The Spanish duo reached the peak of its career in July 1996 when “Macarena” became the number one song on the Billboard chart. It locked the top spot for 14 weeks. Eventually, it went multiplatinum and sold over 4 million copies. Though released in 1993, the Prozac-infused tune had a catchy dance that became a staple at baseball parks and nightclubs, making “Macarena” the biggest single of 1996.

In 1991, Gang Starr released a song and album titled “Step in the Arena.” The genius collaboration between DJ Premier’s divine production craftsmanship and Guru’s lyrical wizardry, along with socially conscious, positive messages, materialized in the quintessential hip-hop record. It stands as one of the greatest rap albums of all time.

“Step in the Arena” sparked no frantic mainstream radio play, nor did it achieve platinum sales that year. Although not accompanied by Spring Break-inspired choreography, the song did get the hip-hop community to rhythmically bop its collective head.

Why am I telling you this?

Like music, the Internet is a vehicle that can speak to an audience. In light of the recent attention accorded behavioral targeting, there’s some wisdom in the music analogy that might help shape its future.

What’s the Hype?

Is behavioral marketing another media flavor of the month or is it the real deal?

Behavioral targeting is here to stay. It’s not just another purported media silver bullet. Like online media’s evolution, behavioral targeting precociously debuted in the late ’90s at the peak of Internet hype, followed by a disappointing, transient slump as the dot-com economy imploded. Though it offered much promise (both in technology and capability), the concept was too early. The online market and the industry simply weren’t mature enough.

Perhaps you noticed — things are a little different this time round.

Online isn’t what it was five years ago. The Internet has evolved from a part of our daily lives into the part for more and more people. It’s no longer just a communication vehicle, but the method by which people stay connected. As a direct result of this maturation, behavioral targeting vendors are much more knowledgeable, prepared, and, most of all, humble about the growth still required before behavioral reaches its full potential.

What’s Different Now?

If you think about it, the concept of behavioral targeting is nothing new. People have done it for years; it’s the basis of all media. Whether you place an insertion in a magazine or a banner on a site, you profile against a certain target segment and match their affinities with statistically supported actions. In some ways, behavioral targeting has always been central to how media plans are developed and executed.

What’s different now? Primarily, the size of the online user universe. There are simply more people online. The frequency with which they access the Web can now be analyzed and validated as “online behaviors.”

Another difference is the way we track and monitor behavior. Previously, different media executions were siloed by medium. That fragments marketing efforts. With cross-media studies from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), Dynamic Logic, and InsightExpress, we can more accurately link offline return on investment (ROI) that was generated online. I’m not saying we can finally figure out which finger generates higher CTR; there are still plenty of hurdles. But we are heading in the right direction.

What Does This Mean for Online Media?

Both “Macarena” and “Step in the Arena” came out in the ’90s. Both were big hits in their respective genres. One capitalized on a mainstream desire for generic melody, the other epitomized the talents and energy of an intimate community with hearts that beat to the rhythm.

Though both appealed to their respective audiences, their stories ended differently. One peaked as a mainstream one-hit wonder, then became just another musical cliché at baseball games. The other became a hip-hop classic, critically acclaimed for its integrity and production genius.

It’s obvious which trajectory behavioral targeting must follow.

Behavioral targeting is on the verge of changing the media landscape. It’s capable of becoming a marketing nirvana: a cross-media database that integrates and analyzes consumer behaviors and purchase patterns over time.

Yes, there’s standardization, privacy concerns, and other hurdles that must be overcome if there’s to be full industry adoption. This is precisely why the industry must carefully monitor and guide development of this media platform. There’s always a chance it could take a wrong turn and one day, you’ll wake up thinking, “Wasn’t there talk about behavioral targeting? Wonder what happened to it?”

Vonage’s CMO, Dean Harris, recently told BtoB Magazine he currently invests 40 percent of the company’s online spending in behavioral targeting. I don’t know about you, but that make me want to dance the Macarena!

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