Behavioral Targeting: The Network Model and Beyond, Part 1

Behavioral targeting opportunities come in a variety of forms and formats, with an increasing number of options available to marketers who want to move beyond contextual or demographic filters. The three main options for targeting ROI (define) results using behavioral tactics are networks, portals, and individual sites. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Each has its place in your marketing mix.

Network Approach to Behavioral Targeting

Ad networks pioneered this, recognizing early on the value of their ad impressions and the audience they attract. Because their less-saleable advertising inventory was devalued and often unsold, they established a method to recreate value based on observed behaviors. Sold out of inventory on the sports section? No problem. We can serve ads to people who have surfed sports pages across many sites, but who happen to be elsewhere in our network at the moment. Presto! Premium rates for what was once remnant inventory.

The benefits of working with ad networks are many. Networks have mass reach and sheer volume, some reaching nearly 80 percent of the online audience. Turning that mass reach into niche audiences is a neat trick managed through technology offerings. Proprietary technologies give the networks highly efficient data collection and strong optimization capabilities, and the breadth of their site catalogs allows for learning across a ton of data from a myriad of clients. Networks can often optimize based on site conversion, whereas portals or individual sites may be more limited in those abilities. Network buys also permit a wide range of ad creative sizes because they run so broadly across so many sites. This allows for testing flexibility and introduces the opportunity to better optimize based on creative.

The scope of network traffic, massive amounts of data, and optimization opportunities translate into generally more cost-efficient CPMs (define), often with more flexibility in their pricing models as well. Consider your options in reaching a premium demographic on limited, premium ad inventory on showcase sites. If that inventory is sold out or priced out of your budget, it’s more than likely you can cost-effectively reach that same audience through behavioral targeting on a network.

That doesn’t mean you give up the premium site placements with a network buy. Networks often aggregate highly reputable sites and provide access to mass-target reach within category-specific content. Several networks use top-ranked comScore sites to build their site lists.

Network Challenges

What do you lose if you run a behavioral targeting campaign only across networks? If the campaign is strictly ROI driven, a network is a good choice and, I’d argue, almost a given. If branding is a key objective, however, you lose some control. Networks often feature remnant inventory and may or may not include choice placements. Some placements may also be preempted. You trade certainty for CPM.

You can exclude gambling, porn, and other objectionable sites, but not all networks will disclose the sites on which you’ll run ads. Some networks, including Burst Media, 24/7 Real Media,, ValueClick, TrafficMarketplace, and others, at least reveal sample site lists. Others, like Drive Performance Media and Right Media, have not been as amenable.

If you run ads across multiple networks, you may come up against redundant site lists. This duplication creates diminishing returns in your campaign results as frequency climbs and produces obstacles to campaign-level optimization since the network with the last consumer touch point likely gets the credit for the sale or conversion. This gives a reporting edge to larger networks. Post-campaign analysis can’t get to the site level in a network buy, so you also lose that future learning at this granular level.

Although network optimization technology is advanced, it’s often hardwired to work in certain, prescribed ways. Any approach outside the norm may be problematic. Carefully check optimization language from network to network, because it isn’t consistent but is consistently confusing. Finally, networks can be wonderful tools in ROI-driven behavioral marketing, but they don’t always stand up well alone. It’s important to feed the pool of potential targets by driving site traffic through other media buys or online tactics. If you run out of people you can identify and pixel, you limit reach and targeting options. Testing the balance of network buys with other media opportunities creates the greatest returns.

In part two, I’ll explore the benefits of behavioral marketing on portals and individual sites, and how to balance behavioral campaigns for optimum impact.

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