Behavioral Targeting: The Network Model and Beyond, Part 2

We love networks for ROI (define) driven behavioral targeting programs. In my last column I told you the reasons we’re so smitten: They work. They consistently drive leads and sales. They can scale all day long.

Networks shine like stars in the sky, but other options deserve to be explored, too, including portals and certain larger, standalone sites.

Deep Relationships: The Magic of Portals

AOL, MSN, and Yahoo are examples of portals. They strive to be the window to the Web for their users, an entry point that aggregates content to the user’s liking and links to all his daily Internet needs. It’s her first stop, likely her home page, and a highly customizable environment. My Yahoo isn’t Your Yahoo, and the differences between us leave a trail that can mined for valuable audience information and segmentation.

Portals have long-term relationships with their users. They learn along multiple axes over time and collect profile data they can mine to identify and reach audiences. This rich data is both observed and user supplied. Audiences have a trusted relationship with their portal pages, which can be customized for weather, traffic, favorite sports teams, and, of course, shopping. Consumers take ownership of “their” pages and may respond differently to ads presented there. Ads had better be relevant when the whole page is a mirror of the user’s life.

Portals make a good entry point for marketers who want behavioral targeting with mass reach but less placement risk. You know for sure your ads will appear within the defined universe of the portal. Portal programs also lend themselves to targeting within channels, which leads to even greater control over ad placement and can offer some unique opportunities for ad placement, including email. Portals can customize opportunities like unique landing pages for special promotions and other big events, which makes these buys a good choice for campaigns with both brand and direct response goals.

The limitations on behavioral programs on portals are few — if you don’t count the cost. Though their technology and targeting capabilities are pretty strong, portals charge a premium for access to their engaged, trusted audience, often three to five times the cost of a similar, network-based program. ROI-driven campaigns often can’t profitably absorb the added cost, but they don’t have to. Clients with an appropriate level of risk tolerance have a multitude of network options.

Individual Sites: Already a Niche

When certainty is critical, as when branding control is paramount, individual site buys are your best bet. However, behavioral options and reach are more limited. A single-site buy can be highly integrated with traditional marketing efforts and can be a splashy affair (buy out a channel, take over the home page) but it’s defined primarily by audience demographics, not audience behaviors. An exception might be community or network sites.

Pricing varies wildly from site to site, but in general if you know a lot about your audience you can charge more for access to them. Sites that aggregate premium audiences due to superior content can charge more; yet with behavioral targeting, in theory, you should be reasonably content neutral because you target the audience, not the content. You might be paying more than necessary to reach this audience with an individual site strategy. However, single sites can still be very helpful to a larger behavioral campaign if they feed a very specific, perhaps hard to reach, audience to a retargeting pool.

Niche campaigns gravitate to individual sites, network channels, or portals, but at the point when you’re selecting single sites you don’t usually need to pay for behavioral targeting. If you’re selecting individual sites, it’s because you already have a strong picture of the available audience on the site, as well as the available ad opportunities. Trying to layer in a behavioral filter on any but the largest sites leaves you with too small an audience to bother with.

Single sites usually offer less-sophisticated optimization and targeting technology, and often have a more limited creative size range. By nature, these programs usually can’t grow beyond a certain threshold, which means the contribution to an overall program is capped. (Darn, and it was working so well!) Because impressions are more limited, ad frequencies may inflate beyond a reasonable level if not carefully watched.

Finding the Right Balance

A successful behavioral targeting campaign should be carefully balanced, just as you balance your financial portfolio. Adjust for risk, reach, and short- and long-term objectives, and you can find a winning combination that maximizes the outcome based on your unique criteria and goals.

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