Behavioral Targeting’s Role Broadens in Social Networking

Troll any social network and you’ll see young adults reveal a lot about themselves in their profiles. Their favorite hangouts, bands, celebrities, foods — their favorite, and least favorite, everything. While parents may cringe at these disclosures, advertisers see potential opportunities. While I’m certain the average teen or 20-something has never read Facebook’s privacy policy in any depth, that shouldn’t keep the site owner from using profile data in new, more relevant ways.

However, it does present a unique challenge to the implied online social contract, where users feel safe and free to share this kind of information. These networks are successful because users take ownership and feel the platform is a (somewhat) closed system built for the users. If advertisers or the publisher abuses the information or even overuses it, it may kill the golden goose.

Facebook’s recent announcement allows advertisers to take advantage of social networks’ unique and open environment in new ways. Plans remain fuzzy at this point but include marketers’ ability to target ads to site users based on the massive amounts of personal information users share with the site. Some news stories have discussed that channel blending of this sort has been a long time coming; others have focused on the obvious privacy implications. But a more fundamental question is: what does this mean for the future?

Marketers are cautiously but eagerly looking at this development. It’s another step in the constant quest for relevant communications. Before we break out the champagne, though, there are a number of hurdles we must consider.

Social network profiles can contain a wealth of information about an individual, but what does it tell marketers about their actual purchasing behaviors? Does your MySpace profile indicate you are in the market for a car? These profiles aren’t classified ads. A lot of information contained there may be aspirational. Most teens would kill for a Porsche, and some may include a sexy car photo on their pages. That doesn’t mean they’ll be buying one for 20 years or so — if ever. So long as the Porsche marketers approach the possible opportunity with appropriate goals in mind, they can use the connection to make long-term investments to build future markets.

Much of this new data isn’t form-driven, profiled, or easy to categorize. Not all social networks or users employ tags consistently, which leads to another stumbling block: how do you filter, categorize, and aggregate this buffet of information so it’s actually useful? I imagine there are teams of IT people working on a tool to do just that at this very moment. But until such a solution becomes available, we’re faced with an overwhelming amount of data and no efficient way to harness it. If Facebook could get this nailed, it would indeed be a new world.

Another hurdle is the majority of social network users are quite young. MySpace and Facebook are no longer restricted to the tween set, but the demographics still skew pretty young, and at these ages people are still establishing identities. Their tastes can change daily. Profile information may be willingly provided, but how true is it to the way a person will actually spend? On the flip side is the long-range opportunity for marketers to establish or influence preferences and perceptions at an impressionable age.

Then, as always, there are privacy concerns. Sure, users have given tacit approval to have all their information used. On the other hand, tacit approval really isn’t enough in the current online environment. Social networks are rife with possibilities for bad actors to misuse information, and the channel itself. I’ve heard several stories of hacked MySpace profiles being used to send spam or pornography, and that’s before the profiled information comes into the equation.

Setting the hurdles aside, which don’t appear to be insurmountable, we can expect social targeting to soon become a mainstream practice. Entrepreneurs are already chomping at the bit to take advantage of the opportunities opened up by this channel. In the wake of a “Wall Street Journal” article reporting Facebook’s plans, I received an e-mail about a new business venture that purports to aggregate profile data from the top social networks to create zone networks and sell them according to behavior. While marketers will continue to push for the small edge that helps them identify and connect with audiences in the most productive way possible, it remains site publishers’ responsibility and challenge to guard the security and experience of their users if they want to remain in business. We all want that.

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