Hearing out Behavioral Marketing’s Critics

At a one-day conference on behavioral targeting in San Francisco two weeks ago, the major themes were privacy, Web 2.0, privacy, predictive modeling. And did I mention privacy?

I’m a huge fan of behavioral targeting especially since it’s becoming more and more sophisticated. And we have previously examined predictive modeling techniques used by ValueClick, aCerno, and Epic Advertising — each adopting very different methodologies to serve up highly targeted ads to the right audiences. AdBrite, another ad network, has now just announced it’s throwing its hat in the behavioral targeting ring.

At the conference, some of the interesting discussion topics, both on the panels and in the halls, were:

Behavioral Targeting for TV Ads? The Internet will morph with the TV to create one large media delivery vehicle in the next 15 years as standards and technology evolves. Will there be the option of doing behavioral targeting with TV placements and will the public allow it?

The Creepy Factor. “Things are only going to get creepier,” was a common remark heard at the conference. Many vendors struggled with increasing the sophistication of their applications and technology versus “creeping people out” with the implication of additional perceived intrusion into their privacy. If the objective of behavioral targeting is to serve up only the kinds of ads that the consumer would be interested in seeing, then we need to know more about, if not the consumer, then the cookie that represents that view. The two concepts seem to be counter productive, but the balance will be achieved with better education of consumers and more refined technology.

Data Portability (two words) vs. Dataportability (one word). The former is defined as the option to use your personal data between trusted applications and vendors. The latter is a fairly new organization, the DataPortability Project. It is a group created to promote the idea that individuals have control over their data by determining how they can use it and who can use it. This includes access to data under the control of another entity. The project’s stated mission is to consult, design, educate, and advocate interoperable data portability to users, developers, and vendors. Do check this group out and its Web site, which contains lots of valuable content. I know I’ll be following them.

Privacy. The most interesting, and contentious panel focused on privacy. Speakers included several lawyers, an AlmondNet executive, and a representative from TrustE. The lawyers for the most part, sided with the consumer to the extreme — any possible invasion of privacy — even if just perceived, is unacceptable. The industry, critics contended, is clearly not doing an adequate job of policing itself, and needs third-party regulation. The conversation was quite heated. It was exciting to have participants from outside the marketing industry throwing cold water on those of us within it. We get so wrapped up in the nuances of what we are doing that the outside view is sometimes a shock.

I was very impressed with the overall concern regarding privacy exhibited by all of the major behavioral targeting vendors including Acxiom, Revenue Science, AOL Platform A’s Tacoda, Tribal Fusion, ValueClick, and others. Their excellent contribution on panels around this issue, coupled with their participation or leadership on privacy committees or organizations (the Interactive Advertising Bureau and others) may be prompted by self-preservation but is certainly well intentioned and very well informed.

I will continue to watch the vendors utilizing predictive modeling. Having grown up in the direct response industry, where predictive modeling was born and still rules many prospecting efforts, I can’t wait to see how that expertise will translate to online marketing and how the consumer will continue to respond to this.

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