Is Behavioral Targeting an Online Generic?

Has behavioral targeting become the Kleenex of online advertising?

This isn’t to imply by any means that behavioral targeting is disposable or something to sneeze at. But has the language surrounding the targeting approach become so generic and used so often and so inappropriately that it no longer stands for what it originally conveyed? According to eMarketer, behavioral targeting spend is around $575 million and projected to reach $3.8 billion by 2011, accounting for over 10 percent of all online ad spending. Some marketing areas have seen exponential growth in behavioral targeting in a short time. As it continues to prove its worth, its momentum shows no signs of slowing. While suppliers multiply and advertisers flocks to the much-heralded targeting approach, do they really know what they’re buying?

The term “behavioral” may be becoming meaningless. It’s used as a prefix in front of practically all online marketing offerings; it seems these days as if behavioral touches everything. So should we just stop calling it “behavioral marketing” and call it “online marketing”? Has the terminology kept up with practices and opportunities?

Behavioral targeting is reaching a point at which many current (and new) interactive marketing disciplines read and respond to behavioral cues. This is an evolution born of technology advances that emphasize observed behaviors as predictors of future behaviors. We can now collect and use that information, and so far there appear to be no barriers to expanding this approach. The bar is pretty low given the tech advances, as evidenced by the number of providers. The data supporting the approach are enticing. Not only does a proliferation of case studies scream success, but these successes also promise data that can be modeled for more successes in the future.

Behavioral targeting’s definition has changed and grown over time to become so broad as to be descriptive of most online marketing activities. Does behavioral have a clear-cut definition? The only ones who seem to provide definitions are the providers themselves, and their definitions are often conflicting.

We need a new vocabulary to better describe the many nuances of behavioral as an offering. Lumping all disparate forms of behavioral into one big behavioral targeting bucket is confusing and dilutes the term. We must protect it, so it doesn’t lose its meaning. Marketers can jump on the behavioral bandwagon in any number of ways. With a small or large investment; using their own site data or relying solely on providers; integrating search; overlaying other targeting techniques; using it on portals or through networks…the options are practically unlimited. Can one label describe so many things? Perhaps it needn’t.

What do you have to do for clients to identify yourself as a behavioral targeting provider? How entrenched must the provider be in the space? Does it mean targeting upfront or measuring on the back end? Are you just tracking segments? How do you gather information, and how do you use it? The questions and possibilities abound.

If behavioral targeting isn’t defined, it could mean anything and therefore eventually mean nothing at all. It becomes confusing to advertisers who are drawn to the nebulous concept of behavioral targeting and potentially frightening to consumers who see it around every corner and want to know exactly how they’re targeted.

Perhaps a reputable trade organization should define it. The FTC is getting more involved in the conversation, particularly on the heels of the recent mergers and acquisitions, but its upcoming town meeting focuses less on standards and definitions and more on ever-present privacy concerns.

One thing’s certain: before we go much further down the behavioral targeting path, we need a universal lexicon. We must establish with as much specificity as possible exactly what behavioral marketing encompasses. Marketers should rally and demand their trade organizations get the conversation going. Asking for standards has become common practice in this evolving industry, and while I’m not suggesting strict regulations, an agreed-upon definition of what behavioral targeting is and isn’t is a good starting point.

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