Referring Sites as Behavioral Identifiers

In a recent column, I looked at how target audience members can be identified based on their use of technologies such as RSS (define) and how the technology use itself is a targetable behavior.

Since then, I’ve been having an informed dialogue with Bennett Zucker, who heads TACODA‘s Customer Success program. We’re discussing how a similar approach can be taken with referring site URLs.

Imagine an online publisher that can deliver a target audience to an advertiser, but doesn’t get the chance because it can only demonstrate it has composition via syndicated panel research but lacks other selling points to close the deal. These points can include not having a great deal of regularly updated, directly related editorial content; not having other advertiser clients in the potential advertiser’s competitive set; and so on.

What could such a publisher do to compete for a share of the advertiser’s media investment?

It could look for the source of site visits with referring URLs from other sites of interest to the target audience, then create a segment based on this.

“A Web site’s sales representative may believe passionately that his or her audience is your best buy, but without content of specific interest to the market the advertiser wants to reach, it’s a tough sell,” says Zucker. “But if the site draws — and can dynamically target — a sizable segment of people who have just been to the kinds of sites already on the advertiser’s consideration list, then there may be something to the story.”

An inventive publisher and a smart advertiser can drive terrific results by reaching people with a new, highly relevant message in an unexpected place. “We’ve seen this work many, many times,” according to Zucker.

If the publisher’s site is small, this strategy may have limitations. It might only work as a component of a placement, with other targeting criteria to round out the buy. Or it might just require a long list of referring site URLs to deliver the scale required.

In either case, this type of addition to a sales proposal shows the publisher is thinking innovatively about how a target audience uses its site, and how to best use its resources to make a match.

On large sites or at the network level, this may work as a standalone tactic.

What’s great about this concept is that the referring sites needn’t have any link to the campaign whatsoever or even carry advertising.

“‘Identifying’ behavior in this way is quite distinct from ‘monitoring,'” says Zucker. Monitoring has become a bit of a nonstarter for brand advertisers wishing to avoid perceptions of violating Web users’ reasonable expectations of online privacy.

Some forward-thinking publishers are looking at this as a way of initiating new relationships with advertisers and deepening existing partnerships.

What about search engines? Though it’s true search engines direct a lot of traffic to sites, a good deal of any particular core audience will come from other interest sites.

Referring site URLs are the link to recent content-consumption behavior. As such, they can be taken as a good behavioral indication of interest. Online publishers can use this strategy to add depth to proposals that may otherwise miss the plan.

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