Targeting Ads on Social Networks

An aunt of mine joined a social network recently to keep up with her kids and grandkids online. It didn’t take her kin long to point out she’d provided an erroneous birth year in her profile. It wasn’t an attempt to appear younger than she was, she said. Unsure of how it would be used, she didn’t want to provide her real information to the site.

It was a valid point. Social networks continue to introduce new targeting options that mark the first step toward putting virtually all non-personally-identifiable profile information into play for marketers. This week, MySpace introduced advanced targeting capabilities designed to improve ad performance, allowing advertisers to more easily pick and choose their desired audience groups.

As reported by ClickZ News, this second phase of MySpace’s HyperTargeting system, first introduced in July, will let marketers target ad messages based on hundreds of highly specific subcategories of interests, such as types of horror movies, as expressed within user profiles. The site says plans are also in the works to provide access to other profile information, including indicators of user life stages. I can almost hear the buzz of anticipation among consumer packaged goods (CPG) beauty brands, pharma products, and financial services companies.

Just the other day, rival network Facebook launched a new advertising platform that also delivers increased targeting capabilities through a format called Social Ads. When site members interact with a branded Facebook page, their actions — along with their profile photo — can be featured in a Social Ad and distributed to their Facebook friends based on targeting criteria, like gender, geographic region, and, of course, age.

Contextual Perfection or Crossing the Line?

Every buyer and planner I’ve spoken with about the MySpace development is palpably excited. Some question why it took so long to arrive at what seems to be an obvious and rational place. Yet there’s some concern about how social network users will react. Social sites are all about its users. At first blush, HyperTargeting seems to serve advertisers’ interests first.

Interactive marketers have always struggled with the issue of consumer privacy and the backlash that invariably accompanies campaigns that cross the line. Years of planning (and some convincing from behavioral and contextual targeting firms) has led us to conclude consumers respond better to relevant ads. If they must be exposed to advertising (and, thankfully, many now understand they must), at least make it contextually relevant to their interests and needs.

MySpace has concluded the same thing, according to) parent company Fox Interactive Media’s (FIM’s) Adam Bain. Bain says a year was spent creating and studying user panels in an effort to predict consumer response. Sure enough, consumers indicated ads should be, at the very least, relevant and engaging — exactly what HyperTargeting is designed to ensure.

Reports indicate that next year Facebook plans to use algorithms to determine how receptive users are to ads relating to specific interests and activities in general, as well as those of their friends. The ads won’t necessarily be contextually targeted at first, but they’ll give the site an indication of how best to target future messages.

In the meantime, let’s not forget these are social networks we’re dealing with. They’re online media equalizers, delivering perhaps the greatest range of demographics and psychographics of any Web-based medium. Consumers shouldn’t be surprised by these developments, but then these aren’t the type of consumers who are familiar with what goes on behind the scenes, where advertising is crafted and delivered. It should be obvious that social sites are eager to profit from the millions of users and scores of data they have access to, and that advertisers, knowing the importance of contextually relevant ads, are keen on locating potential customers and delivering messaging that’s of interest to them. But convincing our target users of these facts will surely take some doing.

We’re much closer to the coveted image of the ultimate contextual ad seen in “Minority Report” than most consumers know. It will take some getting used to, but ultimately technology that may initially be perceived as intrusive could just become a site user’s greatest ally.

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