The Future of Behavioral Targeting

The end of the year tends to be a time for evaluation and reflection. It’s a time for summaries, highlights, and assessments of the good and the bad that have occurred over the course of 365 days. As 2008 comes to a close, I couldn’t help but apply the same summarizing and evaluating mentality to behavioral targeting.

Behavioral Targeting: Past and Present

Behavioral targeting started as a digital, more accountable extension of traditional advertising, which follows a conventional methodology: brands want to reach a target audience, agencies create ads to push a message, and campaign effectiveness gets measured. The process was simple, logical, and straightforward.

However, this methodology was short-lived, as consumers became savvier and empowered, and the one-way conversations from brands were no longer effective. Advertisers started to realize that they don’t have complete control over how people take in their messaging.

As a result, the industry began to pay attention to such factors as individual differences (e.g., personal values), varying stimuli in the environment (e.g., sounds, smells, lighting), and surrounding context (e.g., who’s around you at a specific point in time). With the extra attention paid to external factors, advertising entered the era of engagement and communication with target audiences.

To a certain extent, behavioral targeting has followed suit in recent years, going beyond talking at consumers to engaging and communicating with target audiences. Because behavioral targeting is confined to the online medium, consumer engagement is created by providing more relevant messaging. However, a message’s relevance to a consumer doesn’t necessarily translate to communicating with a consumer. Here’s why.

Deconstructing Communication

Communication is defined as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior,” which can be further broken down into tiny acts of learning. Learning has traditionally been explained as the acquisition of knowledge and a means to an end activity.

Recent models of thought, however, suggest that learning is much more than absorption of information; it has to do with the social context in which information is absorbed because knowledge is mostly mediated or specified through some form of human activity. Learning, and the subsequent transfer of information, doesn’t occur solely in an individual’s mind. It’s a process that takes place in a participation framework (e.g., language acquisition; you have to speak it with others to truly learn it).

What This Means for Behavioral Targeting

Knowing that communication breaks down to learning creates some interesting implications for behavioral targeting (and perhaps to advertising in general). Instead of solely focusing on the relevancy of content to consumers, marketers employing behavioral targeting might want to consider what it truly means to communicate in an online medium and think about how to help their consumers learn.

This is a shift away from conventional goals of behavioral targeting (providing the most attractive sales offer at the right place, right time) and toward helping consumers further their cause by educating them on a given topic. Instead of “buy this now and get an amazing discount,” the messaging focus will shift to “learn more about how this product can be helpful to you.”

Moreover, if we follow recent thought on learning, behavioral targeting will predict what the consumer wants to learn more about and the context in which the message is received. Will consumers receive the message on a home PC, perhaps distracted by children running around? Will they receive the message while running on a treadmill at the gym, with fellow exercisers around? Or if the message is delivered in a mobile context, can we predict or plan for where the consumer will be upon receiving the message?

Some Concluding Thoughts

A disconnect exists between a message’s relevance to a consumer and its ability to engage with a consumer. Creating engagement/communication really boils down to learning processes, so targeting efforts should reflect a brand’s message and how it is intended for consumers to learn about the message in a given context. If the messaging can implicitly provide a structure for learning, behavioral targeting marketers will get even closer to true engagement and communication and creating a two-way learning opportunity between a brand and the consumer.

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