The Paradox of Consumer Targeting

About 10 years ago, I was having a conversation with some business colleagues regarding the challenges of targeting specific consumers with specific advertising messages. In the heady days of 1999, the few of us who worked in interactive advertising were seeing the future unfold before us. Not only were we able to create advertising designed for consumers to participate in, but we were also working with a medium that should allow us to better direct the right advertisements to the right consumers.

During that conversation, I brought up a model that I believed would be a win-win for consumers and advertisers. The future scenario went something like this:

    Imagine coming home after day’s work and turning on your TV set. Apart from broadcast video programs, you have access to archives of past programs, movies, and other digital content. This TV of the future would serve more as a command center for the household and would give you access to the Internet and plenty of content on demand.

    As you used the system, it learned more about you — the themes and genres associated with what you watched, the time of day you did your viewing, the language you preferred, news and entertainment topics you favored most — and used this data to help make program suggestions in the future.

    The programming provided would still be subsidized by advertising, but instead of every viewer receiving the same commercials, each TV would be fed a select data stream of offers customized against viewers’ interests. This preferences filter, in its most basic form, would give viewers better control of the advertising they saw and would strive to provide more relevant information based on those interests.

My original reasoning for this model was that huge improvements were needed to ensure consumers saw commercials with some relevantly personal meaning to them. Up to that point, mass marketing approaches had little to do with offer relevancy; instead they settled for grabbing the greatest number of eyeballs possible regardless of whom they belonged to. While this approach may work to a certain degree for branding campaigns, it’s still a pretty inefficient way to reach the best consumers for an offer.

A consumer-targeted advertising model may seem like a panacea for both consumers and advertisers, but it has a fatal flaw: it’s very difficult for consumers to accurately predict where their interests lie for future marketing opportunities. In short, as consumers we often don’t know what we want as much as we think we do.

To that point, last month Google rolled out its own brand of targeted advertising, designed to tailor ads that consumers receive based on their recent surfing behaviors.

Using information from its content network, Google expects to offer a higher level of relevancy in matching both text and display ads against consumers’ needs and interests. It’s important to note that Google won’t use data from Google searches as part of the targeting criteria.

Unlike existing keyword-based contextual models that Google uses in an attempt to match ad content against Web page content (periodically yielding some questionable matchups), the new targeting approach starts by tracking topics of search interest made by consumers (tracking is purely anonymous). It then uses that information to sort consumers into different groups based on 30 broad subject categories and 600 subcategories.

With its new approach, Google remains sensitive to consumers’ privacy and security concerns. It includes an online tool, the Ads Preferences Manager, that allows consumers more granular control of how they are being targeted by allowing them to customize criteria used to reach them and to view, delete, or add additional categories. And of course, Google offers the option to opt out of ad-targeting cookies.

Google isn’t offering an earth-shattering new targeting solution at this point. Keep in mind, it has the data infrastructure and a vast number of partner sites it can use to get up to speed very quickly. And it doesn’t hurt that it has the money and resources to make some mistakes along the way.

In some ways, the future I envisioned a decade ago is starting to take shape. In other ways, the realities of how advertisers and consumers interact have made these models a little harder to define. All in all, we’ve come a long way from the one-size-fits-all advertising models that once dominated our industry.

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