What Behavioral Marketing Is Not

My colleagues and I spend a tremendous amount of time educating staff, clients, prospects, family members, and random people curious about how we make a living in online marketing. This is quite understandable. It’s a new field that changes regularly, relies on emerging technology, and opens virgin territory for both marketers and consumers. Behavioral targeting raises questions that we now have to answer. What data is tracked and captured? How is the data used? How does this impact the consumer experience? What level of control, if any, should consumers employ? What and whom should regulate, if anything, the marketers’ actions?

Many misconceptions prevail. The imperfect understanding of the technology and intent of behavioral marketing can lead to many responses ranging from unrealistic expectations to fear of privacy invasions. Behavioral targeting is neither a magic bullet for marketers nor a sinister plot to ferret out personally identifiable information (PII).

Behavior targeting is not a magic bullet.

When behavioral targeting was pretty new a few years ago, it was like a shiny new gadget. Behavioral marketing was a must-have for online advertisers who were early adopters or fast followers. Because there were only a few providers, highly relevant advertising stood out in a sea of untargeted or demo targeted ads. The results were often spectacular by comparison to other display media efforts.

Never before did we have the opportunity to respond to consumer actions with direct and relevant messaging. Case studies were written. Stories were told at conferences about the exceptional returns delivered by this smart technique. Fast followers were quickly followed by the masses. At the same time providers jumped on board to meet the growing need. Many, many providers. Consumers now get many more behaviorally targeted ad impressions. More relevant ad messaging, timing, and placement should be a positive thing but sheer volume may have dulled the impact of the original shiny new behavioral ads just a bit.

The behavioral targeting industry, which tries to keep pace with consumers, has responded with a slew of new offerings that capture and optimize against reasonably new digital behaviors like social sharing and downloading. New behavioral targeting following new behaviors makes a lot of sense. Even though the pace of change is frenetic, consumer adoption rates produce a volume of data, especially in certain areas like social networking, allowing providers to quickly respond.

While marketers can easily be seduced by the promise of behavioral marketing, it’s not a magic bullet for every campaign objective. It usually stands uneasily without the strategic support of other programs to help make it work. Online advertising is a team sport. It requires a coordinated approach using players (tactics) with different skill sets to achieve the best results. While behavioral targeting is a wonderful way to improve efficiency and stretch budgets, I worry that in these challenged times that the time and resources required to nurture a great behavioral targeting program will be scarce. The knee-jerk reaction to lop off all programs with a lower return on investment attached to them will certainly diminish the ROI of the highest performers in the process. It’s like playing a basketball team with all point guards. No tactic can be applied universally for universal results.

Behavioral targeting is not a sinister plot to gain personally identifiable information.

Marketers using mainstream behavioral targeting programs do not have access to PII, nor do they want it. The information gleaned is useful that moment to both consumers and advertisers to connect expressed and demonstrated desires with potentially relevant solutions. Consumer trust is fragile and valuable and most marketers guard that trust closely. Still, consumers are confused about what data’s collected and how it’s used — and behavioral targeting programs remain a convenient scapegoat.

As behavioral targeting grew in reach and consumer awareness peaked, many well-intentioned factions grew alarmed. Political and consumer groups probably should have harnessed their indignant energy to educate themselves first and better about the new technology and how it works. At the same time, the online advertising industry groups should have responded sooner and more definitively. Privacy concerns seem to have quieted down now and several good educational efforts are being promoted but the industry took a hit that will take a long time to overcome.

Behavioral targeting is an efficient, flexible, adaptive targeting technique to connect relevant audiences with relevant solutions.

Behavioral targeting can mean many things. Many offerings come under the umbrella definition of behavioral and that makes the already complicated notion even more confusing. Continuation of solid education that keeps up with new offerings is key to reducing consumer concern and restrictive regulation.

Industry education is also important to help marketers identify best practices in behavioral targeting use. Behavioral targeting, sometimes the perfect tactical approach for online marketing results, is often a complement to a broad strategic plan. But it’s not right for every campaign. In all cases, the execution will make the difference between a program that delivers confidence and value and one that wastes marketing budget and erodes goodwill. Like any other tool, the success of that tool is highly dependent on where it’s used, for what purpose, and the skill of the person wielding the tool.

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