Post-Show Takeaway: Get Out Of The Black Box

At last week's well-attended, highly interactive OMMA Behavioral conference, I was struck by the force with which some long-dormant themes in the behavioral targeting field emerged. I can't remember a show in this series where the move forward in general discussions was so apparent.

I remember a time when industry executives dismissed calls for more standardization of segments. They cited the importance of individual publishers retaining flexibility and creativity in crafting custom segments. Technology vendors told me often they didn't want to retard innovation with premature standards.

This sentiment echoed some of the reticence over standardization we used to hear in the late '90s at IAB conferences. Now, the call for standardization -- at least of some major segments -- is much more common. Throughout the day, I heard folks on the buy-side wish for a common currency across vendors and publishers that they could buy against at greater scale.



Scale, while still a persistent issue for BT, is becoming more manageable. There was a lot of back and forth about the leveraging of exchanges to help create scale. Even in re-targeting, John Nardone of x + 1, argued, you can use a range of networks now to find a lost customer again somewhere on someone's network. (By the way, we have put online a presentation on retargeting to scale from panel member Chad Little, CEO, Fetchback. Look for the link at the 12:15 panel listing. )

In the general flow of discussion across the panels, I was struck by how BT is now unexceptional in the media mix, much more integrated than it seemed in the past. At past OMMA Behavioral sessions, we had BT experts talking very specifically about the BT aspect of their buys. Increasingly, as in the panels on auto marketing and re-targeting, discussions of BT tactics quickly bled into other topics about marketing strategy and targeting generally. It's not just about hitting a visitor to auto content somewhere else. As Wendi Dunlap of Mediacom explained, now you can find that "brand ambassador" via their behaviors -- and leverage social media to amplify the effect.

I also saw changes in another key issue, the privacy debate: the acceleration of interest and change of tone in the debate is astonishing to me. I recall early privacy panels at OMMA Behavioral shows where speakers pooh-poohed the issue by insisting users were not aware of or concerned about it. Back in the day, almost everyone agreed that so long as publishers aren't collecting personally identifiable information and doing no demonstrable harm, they can't be demonized.

While there is still some of that feeling, I saw the ball moving forward considerably in attitude in the general discourse. Now we talk about communicating with users more effectively, and locating where and how in the advertising chain disclosures need to be made.

The author of "The Numerati," Business Week's Stephen Baker, offered the prescient warning that mobile would be the true battleground over privacy. Yes, it will. GPS, a personal phone number, and the intimate relationship between user and carrier all serve to raise the bar on privacy issues that may have been better hidden online. And I would say that mobile is also the place where BT can demonstrate its usefulness most visibly and effectively.

Which brings me to the next point: If marketers position themselves correctly in online behavioral targeting, then the move to mobile will be that much easier. Far and away the most heartening theme to emerge from OMMA Behavioral was the greater emphasis on creating and communicating the benefit of BT in personalized user experiences. During the Q&A to his keynote, AudienceScience CEO Jeff Hirsch acknowledged that communicating benefits to the user for these technologies is a very tough nut to crack -- but will be indispensible.

On the privacy panel, Future of Privacy Forum director Jules Polonetsky was strident in arguing for the need to be more proactive and transparent with consumers about managing their own data as well as communicating benefits.  Forrester analyst Emily Riley made this appeal the crescendo of her presentation. Marketers need to help consumers manage their own online behaviors, which can be scattered and random. She recommends making an opt-out site that is also a selective opt-in site that lets consumers select what behaviors they do want tracked, in order to deliver material they are looking to find anyway. Riley's Powerpoint is also online at the link above.    

I think Riley set the perfect tone in suggesting BT move outside of its black box. She used the "Cheers" bar as an analogy. Instead of BT seeming to sneak behind the scenes gathering data invisibly, why not bring that technology forward and change the dynamic entirely? Instead of creepy tracking, offer friendly familiarity. It is a shift in tone: "We know you," as opposed to "We know you."

This is the hard part, as Jeff Hirsch recognized. This is the part where BT loses its roots as a geeky technology trick built by engineers and finds a language and a shape that talks to real people about making their lives more efficient. And this also is the point beyond simply not irritating consumers. This is the most challenging point at which we build systems grounded in behavioral tracking that, visibly, finally help people.


Note: Video from the OMMA Behavioral  show is now online. To see speakers at the event, go to For a synopsis of the panels, go to the blog coverage of the show from Mediapost's own reporters at

2 comments about "Post-Show Takeaway: Get Out Of The Black Box".
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  1. Akin Arikan from Unica, March 6, 2009 at 5:37 p.m.

    Great article Steve! As a client of Forrester's I also listened to Emily Riley's webinar this week where she explained her recommendation around opt-in. Say, you raise your hand that you are in the market for XYZ and welcome ads there but are not in the market for ABC so that marketers shouldn't waste ads in that area.

    This sounded very well taken to me too.

    But on second thought, if the audience really raised their hands in such fashion then wouldn't that remove the need for behavioral targeting? They could just receive email or hyperlinks (or even snail mail) about those offerings that they are in the market for.

    Isn't the whole point of behavioral targeting to anticipate people's interests without them making those explicit? And isn't the whole point of advertising to create demand where there isn't any?

    I still applaud Emily's recommendation. Maybe it makes more sense for indicating broad topics that you are generally interested in, e.g. "I don't mind music related ads" vs. indicating specific things that you are actively in the market for "I want to buy a home theater".

  2. Warren Lee from WHL Consulting, March 9, 2009 at 2:10 p.m.

    You raise some very interesting points, Steve, thanks for the summation of the BT conference. One of the points that you made, I would like to echo. For me BT represents the opportunity for me to have advertisers deliver ads that are relevant to me. Actually turning advertising into content that is of interest. I have a hard time understanding why anyone, especially with the privacy policies in place that promise that no PII data be used, would have any problem with BT as long as it is not abused. Thus far, I am not aware that any BT scheme has been used to tie PII data to advertising thus compromising an individual's identity.

    I am a big advocate of protecting PII data and delivering ads that I have an interest in. Bring them on.
    Thanks again Steve,

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