The Social Graph Ad Targeting Buyer's Guide

The "what's next" in ad targeting is well upon us: targeting consumers based on their social graphs.

If you're an advertiser or you represent one, you may have tried targeting consumers based on when they were born and their chromosomal makeup (demographic), where they live or happen to be at the moment (geographic), what they're viewing on a Web page (contextual), what other Web sites they've visited (behavioral), or what keywords they're entering in a query box (search engine marketing). Yet now it's possible to target consumers based on their associations with each other.

This new form of ad targeting may not have a great name yet; last week I brought up one idea for a social naming convention and we'll probably need others. The concept revolves around targeting consumers based on their social graph, or the map of who they're connected to. The theory is that if I expressed interest the movie "Bruno," then some of my closest connections would also be interested, and they should be targeted in turn. In that case, if the advertiser targeted my friend Don Steele and my dad, two people close to me in my graph, it would have found a receptive audience. Granted, the advertiser might not have done so well targeting my wife and mother-in-law, who were not as keen to see a movie about the self-described "biggest Austrian celebrity since Hitler."

The theory of targeting the social graph is based on some established research, such as a landmark 2006 study from Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania Professor Shawndra Hill. Knowledge@Wharton reported in 2007: The study examines the influence of social networks by studying a large telecommunications firm that was marketing a new service. '"Network neighbors -- those consumers linked to a prior customer -- adopt the service at a rate three to five times greater than baseline groups selected by the best practices of the firm's marketing team," the study finds. "In addition, analyzing the network allows the firm to acquire new customers who otherwise would have fallen through the cracks, because they would not have been identified based on traditional attributes."

The study had its limitations, though. The network effect was much stronger for a new technological service the firm was promoting than it was for a new pricing plan. One theory is that the network effect is much stronger when the product or brand promoted lends itself to organic word-of-mouth buzz. Far more research is needed across more verticals to provide a clear understanding of what's happening. Hopefully more will come from Professor Hill and others in academia, but certain social graph ad targeting companies could help fill in some gaps.

I've met with a number of such companies recently, including 33 Across, Media 6 Degrees, Lotame, and Unfortunately, I've given so many verbal non-disclosure promises that I can't share too much dirt about any one in particular, especially in this secretive and competitive field. The good news is that I can offer you something better: a buyer's guide, with ten kinds of questions you should ask when incorporating social graph ad targeting into your campaigns. There aren't always right answers, but this process will help you better understand how this advertising works.

  •          Does the targeting work better for branding or direct response? Which verticals have performed best to date? Which verticals or types of campaigns haven't worked as well? Certain targeting technologies are designed more for transaction-based marketers, while others are much better for branding.

  •          If it works better for direct response, what kinds of responses can be measured? Is it more about clicks and Web site visits, or can actions be tracked straight through to conversions?


  •         If branding is the goal, what metrics are involved? Are they engagement metrics like interactions and time spent? Can branding studies measure factors such as awareness and purchase intent?

  •          Is retargeting involved? In other words, do marketers need to place a pixel on their site to track its visitors? Several forms of social graph ad targeting incorporate retargeting, which can be valuable for the marketer. It's still a notable difference from a standard ad network buy.

  •          Where does the social graph data come from?

  •          How transparent are the targeting and placements? Can certain types of consumers or placements be excluded?

  •          What research has the company done to show how social graph ad targeting compares with other methods like demographic or geographic targeting?

  •          What kind of scale is possible while still achieving the most pronounced effects for social graph targeting?

  •          If a campaign works well and a custom segment or group was created for this kind of targeting, can that same segment be used repeatedly? How applicable are the learnings from one campaign to the next?

  •          How aware is the consumer of what's happening? What's the consumer experience like? Is there a way for consumers to opt out of this? What privacy protections are in place?

    I'm sure once you start approaching to these companies and others in the field, more questions will come up, but this should get them talking, and it should give you a good idea of what you'll get out of social graph targeting.

  • 3 comments about "The Social Graph Ad Targeting Buyer's Guide".
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    1. Harold Cabezas from Cabezas Communications, August 11, 2009 at 2:39 p.m.

      Thank you....another great and very pertinent post! There is strong power in targeting by community/by cultural nuances; the only problem may be a consumer's view of this. I don't think the consumer would be disinterested, I think they would be interested in more relevant advertising-so long as it is not too intrusive, not too personal.

      Again, thanks-great questions at the end....

    2. Ken Nicholas from VideoAmp, August 11, 2009 at 2:59 p.m.

      This is kind of like 'BT on Steroids', in a way, with a lot more unanswered questions yet to be resolved.

      I am not sure how many Publishers/Vendors can fully offer what you outline here, David, so to me, your Buyers Guide might be more of a 'Dialogue Starter' least for a while.

      Great insight overall. Thanks for authoring.

    3. Michael Wexler from Yahoo, August 12, 2009 at 11:24 a.m.

      Hmm... if one drops the words "social" and "graph", then this buying guide is the bare minimum anyone should ask about ANY form of targeting online. You could sprinkle the word "behavioral" in place of "social graph" and it reads the same.

      So, what are the issues that a marketer should be worried about unique to social graph data? For example, reach is often mentioned as an issue. Another is the focus on "accuracy of intent", something that you allude to branding vs. DR but is actually more complex than that, since many advertisers like to overload their ads with both branding and direct goals. How about how fast it changes and is updated? If a user adds a new heavily linked person, does the data get updated immediately? How old is the data (the graph may have changed thanks to an argument or a meetup or other other social experience)?

      So, good start for any kind of targeting. I think helping folks understand how social targeting is different (in beneficial as well as disappointing ways) from other targeting should be your next step. This will help a planner understand how this color looks next to the others in the paintbox, so to speak.

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