A Brand's-Eye View of Behavioral Targeting

A man must keep a little back shop where he can be himself
without reserve. In solitude alone can he know true freedom.
-- Michel de Montaigne, Renaissance Essayist

I have been writing a lot about behavioral targeting lately. As click through rates, according to Doubleclick, have cratered at .1% on an industry average, everybody is looking for a solution to the performance crisis befalling our industry.

Is behavioral targeting (BT) the solution? The answer is a resounding "No." From faulty underlying assumptions of rational human behavior to the additional costs imposed on the marketing process, behavioral targeting is not a solution. In fact, it may very well be the problem.

One must look at BT from all angles to really appreciate its impact on the marketing ecosystem. So let's begin where the BT buck literally starts and stops and view behavioral targeting from the perspective of a consumer brand.

Could it possibly be the case that executives from well established brands are impervious to the dangers BT represents? It's not only possible but highly probable that brand stewards have little understanding of BT methodologies. Heck, they're just the poor saps paying for this folly. They lost control the moment they deferred to the legions of agency quants with no brand DNA whatsoever in their veins.

Here is the working definition of BT as offered by the FTC:
"... the tracking of a consumer's activities online -- including
the searches the consumer has conducted, the web pages visited,
and the content viewed - in order to deliver advertising targeted
to the individual consumer's interests."



Those selling BT technology would have brands believe that the seemingly innocuous goal of delivering relevant ads washes clean any fundamental creepiness arising from the stalking tactics involved. Stalking? Yes, this is a loaded term.

But what does it mean to scrutinize every website visit, every search, and every blog post other than to invade one's digital private life? Is it reasonable to sacrifice privacy on the altar of efficiency? Yes, the fascists got their trains to run on time. But at what ultimate cost to humanity?

BT peddlers seek to avoid government regulation, a relatively empty concern given the collusion between the two in the collection and dissemination of personal data. It is always the case that the private sector does things more "efficiently" than the government. Orwellian snooping is no exception. The fact that our tax dollars fund this obscene espionage of ourselves is proof positive of a technology run amok in both theory and practice.

The real shortcoming of BT is in its misplaced focus, and in its resulting inability to convey the honest value of a brand.

Obviously a brand's number-one asset is its relationship with its customers. It is the trust between brand and consumer that develops over time and accrues value. Simply stated, brand value is achieved when you create a positive emotional connection with your customers.

Now ask yourself an overwhelmingly simple question: Will scrutinizing and stalking your customers enhance your relationship with them? How about doing it under stealth conditions? What they don't know won't hurt them...right?

Relying on stealth is not a strategy. The database is too large and consumers too inquiring to keep the genie in the bottle forever. History tells us that it won't be long before a consumer flash mob, utilizing Twitter, Facebook and other social media discover that they are being VIOLATED.

Once this happens, there will be a public hue and cry that will resonate throughout the corridors of corporate America. And there will be backtracking and finger-pointing galore. Case in point: When Jeff Bezos was off buying Zappos, some knucklehead at Amazon decided to digitally invade Kindle users and erase copies of 1984 and Animal Farm., leaving Bezos with digital egg on his apologetic face and more fodder for the growing ranks of BT skeptics.

The truth is that brands are exposing themselves to a consumer backlash unlike any other in history. This will happen sooner rather than later. Good relationships are not created by abridging freedoms. It was Justice Douglas who said, "The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom."

I am aware of the trouble in which brands find themselves. They are at the crossroads of their intentions. One road leads to certain consumer backlash. The other road leads to the opportunity for enduring relationships based on trust, quality, and creativity.

The road to success requires that we champion the causes of freedom, dignity and respect. It's not easy. But it's the only path ultimately worthy of our time and consideration.

What we all need is a healthy dose of common sense. And that leads me to one of my all time favorite quotes from Thomas Paine's Common Sense, penned more than two hundred years ago:

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like
men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.

11 comments about "A Brand's-Eye View of Behavioral Targeting".
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  1. Brian Elkin from valpak, August 20, 2009 at 8:25 a.m.

    It is all very well to have an emotional connect with the consumer which is the rational behind building connectivity with traditional magazione advertising. what BT offers is relevancy. That is what drives the intent to purchase

  2. Steve Baldwin from Didit, August 20, 2009 at 9:10 a.m.

    Excellent, well reasoned article.

    You've taken a topic whose real issues are often obfuscated by its boosters and made it very clear, even to the lay reader.

    Brands walk on very thin ice when they make the fateful decision to "stalk" the public.

  3. George Simpson from George H. Simpson Communications, August 20, 2009 at 9:53 a.m.

    "But at what ultimate cost to humanity?"

    "The truth is that brands are exposing themselves to a consumer backlash unlike any other in history."

    Two of the most absurd statements about BT in its nearly 10 years of successfully delivery relevant ads based on totally anonymous user data.

  4. Mark Zagorski from eXelate, August 20, 2009 at 10 a.m.

    Interesting commentary -- that, like this post, is in the self interest of the writer (I am in the BT data business, Mr. Ali's company works on a PPV model with vertical targeting via websites like Celebrity Nooz).

    It is true that targeted marketing has image problems, and that they need to be addressed in order to ensure that marketers behave in a manner consistent with the brands they represent. But, to write off all behavioral targeting as "stalking", not only shows a complete lack of understanding of the way marketing has worked for the last 30 years, it also ignores the positive impact that real relevancy can have in a consumer interaction.

    Direct marketers have been using extensive, personalized information in their promotions for years. PR firms seed "trend drivers" with hot products in key markets. Product managers cull through reams of personalized purchase data captured via grocery store loyalty programs. Catalogers analyze personal credit card purchases to define drop dates and merchandise costs.

    BT can offer performance and relevancy that marketers demand -- with accountabilty and the protection of anonimity that consumers don't get with far more invasive forms of personalized marketing. Consumers have consistently stated in numerous polls that they prefer a more relevant online advertising experience as long as they understand how that is delivered.

    The commentary offers no solutions to the challenges facing marketers, only vague promises of a wonderful place where "brand and consumer" consumate their love affair. Unfortunately in the real, bottom-line driven world of matching message to conversion, this fairytale doesn't exist.

    The world is increasingly driven by analytics. Those anlaytics are fueled by data, which needs to be gathered in some manner. How does Mr. Ali track video views on his site? Wishful thinking? I am sure there is a cookie or two involved somewhere, and my guess is that there isn't an "opt-in".

    An upfront dialogue on how to better address consumer concerns regarding online data use and collection is certainly needed.

    Continued diatribes on the evils of BT are akin to the outburts at Obama's Health Care town hall meetings -- they make great headlines (and bylines) but do little to move the debate forward.

    Mark Zagorski

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 20, 2009 at 10:04 a.m.

    "Brand DNA" says volumes. Common sense has given way to numbered little screen minds. They can do better.

  6. Dave Capano from Kilgannon, August 20, 2009 at 11:04 a.m.

    In probably 98 out of 100 cases need drives intent to purchase not relevancy. There's a 'trigger' point at which there's a need to buy something. "We're out of milk". "I'm running low on gas". "My son just graduated high school and now he'll need a car for college". These are trigger points.
    Relevancy can help shape decisions but we give it too much credit if we say that it drives the intent to purchase.
    BT is another point of contact in the overall process. Nothing more. Nothing less.

  7. Bob Frady from Zeeto Media, August 20, 2009 at 12:28 p.m.

    BT - while seemingly built on the Parthenon of efficiency - is sometimes downright creepy. Ads follow you around to the point where it becomes quite stalker-like.

    Will this have an impact on your brand? Maybe. Is it an invasive use of technology? More likely. Is it the door to a "personal cookie" that is not anonymous? Definitely.

    In time, business won't be able to help itself - it will break the "anonymous" barrier and begin to maintain and use deeply personal data under the guise of targeting ads. Self regulation is a bit of a joke - there's always a lawyer ready to thin-slice.

  8. Robert Leathern from, Inc., August 21, 2009 at 1:13 a.m.

    Hmmm, "begging the question"?

    I hadn't read this article until our summer intern Joe said he was writing about it here,

    'nuff said: the industry and consumer is probably best served in forums like these through open and reasoned discussions about the ins and outs of targeting, technology, consumer choice, and brand impact vs. rants.

  9. Mark Lewis from Corus Radio Edmonton, August 21, 2009 at 9:48 a.m.

    There are countless ways to reach consumers. Select one or two that you feel are relevant and proceed. I believe BT serves as a guideline to a potential customer. Attempt to be meaningful and "make your pitch". Thoughts?

  10. Jim Anderson from jim.emetrics, August 28, 2009 at 2:30 p.m.

    I agree with Mark that 'An upfront dialogue on how to better address consumer concerns regarding online data use and collection is certainly needed'.
    I also believe, that when executed correctly, BT enhances the user experience.
    Case in point, if a anonymous user gets to my site by searching for a specific product, and BT allows me to feature that product to the user, everyone wins. There is, of course, the more traditional alternative that lets marketing determine what the user should see, because it ties directly to current market spend...

  11. Francis Sesmonde from WEBtraffic2Sales, August 29, 2009 at 1:28 p.m.

    I agree with you in what refers to BT Advertising. It is definitely intrusive and polutes your browsing journey.
    But there is another way. I call it WebSite Behavior Targeting. We provide non-intrusive solutions to make your brwsing experience much better and enable our customers to engage through the appropriate interaction at the right moment.
    It can be a pop-in suggesting the product you were looking for or capture details for a test drive for example as well as promotions.
    We act as a sales person would do. When you enter a shop you have 3 types of sales people: the one who reads a paper and do not even notice that you came in, the one who is on your back since go through the door and who finally deters you from purchasing anything (BT ads) and the one who is efficient, discret , that let you visit the shop and will come to you when you really need him: THAT'S WHAT WE DO.
    Either tailoring content to your interest (dynamic pages), understanding what you say in blogs and finding the right solution for you and interacting with THE proposal you are after, when you need it.
    That's my cents.

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