To Save The Ad Industry, Diversify Targeting

Not too long ago, Will Doherty speculated what digital advertising will be like once cookies are past their peak.There’s no doubt that cookie pools are shrinking, driven (per Doherty) by the consumer’s move to mobile. To market at scale, he envisions tracking mechanisms in all mobile -- and eventually all household -- devices. In other words, the alternatives will function pretty much like today’s cookies.

With all due respect, device type tells just a part of the story of the shrinking cookie pool. The ad industry likes to say that our top priority is listening to the consumer. If that’s really the case, then it’s time to acknowledge the consumer’s growing discontent with behavioral targeting. Just about everyone with access to a computer has a retargeting horror story to tell -- we see it on Facebook pages and in letters to government officials and editors.



That’s why in 2013 alone over two dozen privacy laws were passed in 10 states. And it’s why many consumers are downloading ad-blocking software. According to an article in Forbes, up to 22% of web surfers use it.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not against all behavioral targeting, whether via cookies or some universal tracking scheme of the future. I’ll be the first to admit that there are many instances when even consumers will agree they truly benefit from behavioral data-driven targeting. But I believe we need a more nuanced approach to digital marketing.

Here’s why: Some topics -- such as health care and financial matters -- come with a lot of emotional weight, and consumers consider them inherently private. Consumers who research early signs of cancer or strategies for managing credit card debt doesn’t want to see related ads when they’re reading the sports page. And they certainly don’t want those ads to appear in situations where immediate family members and co-workers may see them. Seriously, who wants a digital ad to spill your secrets?

So as we begin to develop cookie alternatives, we need to spend serious time thinking about when and where consumers are most receptive to different categories of topics (and, consequently, all of the products and services that relate to them). Some topics are what I call high-consideration, because consumers will only respond to advertising when they’re actively engaged in a topic. In such cases, a new level of contextual targeting is called for: one that can place ads based on very specific content criteria.

In other words, ads for debt management solutions would only appear on pages that discuss strategies for putting one’s personal finances in order. Some of these high-consideration industries include pharmaceuticals, health care, automotive, entertainment and certain CPGs (e.g. anti-aging creams, laxatives).

In other cases, behavioral targeting is required, but with a deeper level of contextual targeting to ensure relevance (and conversions). For instance, let’s say a financial services company wants to advertise its portfolio of exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Behavioral targeting can identify consumers who have an interest in online stock trading; page-level targeting can ensure those ads appear only when a consumer is investigating ETFs.

Going forward, we need to think long and hard about how and why consumers respond to ads for specific product categories, and to understand the most appropriate (read: respectful) times to show those ads. Doing so will not only increase conversions, but it will also decrease ad-blocking software downloads -- and help save our industry.

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