What's Behind the Behavioral Curtain? We May Never Know

Online ad industry talking heads spout off all the time about the need for transparency. And this is true in the niche world of behavioral targeting (BT), especially BT networks. However, the incessant development of new ways to target consumers on the Web brings with it new ways to go undercover, too.

I spoke last week with a sales and marketing exec at a top-notch news site--one that isn't and doesn't plan on ever being part of a BT network. This exec doesn't appreciate the opaque quality of ad networks, which typically keep advertisers and publishers in the dark as to what sites are in them. The way he sees it, somebody's going to end up seeing the ad running on any given network site anyway, so "transparency is always better."

Tacoda CEO Dave Morgan agrees, and evidently he's willing to put his money where his mouth is. He told me recently that the company plans on revealing each and every publisher included in its network soon. In fact, he says that by signing on to join the BT network, those sites agreed to open the kimono at some point (pardon the legalese). No word yet on when the great unveiling will occur, though.



But some sites won't join networks because they don't want their inventory to be thought of as a mere commodity that can be sold and resold by brokers and networks. They're concerned that their brands will be diluted, and direct relationships with advertisers weakened. They also don't like the idea of having their audience data swimming in the same pool with that of competitors.

Maybe publishers can have it both ways. What if publishers could acquire the additional value that behavioral tracking extracts from their audiences without having to compromise their brand identity and direct sales relationships? A new program from that's gone virtually unnoticed is allowing around 20 publishers to do just that right now. The firm's Audience LeadBack network left the beta stage this April, and according to Eric Eller,'s director of behavioral marketing: "It's an alternative that [network-leery publishers] may want to look into."

The program involves publishers tracking audience interactivity such as content viewed or keywords searched. The difference between this and other BT networks is that the publishers collecting those data from their users don't have to have ads placed by on their sites--ever. Only if a publisher is in both the Audience LeadBack network and the firm's large ad network of 3,000 sites could an ad targeted using LeadBack-gathered data be placed on that site.

Eller thinks publishers with qualms about joining networks might buy into the Audience LeadBack offering. "The only way to increase revenue to a site is to increase traffic or to sell access to those users outside the site," he contends. So now, publishers can reap more benefits from their audience data without having to give up their inventory.

The LeadBack program remains a black box in terms of which publishers are involved. And it's not surprising, considering the obvious privacy implications and extensive legal assessment that must be conducted before sites agree to sign up. Eller isn't worried about a lack of transparency, however: "We may never get permission to use any of [publishers'] names, but I don't see it as a barrier to this program being successful."

Well, I guess we may never know what's behind curtains one, two, and three. But if we ever find out, I'm hoping for a donkey--or maybe a wheelbarrow full of Ping-Pong balls.

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