Insane Behavior

"Why wouldn't publishers offer behavioral targeting?" asked David Cohen, director of interactive media at Universal McCann. He delivered this question rhetorically, at the conclusion of a compelling panel of media buyers held during the annual meeting the Internet Advertising Bureau hosts for its members.

I will offer an answer to his question, but please allow me to preface it with respect for those companies who have created this inventory management tool designed to improve the performance of an online advertising campaign. Additionally, it is not my intention to offend media buyers, many of whom, like David, see great value in a tool that can potentially help them meet the needs of their clients.

Behavioral targeting is an expense absorbed by publishers either directly, or through a revenue-sharing model. In return, its promise is to increase the CPMs of inventory viewed as less desirable. For example, a publisher may have a sold-out section on cars. Behavioral targeting allows publishers to identify where else the readers of their car section go within their site or network, so page views they generate outside of the car section can produce inventory car advertisers will find appealing. This formula applies to a variety of categories, of course.



So why shouldn't publishers absorb the costs to add this valuable tool to their offerings? Because if you are in the business of attracting consumer attention by producing and managing appealing content served digitally to a loyally engaged audience, offering behavioral targeting is crazy. It's like giving your house keys to a burglar.

It comes down to this simple question: If you are a publisher, do you sell the action of your audience, or do you sell access to reach them? If your choice is the latter, the more you arm buyers with tools meant to increase the performance of an online advertising campaign, the less value you create for the advertising exposure you are selling.

If the answer is both, then you need to reread the question. Measured consumer response to online advertising is a benefit of buying the access. However, publishers, overwhelmed by the performance demands buyers have placed on them, have lost sight of what it is they sell, and behavioral targeting further clouds their vision.

Despite the market forces gusting against them, publishers must continue to enhance and substantiate the value of the ad exposure they deliver. Steps such as decreasing the number of advertisers on their pages to one, offering simultaneous serving of ads so advertisers can use multiple units to creatively deliver their message, and selling roadblocks so advertisers can own readers' attention exclusively all increase the value of the ad exposure. Including research measuring the effectiveness of a client's messaging will substantiate this value. However, adopting and endorsing a tool that places the spotlight on performance casts a shadow on the value of an ad exposure.

I know this sounds counterintuitive, because when buying professionals like David Cohen and his media brethren request something; your job is to go get it. The tool is no doubt a stamp of innovation, but how it is currently applied to online buys further erodes the perceived value of what publishers sell for a living. I would further posture that advertising agencies who are selling their own services by touting their ability to generate lower customer acquisition costs for clients are inadvertently lowering the value of their creative production and placement of effective communication.

So the next time you are on a sales call with a media buyer who is overemphasizing the value of a performance metric like clickthrough, try this. As your meeting concludes, ask the buyer if he or she found the information you shared on your audience, your content, and the creative ways to integrate clients' messages appealing and valuable. Most likely, he will say yes.

Then take an insertion order out for $100,000 and ask him to sign it. Of course, he will say something like, "Are you crazy, I can't buy a campaign from you on the spot." Your response then will be, "Oh, so you found the information I shared with you valuable and appealing, but you are not going to click on me."

Publishers sell access to their audience. Marketers ultimately want to purchase customers. Somewhere in the middle lies advertising. Tools that sway you too far from the middle are not good for business.

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