Why Display Ads Are Looking More Like Search Ads

This week, MSN rolled out behaviorally targeted display ads. MSN monitors audiences for Web page views and search history; it serves up relevant ads accordingly across the MSN network. And with that rollout, MSN has done a lot more than just offer a new app for advertisers. It's blurred the lines that divide display ads from search.

Ask any search marketer why search is a different kind of medium, and they'll tell you two things. They'll tell you that search offers unparalleled targeting: TV ads might shoot messages to 20 million viewers at a time; but there's a good chance that 80 percent of those viewers won't care about your product. With search, the keyword alone--to say nothing of more sophisticated search targeting--gives you a very good chance that the person who sees your ad is actually interested in what you have to sell.

The second differentiator any search marketer will point to is that search is customer-forward. In traditional media, viewers are bombarded by messages they haven't requested; and that, by and large, they don't want to see. Search is the opposite: searchers come to engines because they want information.



With behaviorally targeted display ads, the sharp distinctions are changing. First, behavioral targeting brings the targeting of display ads that much closer to the targeting capabilities of search (even if those capabilities still are very far apart). And second--and perhaps even more surprising--behavioral targeting makes display ads a lot more customer-forward.

There's a wide spectrum, after all, of how customer-forward a medium is, and how forward-facing a customer can be. On the one hand, many ads ask consumers to buy items they've never considered buying, from brands they don't know. On the other hand, there's search--in which customers already know what they want, and are only turning to the medium to fill in specifics.

And there's also a middle ground. There are people who aren't looking for an item right now, but who are, more broadly speaking, "in the market." It's not that they're not looking, or that they've stopped looking. It's just that they've put their search on pause, or that they've tuned it down a notch--they've shifted from aggressively seeking, to researching where it is they'd like to turn next. To take an example at random, someone who's "shopping for a house" might be haggling with a real estate agent; or she might be reading the real estate section; or she might be playing golf, and won't take steps to look for a house until tomorrow. Searching isn't just an activity--it's also what takes place in the back of your mind, and the general direction in which your purchase is heading--even if you're not making a purchase at this very moment.

Behaviorally targeted display ads fill the vacuum that's been needed to address that middle ground. And when you couple their ability to encounter the middle ground with their ability to pinpoint precise viewers, you've got a medium that brings display ads a lot closer to search than they've eve been.

For marketers and agencies, that means that the niches we've filled until now are all becoming less distinguishable from one another. And it means that, if we're to continue to give the same level of service to our clients that we've provided until now, we need to acknowledge that fact.

For those of us in search, that's a tremendous opportunity. Search marketers have already cornered the market on targeted marketing and on reaching out to forward-leaning customers. As those elements become more prevalent in media outside of search, our clients will increasingly turn to us to guide them in leveraging those elements in other media. Already, you can see that shift taking place, with search firms providing new offerings like behavioral search retargeting.

Am I advocating the return to the one-stop shop? Not for the next 10 years, anyway. But I do think we need to start thinking about how we need to reconfigure media as everything comes a little closer together.

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