Behavioral Focus: The Right Unit for Social Networks

Ads adapted to search well, but social networks still need a killer app

Everyone knows that the media landscape is changing very quickly. What is perhaps less accepted is that consumers are changing the way they interact with content faster than we're changing the way they interact with ads. I am not talking about the technology for ad delivery; I'm referring to how users think about ads in the first place.

Advertising was designed around a publishing paradigm where advertisers target readers by being adjacent to the content. Although publishing is alive and well, the majority of the growth in time spent on the Internet is coming from communication and participation, not from content consumption. Social networking, image-sharing, and chatting are great examples of communications activities as opposed to content consumption. The question is: How should the advertising paradigm change when the user paradigm changes?

Google is a good example of how a change in user experience affects the established advertising model. Prior to the rise of the search engine, the dominant way for users to seek information was to browse a directory like Yahoo. In the browse mode, the best mode was to use banner ads targeting a high-level category. When search became the dominant model, that changed. Google leveraged that by changing not only how it delivered an ad to a consumer, but how that consumer perceived the ad.

I would argue that, today, the links on the right side of the Google search page aren't even viewed as ads by the consumer; they're viewed as part of the search experience. They are relevant to that user's particular query, and in many cases are indistinguishable from content. So the last time we had a shift in how the Internet was used (from browse to search), we had a shift in how ads were presented and perceived. The results were astounding: Click-throughs and conversions increased.

Another groundbreaking shift is happening now. This time, consumers are switching from consuming content to communicating, as in MySpace and YouTube. But the ad experience in communications sites has not changed to complement the user experience. The ad in today's social network is still a banner, which disrupts communication.

When we shifted to a search paradigm, the ad became part of the search. As we shift to a communications paradigm, we need an ad unit relevant to people's communications needs.

The right paradigm for communications is e-mail: relevant messages delivered directly to consumers. How do we transform the ad unit to be more like an inbox? Just as Google provided a way to filter out ads that are not part of a user's search experience, we now need a visual mechanism to communicate to a user that this piece of real estate only includes ads relevant to his interaction needs. The user might not receive as many ads, but the ones that get through will certainly attract her attention.

Rather than having behavioral targeting working behind the scenes as it does today, it will move front and center, highlighting the relevance to the individual. If we want ads to get more attention in the middle of a communication, the user must know the ad is speaking to him.

Behavioral targeting will work in the communications environment because it provides a relevant way to reach the individual. It can provide even deeper benefits as part of an ongoing communication. Advertisers and publishers need a model that keeps pace with how consumers use the online medium today.

Omar Tawakol is the chief marketing officer of Revenue Science. (

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