Commentary

Behavioral Focus: Standard Deviation

A lack of norms leads to deviant behavior

If you're evaluating your options in behavioral advertising, then the issue of industry standards should concern you greatly. Standards ensure a common language and set of guarantees that advertisers can expect, allowing them to make apples-to-apples comparisons when they're shopping for the best behavioral network. Without those standards, you simply cannot know if you're making the most intelligent buy.

Unfortunately, our young industry hasn't embraced real standards yet. That problem won't be around forever.
For some networks, BT means customer segmenting - and delivering targeted ads accordingly - based on the types of sites that users have visited. For other networks, "behavioral targeting" means retargeting - advertising the specific sites that users have already visited (on the premise that if you've visited once, you might want to stop by again). Still other networks combine segmenting and retargeting.

So we have one industry, with multiple definitions of what we do. That's certainly not promising for industry standards.

For those BT networks that operate on customer segmenting, there's no standard as to how much data is enough data. Some networks require an enormous amount of data, only labeling users after watching their activity across many pages. Other networks might label users based on just a single page visit.

Now, BT is an industry that's entirely rooted in data. If we don't have a consensus as to how much data is enough data, then there's no way for our customers to know if we're doing our jobs.

Once you've placed a behaviorally targeted ad buy, where will your message appear? If you're fortunate, your ad will run in a clearly visible spot on a user-friendly page. But not everyone is so fortunate. I've noticed plenty of BT ads that end up below-the-fold, hidden in a mess of cluttered content, or camouflaged in a bevy of neighboring ads.

Also, if you're paying premium dollars for targeted ad placement, you ought to benefit from standards specifying the visibility of your ads. In the current state of play, BT advertisers don't always have that certainty that their ads will get their ideal visibility, or even that they'll get compensated if they don't.
Nobody wants to pay to reach a prospective home buyer or expectant parents, only to contact them after they've bought a new house or gone into labor. If your message or product is time-sensitive, you need to make sure you're working with the freshest leads possible.

You'd think BT networks would rush to offer their advertisers some guarantee of recency as well. However, of the BT networks I'm familiar with, none are ensuring recency in an effective way. This is especially surprising when you consider that recency is a given in direct-mail lists. It's really too bad that Web 2.0 marketing has yet to catch up with snail-mail advertising.

With portal consolidations like Microsoft-Yahoo (a union that seems likely at the time of this writing), things will undoubtedly improve. Megaportals have total control over the layout and ad placement across their millions of Web pages, so they're uniquely positioned to overcome the "clutter factor." And since they can observe users' activity across all of their pages, they're also uniquely capable of raising the bar - and therefore setting it - in data collection as well.

But that's a discussion for the future.

Given the way things are now, my best advice to advertisers is simple: Do your homework. Know what the whole industry offers - from the very mediocre to the astoundingly superb - before moving forward with any one solution.

That way, when you do make a decision, you'll know that you're working with the best network for your budget and your particular needs. You'll be confident that you've chosen the right BT network for you, regardless of how the broader behavioral industry actually behaves.

David Honig is vice president of media at Didit. (david.honig@didit.com)
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