Audience and content: two sides of the same coin

Advertisers and media buyers are consistently told that online advertising these days is “all about buying an audience”, that “content does not matter so much any more”.

This is to disregard that content is the reason that brings members of the audience together in the first place. It happens offline at a movie or in front of a TV show and also online, on a famous economist’s blog or a cooking website. The very concept of audience exists because of the content attached to it.

Now, of course audiences online don’t just sit in front of their screen(s) waiting for the event to unfold. The Internet is not a bus stop. Online audiences are on the hunt, for information and increasingly, entertainment. It’s their doing so in such a disorderly fashion, anywhere and any time, that creates the illusion that what they’re actually reading, watching or interacting with is secondary.

There is one big reason why this is not the case: it is called engagement, or the amount of attention that a viewer actually spends in interaction with the content. For an advertiser, the effect is immediate: if a user opens a web page and bounces off immediately because what they see is not what they’re looking for, any ad impression that was part of that page becomes de facto wasted. The better the content, the more responsive the audience, which automatically rubs off on the advertising. That content online may be found easily because there is so much of it does not mean it should be taken for granted. Think quality content and you quickly realize that it may not be so ubiquitous after all.

Good content is what feeds those audiences that you’re looking for. It’s the plankton of that food chain on top of which you sit as a marketer. Take that link away and the whole ecosystem collapses! Therefore, “audience” can not be disjointed from “content”: make sure you don’t fall prey to some clever beast determined to convince you otherwise.

Rethinking the Application of Behavioral Targeting

Posted by Julia Casale-Amorim

With the intriguing concept and reported benefits of behavioral targeting (BT) so deeply entrenched in many marketers’ media plans, complacency over how this controversial form of targeting is actually conducted and the implications it can have from a branding perspective are all too often getting lost in the hype (and routine).

The basic principal of any online targeting method, including behavioral targeting or retargeting, is relatively simple. Sadly, it is commonplace for industry sellers of this technology to purposely “overcomplicate” these capabilities in an effort to “pull the wool over the eyes” of unsuspecting newcomers to the digital medium.

The major auto makers are infamous for their early adoption and devoted use of BT. Let’s take a moment to examine why?

Expanded Reach: BT provides an opportunity to reach “qualified” users on sites outside of the automotive segment where demand for inventory consistently surpasses supply, and where reach potential is fixed.

Reach to In-Market Buyers: BT provides an opportunity to reach auto intenders through both focused targeting (specific make/model/category) and general targeting (not model-specific) strategies.

Strong Metrics/Proof of Performance: It works and it’s backed by impressive purchase intent and brand favorability metrics (e.g. Dynamic Logic Studies).

BT Effectiveness – Some Thoughts and Questions to Ponder

How Fresh is the BT Data Being Used to Target Your Campaigns?
According to a 2009 study conducted by TNS Media, compression of the automotive research process is a major new industry development:

  • 65% of in-market Vehicle Buyers (VB) indicated that they researched one month or less prior to purchase.
  • 59% of New Vehicle Buyers (NVB) indicated they researched for one month or less prior to purchase.
  • The closer to the time of purchase, the more effective media efforts were. In the one week leading up to purchase, 42% of NVB were referred by search to OEM sites compared with only 15% in the 3 months prior to purchase.

Today’s methods of behavioral targeting rely completely on the use of historical user data, which may not accurately reflect a consumer’s buying stage at the time of ad delivery. In the wake of a shortening automotive consideration window, how quickly does a BT vendor need to gather, process and refresh its profiles so that that data used to target against is accurate at the time of campaign delivery? What mechanism is used to eliminate consumers who have already purchased from the buyer pool?

What About Inventory Quality? Doesn’t that Matter Anymore?
Here’s another way to look at BT. BT can be a means to market “poor” inventory as “desirable” inventory through the exploitation of data gathered through controversial profiling tactics. Marketers put so much focus on BT that the entire concept of quality and inventory source is being lost. Inventory is not so cut and dried as BT vendors make it out to be. There are countless factors that contribute to the success of any single ad placement, which are often overlooked during insular BT discussions:

  • Is the ad even visible on the page (i.e. above the fold?) How can an ad reach the intended audience if it is not seen?
  • When was the ad delivered? If the user has been stationed in front of a website for two hours and has been exposed to hundreds of different ads, at which point he/she is then served a behaviorally-targeted ad, will it be remembered? Will it even be noticed?
  • What is being served (content or otherwise) alongside the ads? Are the ads in good company? Is the advertiser jeopardizing the perceived value and status of its own brand by being delivered on a website or alongside other advertisements that are not of the same caliber? Think “belly fat” ads on un-moderated generic message boards.

The Multi-User, Multi-Platform Conundrum
BT relies on the placement of a profiling cookie on a computer. That cookie is used to collect information about a user’s browsing behavior.

BT is an imperfect science. There is simply no way to substantiate and verify exactly which set of eyes is currently placed in front of any given computer screen at any given time. The notion of blindly placing media on a site based on the “user profile” of a computer is just that – blind and, at best, inefficient.

Proprietors of BT reportedly go to great lengths to establish profiles on individuals in an effort to predict their buying patterns and exploit them. The data collected on a user typically comes from a single or mere source and the sample size is usually far too small to provide an accurate portrait of any one person’s buying habits. The profile outcome is just too subjective and cannot be interpreted with a high degree of accuracy.

The assumption that is made by BT is that only a single user is responsible for the “behavior” of a solitary machine. That assumption immediately encounters issues when you consider that a vast number of users actually only rent computer time at internet cafes or that entire families may share access to the Web through a single household computer. How, then, can BT be truly qualified as a viable and accurate information gathering and targeting method?

Beyond Targeting: Where Does Optimization Fit into the BT Equation?
Even if BT were a perfect science (which it is not), the notion of optimizing your BT media spend is still a valid point. What does a BT vendor do to optimize the placement of your campaign and the performance of your media spend?

The Consumer Privacy Debate and Putting all of One’s Eggs in a Single Basket
BT is currently under close scrutiny by a number of federal regulatory agencies and can therefore be assured to be subject to certain government regulation in the near future. There is no saying how this may predict the method’s future (for good or for bad).

Having all of one’s eggs in the BT basket may not be the strongest position in which a marketer can reside. It is no secret that many media buyers are not presently concerned about BT privacy issues, and have no plans to curtail their use of BT until the FTC restricts it – but what will they do when that happens, especially if they have had no prior experience with BT-free alternatives?

Prepared planners may want to consider testing alternatives now in preparation for what the future will hold. Many of them will be pleasantly surprised to see that there is no performance difference between BT and many BT-free alternatives. It is important to note that dynamic response-based optimization combined with premium high-visibility inventory can actually be a far smarter (and superior) approach to BT – a fact that can only be verified through testing.

Am I Suggesting that BT is Bad?

BT is not always bad, and this is by no means what I am suggesting. What I am suggesting is that putting all of your spend into BT alone is bad. It’s risky – the practice may not be around forever. It’s tunnelled – there are qualified buyers and prospects online that BT does not provide access to. And, it’s potentially a barrier to improved performance since using only one tactic offers not point of reference or comparison.

In the Standardless World of “BT” is Transparency the Only Cure?

By Julia Casale-Amorim

As an advertiser, the notion of behavioural targeting sounds exciting…in theory. The allure hasn’t escaped countless big brands, notably the major North American automakers who have been on board for years. But does it really live up to the hype that sale execs are touting? Maybe it’s just a bunch of overly complex mumbo-jumbo that confuses advertisers into thinking it’s something that it’s really not.

For those of you who are familiar with Casale Media, you’ll know that we don’t offer behavioural targeting. Consumer privacy concern is the primary driver for our no-BT position, but second to that is the lack of standards associated with this method of targeting. This doesn’t mean that we can’t sympathize with clients who use the technology, or try to offer them some advice.

The first thing you need to understand about behavioural targeting is that it needs to be current to be of value. I might be in-market for a new car, but chances are that once I’m in buying mode, it’s not going to take me long to make a decision. Personal experience aside, I recently came across some research from TNS Media Intelligence that revealed, “Of new vehicle buyers, 59% researched one month or less before they purchased a vehicle.”

And now for the punch line…behavioural targeting as we know it today relies on historical databases for audience intelligence. REPEAT. Behavioural targeting as we know it today relies on historical databases. And therein lay the biggest flaw with this approach.

Updates to BT data simply can’t keep up with the size of most buyers’ consideration windows. This means that most of the data used to target so called “buyers” is outdated before a campaign is even launched, rending the method useless. Now this may not be the case for all BT vendors, but as an advertiser it is nonetheless important to determine whether your BT vendor is sensitive to this caveat.

There is also no defined mechanism for removing those who have already “bought” from the pool other than applying an “expiry window”.

“Looking for in-market car buyers? Sure, we have those, but we can’t tell you how many already bought the car.”

There is inherent merit to the driving idea behind behavioural targeting, but usage of behavioural targeting with success largely depends on the provider and their practices. The best advice I can offer is to demand transparency over that vendor’s BT methodology.

Here are a few questions to ask:

  • Where does the data come from? How is it collected?
  • How frequently is the data updated?
  • What constitutes a targetable behaviour?
  • How much time must elapse before that user’s “behaviour flag” expires?
  • How much control do you as a buyer have over this process, i.e. can you specific the expiry window (5 days, 14 days, 30 days)?

While transparency alone won’t fill the gap left by the lack of BT standards, it will give media buyers a new means by which to evaluate BT vendors, and with any luck, lead to more success and less frustration.