Real Behavioral Targeting Focuses on Intent

ArrowsDave Morgan of Tacoda has an insightful essay “When Will We Deliver the Promise” that addresses a question asked to him by WSJ technology writer Walter Mossberg: when will online advertising deliver on the promise of right ad, right, customer, right time? The question is great one. However, I’m afraid the folks in display media will never have the answer. There is a fundamental issue at play here. As Morgan himself alludes to, people generally ignore display ads. This is evident by the minuscule click through rates that hover at less than one half of one percent. Conversion rates off these clicks are not much better. To Morgan’s credit he concludes his post with some salient points about the irrelevancy of display ads.

That’s not to say display is a worthless endeavor. It is clear that display can create awareness that in-turn creates intent. Ideally BT will create even more awareness and intent. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Tacoda positions itself as a branding platform for these are the goals of brand building. Nor am I trying to knock Tacoda or display BT. I’m sure they do what they do quite well. They just will never deliver the promise Mossberg is looking for. This is because Display Behavioral Targeting (can I call it DBT? I originally tried to differentiate SBT back in September) has two fundamental targeting flaws. First, it creates segments and targets based on previous behavior. Second, it segements and targets within a confined network or even worse, a downloaded application.

Laser_beam_1As anyone who has observed user behavior knows, users go about their online activities with a laser focus. The holy troika of message, place and time can only be delivered consistently in an intent and goal driven platform that serves this focus. So, while everyone is looking at BT networks the real progress is being made by those that were born, live and die with relevance; Google, Yahoo and MSN. Not only are they are working on this across search but also across display and cross-media.

Consider these search engines the new wave of publishers (as many publishers rightfully do and as I’ll get to in a future post). Their primary concern is delivering relevant content and they realize that the more they do this the better they can monetize each query (or page view). On the advertiser side, AdWords, AdCenter, and Panama have been built from the ground up to match the message with the right user at the right time.

The fact that publishers get way more page views than search engines has been one propped up by the BT networks. This is misleading. Search engines get way more users. As Marissa Meyer of Google accurately points out, the goal of the search engine (at least Google) is the get the user off of it as quickly as possible. This by-the-way serves as a good goal for any homepage too..but I digress.

The real power to behaviorally target comes when these content and publisher tools are coupled with marketing tools to deliver relevance. Targeting based not only previous behavior (keyword) and pre-defined segments (AdGroups, content vs. search) but dynamically in real-time based on session behavior (click-stream) and source (major SE, vertical SE, comparison SE, etc.). This strategy delivers right message, place and time far better than display. Display to its credit is trying to incorporate real-time segmentation as Phil Leggiere touched on this in a recent interview but again, users ignore display ads. No matter what they do I don’t think display will ever attain the key attribute for any successful performance-marketing platform, perceived relevance in the mind of the user.

Let’s look at the major source and behavior segments where we can gather intent or sniff the scent (as Gord Hotchkiss likes to refer to it). Keep in mind there are sub-segments in each segment:


• Time of Day / Week / Season

• First Query / Subsequent Query

• First Visit / Subsequent Visit

• First Source / Second Source

• Customer or Registered / Non Customer or Registered

• Pre-Click Actions / Post Click Actions


• Geo

• Paid Search

• Organic Search

• Display

• Referrer URL

• Affiliate

• Email

Intent can be gleaned from source or behavior or a mix of the two. To be effective, targeting content to match intent needs to be delivered in real-time. This is not a much different idea than making dynamic landing pages relevant to your AdGroups but this concept can span across search, through display, into source and finally with engagement. Think about your click-stream. It is a map of engagements. How did you get to this post? Was it from search, RSS, another blog? Where were you before you got here? Where are you going when you leave? These are the basic questions used to determine intent and deliver contextual relevance.

The Promise Mossberg identifies is delivered when publishers focus on delivering relevant content and when advertisers focus on is delivering contextually relevant messages. Therefore, we can boil “real” behavioral targeting down to this: optimizing the delivery of content and optimizing the presentation of messages. This is not the same as optimizing the delivery of advertisements to users. This is also what makes the rise of social media so intriguing to publishers and advertisers. There is a real opportunity in memes, feeds and UGC that in effect auto-optimize both ends of this spectrum.

Fittingly, the rise of new content distribution and consumption patterns helps crystallize that the promise can truly only be delivered when marketers stop thinking of digital advertising in the traditional form and start to look at it as a truly new medium with distribution patterns and powers that render traditional ad techniques useful in creating intent, not delivering to it. Target Marketers need to put aside focusing on persuasion and generating attention and rather focus on helping consumers and delivering relevant experiences. There is a real place in this for brand as well as DM. In fact I’d argue there is no better place. It’s a place where that right time, right message promise is being delivered… as you read this.

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