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What is Behavioral Targeting?

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Behavioral Targeting is the ability to deliver ads to consumers based upon their recent behavior viewing web pages, shopping online for products and services, typing keywords into a search engine or a combination of all three. “Interest-Based Targeting allows large-brand advertisers… to target more precisely the audience they are trying to reach with the message they are trying to convey,” said Randy Kilgore, vice president of advertising, The Wall Street Journal Online. A recent white paper (requires registration) out of the Wall Street Journal Online and eMarketer discusses this recent phenomenon in terms of what it might mean for today’s business to adopt such an approach to advertising.


Behavioral targeting has been around, in various forms, since the late 1990s. Previous attempts failed due to problems with privacy and technology, but this generation of software appears more robust, and marketers seem more accepting. Today’s behavioral targeting can be done on individual Web sites, on networks and via adware applications. While behavioral targeting will certainly be a part of a smart marketer’s online arsenal, issues of privacy, data sharing and implementation will keep it from becoming a dominant form of advertising in the way paid search has become. However, behavioral targeting offers a compelling benefit to marketers: the ability to deliver relevant branding messages to a highly targeted audience.


“The basic premise behind behavioral targeting is that what’s important for online advertising is not necessarily a page of content or a section of a Web site, but the actual person who is viewing and interacting with that content. Seen in that light, behavioral targeting could presage a shift in the online advertising, paradigm — away from the notion of buying “pages” and instead toward the idea of reaching “people”. Instead of buying ads that would appear adjacent to certain content, ads would instead appear only to someone who has demonstrated, through previous actions, that they are potentially interested. The end result, theoretically, would be a perfect economy, where no ad is wasted.”

“Earlier this year, Snapple ran an ad campaign on the iVillage Web site that tested behavioral targeting. The beverage company wanted to pitch its Snapple-a-Day meal-replacement drink to women who care about health and exercise. Using technology from Tacoda, iVillage pinpointed users who visited its Diet & Fitness channel three times within the past 45 days. Then, no matter where within the iVillage site these targeted visitors surfed, they were shown the Snapple-a-Day ads. By comparing those targeted visitors with a control group that saw the same Snapple-a-Day ads only on the Diet & Fitness channel, researcher Dynamic Logic found that the run of site behavioral targeting ads increased brand metrics across the board. For example, the behavioral targeting ads increased ad awareness by 51%, while content targeting resulted in only a 33% boost.”

“One behavioral targeting campaign, from American Airlines on the Wall Street Journal site, tracked readers of WSJ.com’s travel columns and features. Since the “one flight-a-year site visitor was the airline’s target,” as reported in Advertising Age, the “rich media, large-format ads, which featured testimonials from customers” were served across the site to those visitors who “spent time eyeballing a travel article on one occasion.” In this case, “Revenue Science made an educated guess that that person traveled once a year on business.” This example indicates how behavioral targeting may be used to pinpoint a group within a group. In this case, the American Airlines campaign narrowed the funnel not just to identify anyone reading travel articles—after all, visitors who read that section frequently might well be frequent travelers—but to the once-a-year business traveler. The campaign showed that audience composition was improved with behavioral targeting. Against especially high-frequency business travelers, audience composition increased 145%, according to Revenue Science. Brand metrics showed improvement, and in some cases, message association for targeted business travelers increased as much as 218%.”

“All the players involved in behavioral targeting take great pains to stress that they do not collect personally identifiable information (PII) in order to deliver advertising. This is one important distinction from some of the targeting systems of the past. However, behavioral targeting still inhabits some rather gray territory when it comes to consumer knowledge and acceptance.”


Debra Aho Williamson is the senior analyst for the eMarketer research firm.


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