Behavioral targeting is a bell that can’t be unrung

We can't unring the bellA piece in Advertising Age last week bemoaned the position that media company websites find themselves in after years of catering to the easy money offered by third-party ad networks. It’s all about behavioral targeting and how ad networks steal user data from publishers through cookies that are placed on users’ computers, allowing the networks to target them wherever they show up across their networks. In a nutshell, the practice means advertisers don’t need to continually place car ads, for example, in the sports section of a TV station website to reach men, because they can follow the individual IP addresses of the users who’ve previously visited that section, regardless of where those people happen to be across the ad network.

You want people who are interested in sports? You don’t need to serve ads in a sports environment anymore. This is destroying the concept of mass — even contextual mass — that mass media has exploited since the beginning. The article rightly notes that web advertising is all about the data.

In the offline world, publishers market their own subscriber lists. But online that data is harvested by a host of third parties such as Google’s DoubleClick, Microsoft’s Atlas and vast ad networks such as Platform A’s “People are stealing from the media companies who have lost control of their data,” said Operative CEO Mike Leo. “It doesn’t make sense to me that the people creating these valuable audiences aren’t getting paid for it.”

Before going any further, let’s get this out of the way: The problem that media companies are just waking up to is that we have given away this user data without remuneration, because we were too preoccupied to investigate what was really taking place in the back end of the Web. Media folks are front end people. We look at the finished product, but the Web is all about the back end. This has to change, folks, or we’ll just continue to get hammered by people who know what it’s all about.

In March of last year, ESPN led a small publisher revolt against this issue by announcing they would no longer take ads from third-party providers. Here’s a part of what I wrote about it in our March 11, 2008 newsletter:

This is a very big deal for all media companies for two reasons. One, a publisher revolt will be necessary to seize control of inventory and establish rates publishers can live with. As long as websites are slaves to ad networks, the full value of each will never be realized. And as long as we’re slaves to the metrics of these networks, the longer we’ll wrongly believe that more content equals more revenue.

ESPN is saying it doesn’t want to be a part of going down that road anymore.

But the second issue is an even bigger matter. ESPN is noting that ad networks gain valuable data from them, insight on ESPN’s users that the networks then sell as a part of behavioral targeting models. An ad network “tags” each ESPN user with information on what sections of the site each user visits, and that data is stored in user profiles based on IP addresses. The ad network can then serve those people sports or male-related ads, regardless of where they are on the network. ESPN is saying, “that value belongs to us, not you,” and it threatens to blow a hole in the whole behavioral ad network concept.

So you see, folks: this is not just a little spat over CPM rates offered by ad networks or fears about the commodification of online advertising. The dispute strikes at the heart of the Madison Avenue model of dealing with the Web.

The AdAge piece points out the futility of trying to unring this particular bell.

As marketing dollars tighten, online publishers’ greatest asset is their branded environments, which, they argue, have intrinsically more value for an advertiser than anything a portal or a network could provide…

“People either believe in context or they don’t,” said Sarah Chubb, president of CondeNet. “Is it the person or the behavior or the context? We think the most powerful thing is the relationship we have with the consumer.”

But while that argument might work for some, it won’t be enough for some sectors. Take news, for example, where the biggest news sites,, MSNBC and, have to compete with portals that create no news content of their own, such as Yahoo News, AOL News, Google News and even Huffington Post and the Drudge Report.

Is a “business decision maker” targeted on the New York Times’ website more valuable than a user of Yahoo News? Maybe. But it’s also true that the ability to target a “business decision maker” — or even a regular reader of the Times — on Yahoo will subtract available ad revenue from the Times.

The Web isn’t TV and the Web isn’t a newspaper. It’s a whole different animal, and one that’s loaded with revenue potential for companies with sales feet on the street. Behavioral advertising isn’t the enemy; it’s the way of the future, but media companies can’t create the scale necessary for it to “work,” by insisting that the only ad infrastructure of value exists on our own websites. We simply must begin serving advertising elsewhere within the Local Web.

Moreover, the form of behavioral targeting that has the greatest value is called “retargeting,” where advertisers are able to “find” people who’ve previously visited their websites. This is an opportunity waiting to be exploited at the local level, and the only question is who will do it?

It makes no sense to try and unring behavioral targeting’s bell, for it tolls the sound of opportunity. If you make one resolution for 2009, let it be to learn how the back end of the Web works. Then go get your own bell and let its sound echo throughout the business community that you serve.


  1. “People either believe in context or they don’t,” said Sarah Chubb, president of CondeNet. “Is it the person or the behavior or the context?

    So suppose on the web the person+behavior = context. Since you can’t “know” the person, the next best thing is the behavior. NOT the website. In Print it might be a different story.

    Meanwhile, wouldn’t it make sense for a well branded magazine do the analytics and sell actionable intelligence to their advertisers as part of the advertising buy?

  2. “Moreover, the form of behavioral targeting that has the greatest value is called “retargeting,” where advertisers are able to “find” people who’ve previously visited their websites.”

    Retargeting, the most basic form of BT, does provide great value, and great results. A well planned and executed retargeting campaign can provide an ROI that rivals those of paid search.

    One of the coolest things about Retargeting is that any website can benefit from it — from the mom and pops to the fortune 500 sites. Over the coming years, as BT grows and marketers begin to invest more heavily in online efforts that can be supported by analytics, retargeting will become more commonplace. Def worth marketers taking time to research and try for themselves.

  3. Meanwhile, the single user or small business can learn alot from something as simple as StatCounter or a similar utility attached to a blog. It’s amazing how much you can learn from your viewers just by knowing when the arrive, where they come from and how long they stay.

    To be real, the internet is mostly viewers not readers. (Pretty much like everything else.) But when a viewer, 0 seconds, turns into a reader, 10–40 seconds, it’s not a bad indication that you’ve said something that someone thinks is worth spending some micro-time on. That information subtly affects your focus. And hopefully improves the your output.

    Given that you can label and IP address, you can track whether that 40 seconds turns into a minute or more, you can experiment with different stories, different information until you see that you’re lucky enough to be on to something that sticks, at least for someone.


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