Hypebusters: Audience Targeting is Overrated

Everyone thinks audience targeting is the new black. But it’s really becoming so 15 minutes ago. It promises what every advertiser dreams of: deliver perfect messages to perfect audiences at the perfect time in the perfect environment. The problem is this is wishful thinking.

On the upside, targeting has gotten better over time. But it still has a ways to go. Audience targeting looks at past behavior to determine what a user might be interested in today. It was never designed to be a standalone methodology. It came about because there wasn’t enough contextually relevant inventory to feed demand. So we started chasing people based on their “profile,” which was generated by their searches and other characteristics associated with them. We then followed these poor users, or rather their cookie, to the ends of the Web and back, with little regard for context or even the quality of content being consumed. We got clever and called this “behavioral.” And, lest we stop there, if someone ever visited my site, I tagged them with a cookie and followed them all over the Web too. We all know this as the now-ubiquitous “retargeting,” which is really what most audience targeting is these days. Publishers realized that this was a great way to turn “generic” inventory into something that worked more like good contextual. Advertisers realized that this was a great way to increase the volume of a media buy and reach more users.
The problem is that you can’t scale to the volumes advertisers want. In fact, 95 percent of the agencies I talk to tell me they can’t find enough inventory to fulfill on the their clients’ campaign budgets. I frequently hear this from vendors as well. Between cookie deletion and cookie expiration, the pool diminishes even more when we’re talking about retargeting. And audience targeting really loses sight of what kind of an impact this can have on a brand. Since most audience targeting companies don’t have the technology to ensure 100 percent brand safety, mismatches between content and a brand happen. A lot.
How do you think Starwood Hotels feels about this? Do they really want to be advertising on a site that features explicit adult content? Plus, and this will probably shock most in ad tech, users don’t like being followed. In a recent TRUSTe study, only 11 percent of respondents said they were comfortable with online behavioral tracking, a number that should scare the pants off of pure audience targeters.
And, thanks to our friends in D.C., several pieces of privacy legislation are floating around Congress in various states of review. Although we don’t yet know how stringent any final legislation will be, everyone who uses cookies to track people better be working on their back-up plan (fortunately for us, we’ve got one). Even the browser guys know that people don’t like to be followed. They have a do-not-follow as a feature of their installations.
Marketers want to reach the right audience at the right time, and most want to do it in a relevant, brand-safe environment. Even though I just spent a bunch of time bashing audience targeting, it doesn’t totally suck. In fact, in some instances, like finding the right audience, it’s pretty darn good. But when you look at other factors like right time and brand safety, it’s really a mixed bag. Finding the right audience gets a good, solid B+. Some media players have developed good models and technology to deliver on the promise, but a lot of them are doing spray-and-pray retargeting.
How about right time? Almost by definition, audience targeting is targeting me after I’ve moved past the session/search where my intent or affinity for a particular product was detected. Am I still in the funnel or have I left it? Even if I am, is the ad being shown to me at the most relevant time? If I’m at work doing work-related research, I don’t have the time or the inclination to go chase that vacation package the ad is offering me. Or worse yet, I already booked my vacation, yet I keep getting ads. Leave me alone already! I bet every one of you has been retargeted for a purchase you already made. So a B. And, that’s being generous.
And when it comes to a brand-safe, quality environment, audience targeting gets a big FAIL. At my company, we’re constantly looking for and filtering sensitive pages, and it’s unbelievable how often we see ads from top brands finding their way to sites with questionable if not downright unacceptable content.
The bottom line is that audience targeting has a role to play, but it clearly cannot stand on its own. Marketers will wise up to its benefits and limitations. They’ll start to find better quality inventory on exchanges. And as privacy concerns start weighing upon decisions, the industry will adopt a more well-rounded targeting approach requiring “hybrid” models that combine both audience and contextual.
In the real world, audience targeting, including behavioral and search retargeting, will increasingly get overlaid with accurate contextual to ensure brand safety and relevance. Smart advertisers, who want to reach target audiences, in real time, consuming content that best expresses their “intent,” will overlay this strong contextual signal with the demographic or psychographic characteristics of a particular site’s audience.
As these technologies continue to mature, the goal of reaching the right users in a contextually relevant mindset at the time the ad is being served looks increasingly achievable.
John Mracek is CEO of NetSeer, a contextual ad-targeting firm. Follow him @mracek.

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