Going Batty for Behavioral Targeting: It’s All the Rage, But is it for Real?


Step into an interactive agency these days and you’ll undoubtedly fall over people spouting off about the wondrous powers of behavioral targeting. That is, if you manage to dodge the crowd still going on and on about search marketing (sorry guys, that is so last year). No, 2006 it seems, is the year of behavioral targeting.

Most will probably tell you that no marketing campaign is complete without it. They’ll talk to you about how the benefits of audience targeting are surpassed only by those of retargeting. Then, they may go into how it all works. And before you know it, you’ll have forgotten why you visited the agency in the first place. (Why did you anyway?)

Despite the buzz however, behavioral targeting is still relatively new to the marketing world. Stand it up next to tactics such as search, email and affiliate marketing and behavioral targeting is still in its relative infancy. So, no matter how loud the buzz gets, it should remain, for now at least, just buzz. Let the ad people talk about new and innovative ideas. Fact is, there are as many sizeable challenges as benefits to behavioral targeting that make its future promising but precarious.

Take the Internet, for instance. Consumer-generated content has created vast amounts of inventory for advertisers, much of which provides opportunities for behavioral targeting, honing in on the most desirable customers in less expensive and less competitive environments. But, this real estate has its pitfalls. As niche sites like Blogs and forums continue to emerge, there is less predictability about the kind of information that will surround those ads. Too often, personalized content can transform into brand slander. It’s the kind of bad publicity that spreads like wildfire on the Web and marketers can do little to control it, let alone stop it.

The same unpredictability can be said about a variety of mediums, including television, radio, and wireless communication devices.

Ironically, traditional mediums have suffered as much as they’ve benefited from the evolution of behavioral targeting. Ad placement requests have become so specific that most agencies just aren’t capable of handling them. In fact, many media departments simply end up buying big number programming with a broad demographic, effectively eliminating the in-depth customer segmentation they started with.

Mobile marketing has also presented challenges. Over 20 million people today are communicating via cell phones, and until recently marketers have overlooked the small screen for more “proven” advertising opportunities. Only in recent months have marketers searched for ways to effectively target this growing audience. Mobile devices above all else are personal, so they lend themselves naturally to the most personalized approaches to marketing and targeting. But they also present issues of privacy, as the line separating SPAM and personalization is thin and easily crossed. In the case of wireless communication, behavioral targeting could facilitate a long term brand-customer relationship, or possibly back fire, all in an instant (message, that is).

True, behavioral targeting allows brands, large and small alike, to speak to and interact with highly targeted customer segments. But how will those customers react? It’s a question that makes marketers nervous and the future a bit murky.

But behavioral targeting is worth talking about in agency lobbies because it will one day undoubtedly evolve into an indispensable, irreplaceable tool. The question is, when? It’s hard to say. More than simply targeting specific consumers, we can begin to provide them with valuable information, content, and products, and services that they want and maybe even need.


– Leggiere, Phil, BT: Leveling the Playing Field, Media Post Publications, March 2006.
– Williamson, Debra Aho, eMarketer White Paper, September 2004.


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