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August 17, 2010

The Behavioral Targeting Promise Land?

If you were to put together a list of irritating and annoying everyday occurrences, those dinnertime phone calls about getting your ducts cleaned or your windows and doors replaced would be high on the list, followed closely by email spam, and television commercials that seem to be twice as loud as the program and repeated ‘ad infinitum.’

Would You Like Some Behavioral Targeting With Your Duct Cleaning?

My own special hell includes all those newsletters, reports, and white papers touting statistical analysis aimed at directing advertisers to the behavioral targeting promise land. Behavioral targeting refers to the practice of collecting data (that’s data not information) about how people behave. That data is then used to display advertisements that are supposed to be of value to individuals who have shown an interest in that subject matter. From an advertiser’s point-of-view it seems like a very promising tactic for increasing the effectiveness of what otherwise would be a shotgun approach, and I would hazard a guess that at its most sophisticated (as in expensive) it may actually work. On the other hand, if it’s not done properly, it can lead to silly if not downright unfortunate marketing gaffes. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see how this approach in the wrong hands or set to autopilot by some backroom programmers could go terribly wrong.

And then there is the whole issue of privacy. It appears that the Federal Trade Commission in the US is considering a do-not-track browser plug-in that would allow people to opt-out of this hidden form of data collection, something that some fear is the slippery slope to an invasion of privacy.

What Does Behavior Really Tell Us?

To my mind the issue is far more clear-cut and avoids the whole moral dilemma issue; is behavioral targeting really valid if it doesn’t track motivation? Tracking what you do is not the same as tracking why you do it. And if we don’t consider the ‘why’ of someone’s actions, is that data really valid, and is the money spent on collecting, analyzing, and acting on it worth the expense?

It seems to be just another example of how we as responsible business owners and executives want to rationalize what is essentially an emotional and psychological aspect of human nature – we are motivated for the most part by emotion as much as we want to believe otherwise. And it is emotion that drives purchase decisions and sales.

It’s A Jungle Out There

The notion of the Internet as an information highway is a canard, it is more like an information jungle, a place with no predefined paths to follow, but rather a mysterious dense wilderness in which Web-travelers must meander their way around dead-ends and false starts while avoiding numerous dangers in order to discover something of value, and that is what makes the Web so damn powerful.

Efforts to make the Web a cut-to-the-chase environment, miss the point of what ultimately makes the Web so attractive to people. It’s not just finding what you set out to find, but rather discovering all the wonderful information, knowledge, companies, and yes even products and services that you would have never known about without the Web’s most powerful feature – serendipity. Remove that aspect of the Web with so called statistical targeting and we might as well go back to the days when we looked for things in the Yellow Pages.

Turning over the Web to behavioral targeting tactics means turning the Web over to Wal-Mart and their ilk, leaving small and medium-sized companies behind. If people wanted to be inundated with pitches and promotions from major advertisers all they have to do is turn on their televisions. The Web’s success has been that it is an alternative; that it’s open and free for all comers, both big and small. It is the democratization of marketing, and it’s not in your interests to mess it up. It may be sloppy, confusing, and occasionally frustrating, but it

So What Does This Mean To You

If network television is for the marketing big boys with deep pockets, the Web is for the rest of us. It provides an even playing field as long as you don’t allow it to be taken over by mega corporations who will outbid you for ad space and takeover search results. So how do you fight the good fight, how do you help your company succeed and at the same time practice a little marketing ‘rope-a-dope?’ The answer is properly constructed website content, content that matters, content that has impact, and not just a recycled PowerPoint slideshow, or PDF catalog, or even a video filled with platitudes.

You can use every trick in the book to attract people to your website in order to sell them something, but if once they get there the experience is lame or the content is confusing then you’ve wasted your money. It’s always nice to attract more people to your site and no one would argue against spending money to do it, but if once people arrive they find it confusing, irritating, ugly, non-functional, or boring then you’ve lost them forever. If you are not getting the conversions you need then it’s time to rethink how you’re spending your marketing dollars. If your website isn’t an experience, if it’s not informative, entertaining, and memorable, you can be assured all those visitors you paid to attract will be on their way to the next stop on their journey.

Jerry Bader is Senior Partner at MRPwebmedia, a website design and marketing firm that specializes in Web-video Marketing Campaigns and Video Websites. Visit,, and Contact at or telephone (905) 764-1246.