I recently had lunch with Iggy Fanlo, CEO of Adbrite. He is one of the most thoughtful people I know in the online ad business and I always enjoy our conversations. He related to me how he sees ad targeting falling into four flavors:
He noted that the first two of these, geographic and demographic, are black and white, and focused on the user. You are in one and only one location. You have one and only one gender, age or income. In each of these cases, the key is to gather a broad dataset with which to target. As a result, the largest sites and networks, with the largest datasets, will tend to be best at these flavors of targeting.
Contextual targeting is also black and white, but it is not user centric. Rather it is focused on the page. You are looking at a page that is about some topic. Search is the easiest case, where the user tells you what the page is about. Vertical ad networks with endemic advertisers are also pretty easy to contextually target because they only include sites within their desired topic. But the general case is much harder. Now the winner isn’t necessarily the one with the largest dataset of users, but rather the one with the best algorithm for figuring out what the page is about.
Behavioral targeting is not black and white, but rather shades of gray. Furthermore, it is both user centric AND page centric because behavioral targeting is the accumulated sum of historical contextual targeting. It is based not on what page you’re looking at now, but rather on what pages you’ve looked at in the past.
In this case there are advantages to both having more information about users past behavior, AND better algorithms. In it’s simplest form, retargeting, a web user who had visited Ford.com in the past will be shown Ford banner ads while on other sites. But ad fatigue limits the frequency with which one can retarget based on a single datapoint. Good behavioral targeting systems need good historical data as well as good algorithms to best manage the portfolio of advertising opportunities to a single user. Companies are using many different sources of historical data, including search history, looking for a user on the ad network, watching a user at the ISP level and even watching offline behavior.
AdBrite recently launched an Open Targeting Exchange where it will let any company with a targeting algorithm bid to be used to target ads across their network. It is a very interesting idea, and I’ll certainly be watching closely to see how it works for them.