With many high-profile cases of behavioural targeting going awry, too many digital advertisers are seeing behavioural targeting as the be all and end all of their campaigns. 

As the latest IPA Bellweather figures have shown, ad spend continues to increase but as digital marketing leads the way to recovery, there has been a lot of talk in the industry recently on the effectiveness of behavioural targeting.

While many of the industry champion it, many consumers are still inherently suspicious of the notion of behavioural targeting and the tracking technologies implicit within this process.

Whilst behavioural targeting can of course be very engaging when executed well, behavioural and contextual ad serving software has not actually solved the problem of ‘relevance’ on a regular enough basis. Consumer reticence arises when irrelevant or seemingly intrusive adverts are served to a user based on a mistaken judgement of a consumer’s online preferences.

Take the recent example of Marks and Spencer advertising champagne to a nine year old girl on a children’s’ games website after her mother had bought wine online. This type of mis-targeting can do more damage than good to a brand’s reputation. 

Despite what some highly vocal advertisers seem to believe, behavioural targeting is not the solution to every online advertising problem. Independent YouGov Research has shown that targeted adverts on niche websites are much more likely to receive a better response rate than adverts on generic websites, portals and search engines – regardless of whether the adverts on the major sites are adjusted for behavioural targeting.

The reason for this is simple; consumers become attached and are much more engaged with niche websites dedicated to their specialist interests. Users are more trusting of these sites and continue to visit the same sites over and again because they find them relevant, useful and enjoyable.

Relevant products advertised on these specialist sites are seen as having the endorsement of the niche sites themselves and the adverts are thus much more effective and likely to garner real results.

Despite this fact that the majority of engaged web use takes place on niche websites, the majority of online ad spend is still focused on the top percent of web sites with the highest reach – so the likes of Yahoo, MSN and Facebook to name a few.

Too often online ad campaigns are viewed in terms of numbers rather than in the context of wider marketing goals – the classic case of reach over relevance. This has contributed to high profile examples of misplacement and misjudgement with brands wasting huge ad spend on less effective campaigns.

The lesson is clear:  brands need to be aware that behavioural targeting is not enough. Ads need to be intelligently matched with niche content, reaching a genuinely responsive market segment, likely to elict genuine interest and the desire to purchase a product.

Harvey Sarjant

Published 12 March, 2010 by Harvey Sarjant

Harvey Sarjant is managing partner at Addvantage Media and a guest blogger at Econsultancy.

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