Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Best behaviour
A view from Andrew Walmsley

Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Best behaviour

LONDON - Understanding the different types of behavioural targeting will help you refine your online strategy.

If I wanted to sell a lawn mower, the traditional approach would be to determine the demographic profile of lawn mowers, and match it with the profile of media brands.

I realise I might be skipping a few steps here, but this is the fundamental process. What we're establishing is a best fit; cutting down the odds of exposing an ad to a committed penthouse-dweller. It's been a fundamental plank of media planning since Noah struck the first contract for transit advertising; but as online continues to evolve, it's starting to look its age.

So a 45- to 54-year-old AB male might be 60% more likely to buy our mower; but how much more likely might someone who has recently searched for gardening tools, or visited a gardening website? That's what drives behavioural targeting (BT), and in its various forms it is becoming a standard tool for online marketing.

Different people mean different things when they discuss BT. This is because there are six basic types, and each operates in a different way.

Adserver BT uses tags on an advertiser's website to track the actions of users. If user A puts a given product into the basket but subsequently abandons the purchase, we can infer interest. Next time they see an ad on a media site, we can elect to display creative designed to reactivate that purchase. If they have made a purchase, we can display copy to cross-sell an accessory.

Often known as retargeting, this technique has become sophisticated, using decision trees with hundreds of potential permutations of creative and even dynamically created ads to address the consumer's specific need-state.

Site-based BT uses systems such as Cognitive Match to configure the landing page to meet the predicted need of that consumer. Information such as location, the site from which the user linked or what they searched for and time of day are combined with known actions from previous site visits to present a version of the page that emphasises products the user has a higher propensity to buy.

Media owner-based BT systems such as Audience Science, used by The Guardian, use similar information gathered on viewers of media sites, coupling it with demographics, location and search data to segment the audience by interest. Crucially, this decouples environment from interest; now advertising to a travel audience can be sold in a gardening environment, substantially expanding the availability of highly demanded audiences by giving access to them in low-demand content.

Networks like Specific Media offer network-based BT by gathering data about behaviour on more than 1m sites and using it to enhance the performance of advertising sold on a few hundred. Armed with this, Specific can effectively arbitrage the media market, 'buying' cheap untargeted inventory and selling highly targeted ads to advertisers on a cost per thousand basis.

ISP-based systems such as Phorm use data gathered at the ISP level to power a media exchange, where buyers can access inventory sold by publishers but enhanced by behavioural targeting. With ISPs strapped for cash, this potentially offers a new revenue line; but one we might have to wait for in the UK since Phorm's withdrawal from the market following privacy concerns.

Lastly, Google uses users' search data to determine which ads to display on its content network. Cleverly, this also scans the page in which the ad is delivered, making the ad potentially relevant to both context and user.

We're still going to see demographics used online, but principally so it can be benchmarked against other media. But just as we sometimes hear the Fahrenheit temperature given on the weather forecast, it's really just for the old folks.

- Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 SECONDS ON ... Privacy Concerns Over Phorm

- Phorm was previously named 121Media. Its ContextPlus advertising engine was the subject of complaints by US and Canadian privacy groups in 2005, which described it as 'spyware'. ContextPlus was withdrawn in 2006 and the following year 121Media became Phorm.

- It signed a deal with UK ISPs including BT, Virgin and TalkTalk to monitor sites visited by their customers and gather data to target advertising. The Webwise system also offered internet users protection by flagging phishing websites.

- BT was criticised for trialling the system without first informing consumers and last year it decided not to roll it out across its service.

- In 2008, the European Commission wrote to the UK government raising concerns that Phorm was in breach of EU consumer protection laws. Unhappy with the response, the Commission referred the matter to the European Court of Justice.

- Prominent critics of Phorm include worldwide web creator Tim Berners-Lee.