NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON VIBRANT MEDIA - Using rules of print to develop an intelligent targeting model. Is Vibrant's new technology a leap forward in targeting online? Alasdair Reid asks

Have you ever had a recommendation from Amazon? Was it remotely

relevant? Amazon is one of the best (if not the best) e-commerce sites

around, and if it has faults then you'll find the same faults magnified

a hundredfold elsewhere.



No-one said that the art of pigeon-holing was going to be easy. However,

targeting is one of the remaining great white hopes of the digital

business - whether it's the use of data capture to bombard your customer

base with e-mail messages or the tailoring of content (editorial and

advertising content) to the interests of each particular user.



So it has to be good news when someone develops a new angle on this -

and what's more, makes it work. Like, for instance, Vibrant Media, which

launched an intelligent media targeting system back in the spring. It is

basically a syndicated editorial content distribution service - if a

site owner wants, for example, to beef up its information technology

news provision, Vibrant will supply it articles from third parties.



This content is, of course, also a conduit for advertising. And - here's

the really clever bit - it's not advertising served on a random basis,

or even on a broad brush targeting basis. It's advertising directly

relevant to this content and to the mindset of the user. For example,

if, from reading behaviour, it is obvious that the user is interested in

outsourcing their IT department, then there is appropriate advertising

to place before them at that point.



The analysis of the user's mindset is conducted instantly (the Vibrant

software cross-references the subject matter of thousands of articles)

and the advertising content is also married to it instantly. Vibrant

launched with modest aspirations to supply technology news to small site

operators - but its business model attracted approval from industry

observers.



Last week, Vibrant released its first results - and they're not half

bad. The average click-through rate on the campaigns that have run so

far is 1.2 per cent.



That might not sound like much, but actually it's impressive. The

industry average has been declining steadily throughout the short

history of the online advertising sector. Currently, the average click-

through rate in the business- to-business sector wavers between 0.1 per

cent and 0.2 per cent.



Craig Gooding, Vibrant's chief commercial officer, says: "We've always

believed that if it's in the wrong environment, then it doesn't matter

how good the ad is. Our analogy is with print. Everyone knows about

using a right-hand page facing relevant matter. What we've done is offer

that on a huge scale. And if you can do it automatically, then you stand

a chance of success."



But let's not get carried away here. We're surely talking about a system

that's only appropriate for the online equivalent of the trade press -

and only a limited segment of the trade press at that?



Gooding points out that Vibrant has expansion plans. It is moving into

other areas of content provision - a deal with the Press Association is

imminent and it is looking broadly at business and finance news - and is

to launch in the US.



So is the model worth pursuing? Some advise caution. While praising

Vibrant for "buttoning down" this targeting technology, Charlie Dobres,

the chief executive of i-Level, says that it shouldn't be seen as any

form of panacea.



"Selling in content on a personalised model isn't new, neither is the

idea of serving relevant messages in a relevant environment," Dobres

says.



"You can use personalised cookies to serve something appropriate to the

stage of purchase intent that they're at. You can say 'you almost bought

last time, how can we help you to go ahead this time?' We can serve them

the appropriate message. Linking it and tailoring it to content is

interesting but it has limited applications."



But the biggest danger of all, Dobres insists, is believing that online

media targeting can be truly automated. It can never replace the

"cutting piece of insight that only people can deliver".



He adds: "Technology is useful when it improves the flow of new ideas

and frees up the time of planners and buyers to do what they are best

at. People skills are of paramount importance and I'd have to say that

the industry as a whole is not making great leaps forward in this area.

The industry has been suffering a net loss of intelligence."



Could that sort of emphasis explain why there seem to be so few

innovative uses of technology in the personalisation of online

commercial messages? Are we in danger of underestimating what Vibrant is

doing?



Gooding admits he has been surprised at the apparent conservatism of the

business. He states: "The challenge across the whole of the online

sector is making it work. It's as basic as that. The goldrush mentality

that characterised the early years of this industry actually stifled

creativity - creativity in the broadest sense. Now they have to change.

For instance, in the beginning some of the agencies we talked to had

problems understanding the approach we were offering. In the early days

they were still using executions that were too generic."



Hang on a minute though. Vibrant's apparent success story is based on

click-through rates. Who cares about click-through rates these days? It

is response that matters.



Perhaps, Eamonn Store, the client services director of Profero,

agrees.



He says: "Of course Vibrant is doing what it's doing against a

specialist client base and audience. But I'm not sure that's the point.

Click-through isn't the point either. The point is that Vibrant is

working to provide something that's more targeted and relevant and that

has to be a good thing for the business. It adds yet another string to

our bow."



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