All advertising is targeted, more or less effectively. Not for nothing does the media industry spend billions on research showing who reads each section of each newspaper, what sorts of people read which magazines, the traffic count past each poster site, and the second-by-second patterns of audience ebb and flow across a commercial break.
So it has been a rather neat trick for sections of the digital media industry to sell themselves so consistently on the assertion that they offer "targeted advertising". Once you have managed to harness important parts of the language to your cause, you are halfway not only to controlling the agenda, but of owning minds.
In turn, it is now gloriously ironic to find broadcasters beginning to buy into the language of the enemy - but then this is also a measure of the extent to which TV aspires to be regarded as an online medium. Take last week's speculation about Project Kangaroo, a video-on-demand portal offering access to the archives of ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC, due to launch this summer (by which time a more accessible, consumer-facing brand name will have been chosen).
Although a joint venture of sorts, the individual participants have determined to sell their own airtime - or the online television equivalent of airtime. In most instances, we are talking about a pre-roll commercial that you will have to watch before the programme you have selected.
Last week, Channel 4 revealed that its Kangaroo advertising, around shows which have already been a hit online (such as Skins and Shameless), will be "targeted". Or behaviourally targeted, to be precise. Viewers who wish to access the service will first have to fill out a registration form, divulging all sorts of personal details. Then, each time they visit, they will be served only with ads appropriate to their age, demographic profile and interests. ITV and the BBC are likely to follow suit; indeed, ITV says it is already doing this to a limited extent on ITV.com.
Nothing all that revolutionary here, you might argue: that is what online advertising has been all about for years. But, its proponents argue, it involves a step-change in that new levels of tracking could be involved. Once you are captured on the system, it is possible to build a sophisticated picture of your online behaviour and ally this to all sorts of lifestyle pointers volunteered in online forms and the social networking sites you frequent.
It could be a potent mix, and with digital convergence at last becoming a reality (soon, we'll all be watching most of our TV over the internet on an on-demand basis), this could utterly change the way the TV medium is bought and sold.
1. Channel 4's announcement regarding Project Kangaroo is merely the latest attempt by broadcasters to steal some of the rhetoric being developed by social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Bebo. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, Travis Katz, the senior vice-president of MySpace, announced plans to take behavioural targeting further than ever before in the UK by using the personal details that users have made publicly available on their pages. Such "hyper-targeting" has already been tested, with variable results, by MySpace in the US.
2. Behavioural targeting is not without its problems. Last year, Facebook introduced a system called Beacon that published details of members' internet usage patterns and online purchases. Many users were outraged and began a group (somewhat feebly, on Facebook itself) called "Facebook: Stop Invading My Privacy". Within weeks, this group had attracted more than 80,000 members, prompting Facebook to make it easier to opt out of Beacon.
3. New forms of targeting and delivery are also on the agenda where more conventional TV platforms are concerned. Back in November 2006, James Murdoch, the then chief executive of BSkyB, announced that the company was developing a system called Smart TV. This will use spare capacity on a household's Sky+ box to upload ads deemed appropriate to the demographic profile of the household. During ad breaks (any break on any channel), Smart TV cuts in and runs these stored commercials in sequence, overriding ads running in the conventional broadcast stream.
It is understood that Sky will launch the system when a sufficiently attractive percentage of UK households have become Sky+ subscribers.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- Depending on your particular philosophical bent, it is possible to advance cases both for and against behavioural targeting as a genuine step change in accuracy and advertising potency. After all, as always, past behaviour is no guarantee of future conduct, and the bravest advertisers often feel it important to target people who don't (yet) use, or feel affection for, their products.
- More importantly, however, there are major doubts about whether techniques derived from standard internet sites (and their relatively static content) are going to be relevant to the online TV world.
- The comparative failure of interactive television (accessed via the red button on digital satellite, for instance) has tended to prove that viewers are reluctant to break out of the broadcast stream. People do not tend to watch television to research potential purchases, so the concept of "click through" -which has historically underpinned the notion of targeting online - becomes less relevant.
- This is a great opportunity for the sales teams of the major commercial broadcasters - not always noted for their determination to embrace innovation - to prove they are with it. But they should perhaps refrain from temptations to forget the day job. Channel 4, for instance, might care to remind us whether or not the commercials running in its old-fashioned ad breaks are "targeted".