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
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
"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
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,
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