Targeting:Finding the Guardrails

At last week's ad:tech conference in New York, I sat in on a fascinating and articulate discussion of networks, exchanges, DSPs and targeting. While this rather sensible and illuminating conversation was taking place in a breakout room, the exhibit hall was a carnival midway of the latest whiz-bang microtargeting technologies and services. (Whether you want to track me down based on my current global position, my web activity, my social connections or just about anything I've ever done, said, considered or intended online, there's clearly nowhere left for me to hide.) So the questions I asked of the panelists during Q&A might better have been broadcast over the P.A. system at the Javits Center:

What rational role should targeting play within a digital marketing strategy? And where are its sane economic limits?

SPECIAL MESSAGE: This week The Drift is underwritten by aiMatch, a comprehensive, intelligent new ad serving platform that delivers a single solution for publishers to create, forecast, deliver and analyze online media products. More at

For too long we've watched the targeting joyride skid down a winding road with no economic guardrails. The direct response advertisers, agencies and technology vendors at the wheel have apparently given little thought to what the next wide turn might bring. Deal sizes go down, complexity goes up, all in the service of shaving a few cents off acquisition cost or goosing the click rate a half a point.

Before we take targeting to even more ridiculous extremes, let me suggest a more rational role for it within the marketing plan: as frequency. The online marketing plan can and should include lots of contextual placements and reach against a broad but relatively defined audience. Targeting is then deployed as a second wave, "heavying up" the message against key customers, much the way targeted print and vertical cable channels are used to compliment broadcast.

We collectively botched the targeting story for much of the past decade, but we're getting a rare second chance to get it right. Video and social connectivity are ushering in the next major spending infusion by top advertisers, and we shouldn't assume they're going to geek out on targeting the way we have to date. Also, the power balance is subtly shifting back to media owners with strong content brands and environments, and tech providers like Collective and Lotame (among many others) are putting targeting and audience management solutions into their hands now. Let's hope that these publishers bring a new level of judgment, perspective and restraint a targeting culture that's run amok.