Maybe it's just me, but it sure feels like we've gone through the looking glass when it comes to online audience segmentation and targeting. We've gotten to the point of buying and selling futures on ad impressions: selecting our prospective ad viewers one at a time and bidding on them through systems complex enough to make NASA weak in the knees. And can we say with certainty that all hand waving is really driving marketers to move more dollars online? Even if he weren't a friend, investor and former client, I'd still be standing and applauding Simulmedia's Dave Morgan for what he said in Digiday:
"My sense is 90 percent of the targeting available today is too granular, redundant and dramatically exceeds the capacity of the markets to exploit. Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Sure, some direct-response marketers can exploit some of these capabilities, but no brand advertisers can."
Maybe it's time to explore how we got here in the first place. For my money, I think we've accepted a flawed assumption and chosen the wrong master to serve.
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Let's start with the flawed assumption. For years we've been driven by the principle that more targeting is always better. It's just not. It's just always smaller, more complex, harder to predict and ultimately less scalable. No matter how thinly we slice the bean, there's always someone standing by with a sharper blade, always a few pennies more for an even leaner slice. Morgan is right: We've painted ourselves into a marvelously complex corner and only the truth can set us free -- and only if we accept it.
The other reason we find ourselves in this spot is that long ago we committed ourselves to improving the life of the direct mail marketer. In the world of direct mail, you pay more per name for an ever smaller and more refined list -- so that you can mail fewer pieces. Since that time, we've remained tightly focused on parsing and segmenting the prospect list ever more finely. So much so that two whole generations of online buyers and sellers have come to believe that this is our only mission. And as we've pursued this mission, it's made us virtually irrelevant to the brand marketer who continues to spend heavily and happily on television advertising.
If we turn things upside down -- revisit the past -- we perhaps introduce a new principle: Just enough targeting. How much targeting is just enough to create a better model for TV buying? What's just enough targeting to break off a percentage point or two (or eight, or ten) of video budgets now that online video technology and content are coming of age? We can't change the past, but the great thing about the times we live is that we're constantly getting new chances. From this point forward, we'd all be better off -- marketer, agency, publisher and aggregator -- if we stopped asking "can we?" and started asking "should we?" More targeting for its own sake is a dead idea. "Just enough targeting" may well be the benchmark that helps us return this business to sanity.