Behavioural Targeting

With all the fuss and furor over Behavioural Targeting (BT) it is worthwhile to see what the brouhaha is all about in general, and what it means to the mobile community.

In a nutshell, BT allows advertisers to target relevant ads to you as a person as opposed to the page you are currently viewing. In order to do this, the ad engine needs to understand you in a broader context – as an example if you are viewing a page on Credit Cards – are you looking to get a new credit card or are you already a customer of ICICI Cards and are looking for their customer service number because you don’t have it handy. Knowing the difference can save the advertisers precious ad budgets and can save you a lot of irritation. The difference is a subtle one, and in order for the advertiser to know the difference they will need more information than the page you are viewing. They would need a history of your interactions – that is, whether you reached the aforementioned page through a search string “top 5 credit cards” or “ICICI Cards” that would tell the advertiser which camp you belonged to. Piece of cake!… Au Contraire! This would require what a benign but pranky “Peeping Tom” does… or “wiretapping” what the powerful but hideous US President Nixon did and impeached. A subtle but a serious difference.

The essence of contextual targeting (CT) vs Behavioural Targeting (BT) comes down to what is depicted in the following table

Table 1 – Contextual Targeting vs Behavioural Targeting.

In order to facilitate BT Ad engines collect a range of pertinent information such as:

  • Pages Viewed
  • Ads clicked
  • Search queries
  • Search clicks
  • Blogs visited

As depicted in the following figure

Figure 1 – Elements of Behavioural Targeting:

When used in a morally conscientious manner BT can add significant value to users and deliver enormous value to advertisers. Likewise, it can save users significant amount of irritation to users by providing them a quality experience and reducing irritating and irrelevant ads. But who is to decide how much of the user behavior the system should know and how much is too much?. [Some of you might remember the CRM – Customer Relationship Management system in a large hotel chain in the US in the mid 90s that worked a bit better than planned – bell captains in any one of its 185 locations knew about the “double scotch” and other intimate preferences of its marquis clients. Owing to customer complaints around “respect my privacy, you shall not know too much about me” the Hotel Chain had to decommission its CRM application]. This is the counter argument to “Information is Power” – Too much information is dangerous. Hence, despite the power and potential of BT, advertisers are hesitant to leverage BT.  This is depicted in the following figure:

Figure 2 – Marketers Rank Content Based Targeting More than BT

When advertisers consider BT, it is imperative that they give users more control over their personal information. “It is mine. You cannot have it. If you want to use it for something, then you have to negotiate with me” says Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web.

Luckily for advertisers, viewers are willing to receive targeted advertisements if they can partake in the monetary upside from the advertisements. This is depicted in the following figure.

Figure 3- % of customers who would willingly share personal information in exchange for

This brings us to the whole subject of permission based marketing ( as pioneered by Seth Godin. ZestAdz is built on the philosophy of permission based marketing, where by users/subscribers opt-in to receive tangible and measurable value for the privilege they afford to marketers to make offers to them. Mobile marketing tends to focus on short attention spans, instant purchase decisions and tends to be targeted at younger audience. Hence as depicted in Table 1, contextual targeting is a better mechanism for mobile advertisements. Not to mention the fact that people view their mobile device to be a lot more personal than their web terminal and any intrusion (real or perceived) is viewed as an intrusion to their privacy.

Hence mobile advertisers will be better off staying with contextual advertising… at least for now.

Nat D. Natraj
nat [AT]


  • iMedia 2006 Summit
  • Jupiter Research 2007