Digital Media

5 Pitfalls of Behavioral Targeting and How You Can Avoid Them

nathan_Levi260If there’s one thing people hate about the web it’s being followed around by behaviorally targeted ads. We’ve all experienced being pestered by an advertiser the moment we set foot outside their online store. Some chase their prospects all day long, every day, serving ads for that lovely coat from Kooples you can’t yet afford. Advertisers love it because retargeted banners ‘perform better’ than untargeted ones. Users hate it, because often they’re irrelevant, too frequent, or just plain creepy. With online privacy fears becoming more prevalent it’s ever more important to change the way we target online users and prevent this over used tactic from becoming nothing more than glorified spam. Below I’ve outlined 5 key pitfalls that advertisers make when behaviorally targeting (BT) and how you can avoid them to give your prospects a better online experience.

1.      Don’t chase me around the web all day long

I suspect what users loathe the most about BT is the high frequency of ads they see, often up to a month after visiting a website. If the user has not shown interest in your ad after 3 or 4 attempts, you should stop advertising to them. BT can be delivered in one of two ways. You can either manage the message through your ad sever, controlling the frequency yourself, or you can allow a vendor like Struq or Criteo to take the reins. Whilst there will be some upfront work required to create decision trees and build dynamic ads I would always recommend the former. It is much easier to frequency cap your ads when you have control of the messaging and sequencing. There are lots of studies about the perfect frequency for BT. My recommendation would be to test what’s right for your product and your prospects. It’s also important to stop serving BT ads after a period of time depending on the purchase cycle of the product.

2.      Don’t serve me an ad if I’ve already bought the product

This is another pet hate amongst online users. Serving someone an advert for the product they have just bought doesn’t make any sense, yet most online advertisers still do it. They fail to cookie their customers and remove them from their BT programme. Again this is something that is normally only possible when you control the BT programme yourself through your own ad server. Most of the time you will have to serve purchasers an ad of some sort. It’s important to serve them something different, or why not simply thank them for their purchase and wish them a nice day.

3.      Don’t assume I wouldn’t have returned to your store anyway

The main problem with BT is that it’s very difficult to understand what’s incremental and what isn’t. Even if the user does click on a retargeted advert and makes a purchase, it doesn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t have returned to your store regardless. Just like affiliates and branded search, more often than not the BT ad will usurp the journey rather than enhance it. This is why it’s important to test against a control segment. Show some people the retargeted ad, and others an untargeted message that has nothing to do with their prior online behaviour. You will then be able to measure the true lift of you BT programme and might find that BT drives fewer incremental sales than you’d previously thought.

4.      Don’t assume I was going to buy the Kooples coat when I may have wanted something else

Another classic pitfall of BT programmes is to serve someone an ad of the product they have just been looking at. Whilst it might seem logical to do this, it often pays to be a little less specific with your targeting. If I’ve just been looking at the Kooples coat I can’t afford, show me some other coats, or other clothes, of tell me when you have a sale on! Product specific targeting is the obvious route, but not always the most effective. If you are going to do this try to surprise the user by either offering a discount off that product for a set period or providing them with inventory alerts when stock is running out.

5.      Surprise me!

It’s quite bewildering that in an age where we can send a timely and relevant message to our prospects and customers we choose to lambaste them with sales messages to the point of irritation. When I leave a McDonalds I don’t expect to be sold a BigMac upon exit. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if online users actually found retargeted ads useful or even beneficial? Instead of selling them what they’ve already seen tell them you hoped they found what they were looking for but if they didn’t to get in touch through the ad itself. Or why not remind them to come back to your store when you’ve got a new product range in a month’s time. You could even ask them to write a review of the product they just bought (instead of trying to sell it to them again). Being timely and relevant isn’t rocket science it just requires a little more effort. I’m very much looking forward to getting a discounted offer for that Kooples coat in the near future!


Nathan is a contributor to The Makegood and the Head of Media at VCCP. Nathan has over a decade of experience working in digital media at companies including 24/7 Real Media and Razorfish. Look for Nathan’s column on the third Thursday of every month.