Self-select is not the best model to emulate

News that social-networking site Bebo is changing its ad model to let users choose which ads they see inspired me to ask if we have solved Lord Leverhulme’s famed dilemma, with marketers finally able to identify which half of their budget is wasted.

On face value, giving “Bebo-ers” the chance to receive advertising only for products they are interested in is the perfect answer. Surely this kind of self-selecting audience is perfect for marketers and we should demand that other sites adopt the model forthwith. Well, there are a number of things I want to think about carefully first.

Many see the option to pre-select as a key element in delivering personalised ads. There is a lot of excitement about what it means, mainly based on the assumption that advertisers only want to target consumers already active in a given market. I think this assumption is dangerous. Given that so little consumption is now driven by need, and so much is discretionary, the real challenge is to stimulate desire. If consumers are constantly encouraged to identify areas of preference, leading to the active exclusion of others, that is going to be an awful lot harder.

It would be a missed opportunity not just for advertisers but also for Bebo, which has the ambition of keeping membership free by funding it through advertising revenue. That business model is going to be very tough if it is encouraging users to limit advertising opportunities on the site.

Another, more practical and immediate, consideration is that to be really effective this model relies on users being proactive, constantly updating their preferences in line with their ever-changing requirements. Given the motivation for change was a dissatisfied user, will the new Bebo experience be any better, as preferences quickly become outdated and they once again see the same ads as before? Or maybe even less relevant ads, as there ceases to be any alternative form of active targeting.

On reflection, I think it is premature to announce the solution to the Leverhulme dilemma. Simply relying on our audience to put their hands up and identify themselves, while willingly giving up opportunities to influence them, won’t work. We must redouble our efforts to understand consumers well enough to ensure we know who they are, where they are and what they might want from us, so that they engage with us willingly.

Just like the Bebo-ers, we don’t always know what we want, and getting what we think we want isn’t always that satisfying.

Faith Carthy is group managing director of i-level

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