Bad targeting holds back behavioural ads

Online behavioural ads, which are served to users according to the sites they browse, came under the regulatory eye of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in February, and new EU laws could soon put further restrictions on them. But brands should worry less about regulation and more about the basic execution, which is often still not right.


Since its remit was extended, the ASA has so far received fewer complaints about behavioural ads than it expected – only 34 at a recent count. If the ASA could penalise ads for being dumb as opposed to merely non-compliant, I’d suggest this number would be higher, but it’s actually quite a narrow form of regulation that looks mostly at the technical processes of how an ad is delivered and how easy it is to opt out.

Perhaps my own experience is somewhat skewed by the fact that I’m a journalist and therefore spend a lot of my time online researching products and services that I have no interest in buying. But it provides a salutary insight into the supply chain – and specifically into which advertisers have obviously set too liberal a cap on the impressions served to a single user – when you find yourself constantly subject to sales pitches from a lingerie retailer.

Likewise, the alternative finance company whose behavioural ads I still see nearly a year after writing an article about it should probably have realised by now that I’m not a hot prospect.

Of course, brands and their agencies can’t be blamed entirely for feeling their way into what’s still a relatively new discipline. And indeed, the more regulation that exists around creating individual profiles of web users from their online behaviour, the harder it is to understand when a person attached to a particular cookie or IP address should or shouldn’t be served an ad. Still, there should be some rules of thumb.

Generally speaking, a visit to the homepage alone ought not to be enough to make a case for serving a person behavioural advertising. Likewise, if they haven’t clicked after seeing an ad three or four times – or having clicked, they have obviously decided not to buy anything – it’s probably time to stop targeting them. It’s not just for sake of good practice, but also of ad spend.

Don’t get too complacent about behavioural advertising because of the low number of complaints to the ASA: it’s likely to be the result of public ignorance about the technology combined with a narrow scope for regulation. The reality at present is that advertisers are too often doing themselves no favours with clunky targeting. They need to address the marketing spend they’re wasting on this before focusing on the potential costs of compliance with the ASA or, eventually, the EU.

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