Behavioral Targeting Existed Before RTB – And It Should Exist Without It

The Sell Sider” is a column written for the sell side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is written by Alessandro De Zanche, an audience and data strategy consultant.

The digital advertising industry needs, more than ever, privacy advocates and activists – some strong, external pressure and entities holding it to account. New evidence has recently been submitted to privacy regulators in Poland, Ireland and the United Kingdom that supports the view that real-time bidding (RTB) is incompatible with consent under GDPR.

While I subscribe to their latest argument in principle, those involved in the RTB complaints have made an assumption that I deeply disagree with: It is one thing to argue that RTB is not compliant with GDPR, but conflating online behavioral targeting with RTB goes too far.

If we embrace that view, we risk falling for the same mistakes caused by media brands’ “monoculture” focus from the last 10 years, where almost every aspect of monetization was viewed through the narrow lens of programmatic display advertising.

We must approach user data privacy with a broader perspective: There was behavioral targeting in digital advertising before RTB, and there should be after.

Media brands have not only the right, but also the duty to improve product experience and monetization by employing first-party audience data to better understand their users for insights, product improvement, personalization and targeting, both for their own marketing purposes and more effective engagement with advertisers.

When I worked at Yahoo during its “golden years,” we built probably the most sophisticated behavioral targeting product in the industry at the time, being the first to leverage multiple data sources (content consumption, ad logs, search keywords and demographics) and combine them in a meaningful way. We were fully transparent. I remember when, for the product launch, we used a red font for an alert about the privacy amendments, which was a true punch in the eye and horrified our design team.

We self-regulated, especially around search topics: No keywords would be stored or used for topics such as medical condition, sexuality or religion. The data was exclusively used within Yahoo properties and not a single data point was leaked; programmatic hadn’t boomed yet.

When Yahoo later acquired an external behavioral targeting network, those who worked on the company’s original behavioral targeting product wondered how future sales pitches would explain the differences between our original way of profiling the user, which was complex and sophisticated, and the new acquisition’s profiling logics, which would qualify a user for a certain segment with a single click on an ad. Welcome to the world of real people vs. isolated data points, value vs. fluff.

Having said that, the resulting knowledge and first-party data do not need to be activated through programmatic RTB channels. Instead, media brand alliances should focus on the application of first-party user data in a non-RTB environment and reimagine the walled-garden concept to make their data strategies more effective and compliant. In this privacy era, their walled garden can be inclusive and built around their own audiences.

These “walls” should offer protection from bad practices, reject the naiveties of the past, safeguard users, their data and their experiences, build trust in collaboration with other media brands and, ultimately, provide full value to advertisers.

As a user, I am happy to give consent for my data being collected and used by a media brand or business which I trust and I identify with, especially when it provides me with better content, information or service. I am also happy to allow my data to be enriched with other data coming from a specific consumer brand, using tools and processes which the media brand I trust should vet, assess and control, ensuring that my rights and privacy are protected. I’d also consent to my data being shared among an alliance of media brands that are building a high-quality environment for advertisers, separated from the data jungle of the programmatic open marketplace.

As a user, what I reject is my data being shared with hundreds of companies and middlemen I have never heard of. I don’t want to be retargeted, I don’t want to be followed around the internet and I don’t want other companies using my data, except for those I know and explicitly give consent to, within the boundaries of their digital properties.

Disclaimer: If and once my trust is betrayed I will withdraw consent with no way back. This is important to keep it in mind with some media brands’ recent attempts to “interpret” privacy laws by exploiting loopholes behind users’ backs, either actively or by passively (and counterproductively) allowing ad tech and industry associations to speak on behalf of users and media brands when lobbying for looser privacy regulations.

We need to come to terms with the fact that the feasibility of anything involving user data depends on the user buying into it by making an informed decision based on what is said on the tin, not the usual acrobatic narrative complemented by the smoke and mirrors of consent mechanisms attempting to preserve programmatic advertising revenues. Inclusion of the user in the decision process must become a pillar of the process itself.

Low-quality publishers should fear that. Premium ones will only benefit from it. It is a cynical, survival-of-the-fittest approach, but it is much better than a slow death for everyone. Quality media brands can only survive by realizing their value as individual companies and as a category while enacting their vision and strategies with confidence. Waiting for some third-party platform to “help” them (read: exploit them) doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did.

Contextual targeting is a fantastic tool that should have never been forgotten and it is reductive and misleading to advocate it only as an alternative to behavioral targeting.

I couldn’t stand the irony of adding behavioral targeting to programmatic RTB's list of many victims.

Follow Alessandro De Zanche (@fastbreakdgtl) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.


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