Farewell, Editor!

Behavioral targeting should allow web publishers to deliver customized content and advertising by inferring what you might want to read or buy based on what you’ve already done. Some online firms are racing to deliver on this promise. Others say go slow. Is behavior the promise or the pitfall? I won’t settle the issue in this post any more than I did in a previous posting that touched on the same topic, but two recent developments highlight the differing views. Claria Corporation, a behavioral marketing firm, recently announced a product called PersonalWeb, saying it “will enable website publishers and content aggregators … to dynamically provide their audiences with personalized Web content, based on a broad spectrum of users’ browsing behavior.” At roughly the same time, the online newsletter MediaPost reported that Matt Freeman, chief executive of the interactive agency Tribal DDB advised caution in how behavioral targeting is employed, lest consumers lump this tool into the same category as spyware. There is no indication from MediaPost’s report that Freeman was speaking about, nor was even aware of, Claria’s news. But his message highlighted the sensitivity of using browsing behavior in marketing or publishing. “How we do it will make all the difference,” Freeman is quoted as saying. Claria says it is already “serving tens of millions of consumers and more than 1000 Advertisers to date” with two behavioral offerings, the GAIN Network and BehaviorLink. PersonalWeb appears to offer the promise of allowing publishers to pour content into web pages, customized on the fly, by some analysis of recent browsing activity. The press release offers this example: “If a user recently was researching retirement plans, spent time reading about mp3 players, was looking into travel to France, and viewing skiing sites, a Web site publisher could use PersonalWeb data to dynamically build a unique page for this individual user. Instead of showing generic common-interest content, the publisher could present reviews and offers from financial institutions, mp3 player reviews and discounts, and an article on skiing in the French Alps with links to tour companies.” A separate MediaPost article alerted me to the Claria development. That article noted how PersonalWeb might change the very notion of “editing” insofar as it pertains to the selection and display of online content. Here is a snippet from MediaPost: “The feature raises the question of how much control news publishers are willing to cede about the articles that are displayed on the landing page,” the article said, going on to quote a New York Times spokeswoman on the possible downside of personalization: “One benefit of the current format is that readers like to see the editorial judgment of our editors and reporters,” said the spokeswoman. What a shock it would be to editors and writers (like me) if browsers preferred to see only what they wanted — assuming that a set of computer algorithms could sleuth out their preferences.

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media