Study Finds Behavioral Targeting More Effective Than Contextual

By: Miki Johnson

Online ads that are “behaviorally targeted” drew 17% more looks than “contextually targeted” ones, according to findings of an eye-tracking study released today by Next Century Media and sponsored by Tacoda, a company that operates a behaviorally targeted ad network. Tacoda’s behavior targeting works on a network of more than 3,000 sites, about 600 of which are newspapers.

The advantage of behavior targeting over context targeting was shown to jump to 54% after first exposure. This suggests that upon seeing a behaviorally placed ad a second time, users were more likely to look at it, as opposed to contextually placed ads, which seem to get fewer looks each time they appear, a phenomenon known as “banner burn-out.”

Behaviorally targeted advertising tracks specific users’ patterns of page views with browser cookies to determine products they may be interested in purchasing and supplies ads for those even when they are no longer viewing pages relevant to that purchase. Contextual advertising scans a page’s content and places ads on it with similar keywords or related subjects.

Bill Harvey, CEO of Next Century Media, suggests behavioral targeting may draw more looks because ads don’t have to compete with the editorial content and other ads all playing off the same keywords, which he describes as “clutter.” Instead, a behaviorally targeted ad that shows up on an unrelated page may register with the user as a “surprise,” and therefore draw more attention.

For the eye-tracking study, run by Tenafly, N.J.-based PreTesting Co., subjects were collected from malls in New Jersey and California, then pre-qualified for the kinds of purchases they were interested in making. Subjects were then fitted with goggles that tracked their eye movements and asked to view more than 50 Web pages, including both behaviorally and contextually placed ads.

Although the study’s findings are obviously beneficial to Tacoda, the sponsoring company insists they are fair because it purposefully announced last month that it would release the findings, thus binding themselves to admit to potentially unflattering results. Tacoda CEO Dave Morgan also said Harvey lent to the endeavor his highly respected reputation as an unbiased researcher.

“He is a brand unto himself,” Morgan said. “His reputation and independence are worth a lot more to him than any amount of funding.”

Harvey and Tacoda will further collaborate for an upcoming study investigating why behavioral targeting seems to draw more interest from consumers and why it cuts down on banner burn-out. In an earlier release of the findings, case studies compiled from Internet companies showed that behavioral targeting also tends to outscore contextual targeting in click-through rate, purchase intent, return on investment, and other media effectiveness measures.

The Tacoda study was conducted in November and December 2005. Ads the study followed included ones for Panasonic’s plasma TVs, a car company, and a computer company.

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