The company, the online arm of The New York Times, this month started selling advertisers on a new pitch: reach customers who show interest in health, entertainment, technology, sports or finance on any news page of the site. Called "Wide Angle Targeting," the program gives advertisers the inside track on people who've displayed desirable preferences that play into what they're selling.
"Before, if you were a business advertiser, you were limited to the business section. But because of limited inventory, now an advertiser can reach the same people in a general section," said Craig Calder, NYTimes.com vice president of marketing. "You can target users that fit the profile in a particular category."
Targeted advertising has long been held up as the promise of the Internet, but hasn't been fulfilled for myriad reasons including heated privacy concerns. The theory is that if marketers can match their products to already-interested parties with an online profile, then everybody wins. Advertisers get the most bang for their buck and consumers receive relevant pitches.
But online profiling has been taboo for years. During the dot-com boom, fears exploded over marketers' ability to sync up consumers' personal data with elaborate profiles on their Web surfing behavior in order to tailor messages to them. The ad technology company DoubleClick faced a slew of legal inquiries around such a proposal, and the company quickly retreated from its efforts. Since that time, Internet companies have walked softly when it comes to Web-tracking technology, taking care to inform visitors of its practices or obtain permission from consumers before monitoring behavior.
Now, as Web publishers and ad networks aim to make Internet advertising more effective and valuable to marketers, they are starting to use the technology--and data on their audiences--to deliver on the promise, executives say. But not without a careful eye on privacy.
"Behavioral targeting was an early promise of the Internet," said Jerry Quinn, media director for interactive agency i-Traffic, who added that privacy was part of its early limitations.
"But it's the next stage in the evolution of where this medium is going in order to justify its value to marketers."
Bigger ads are also better. NYTimes.com in April plans to introduce another new advertising vehicle: a magazine-style half-page ad. Marketers will have "a bigger canvas to work on," said Calder, with half of the page adjacent to news articles. He said it's a great alternative to more intrusive advertising such as pop-up, pop-under, or overlay ads, which the company plans to phase out.
"We don?t think it's the best user experience in terms of covering up content; we get a lot of complaints," he said.
With Wide Angle Targeting, NYTimes.com is putting people into contextual categories by monitoring how many times they visit certain sections of the site, including health and sports. If a visitor reads five or more health-related stories per month, for example, then he or she would be a prime target for a diet ad while visiting the entertainment front page.
For now, the company is delivering only aggregate information to advertisers, being sure not to reveal personal data. But in the future, it is looking at being able to give the marketer more personal or demographic information. So far, it is testing the program with three advertisers, including pharmaceutical company Nexium.
Elias Plishner, vice president of interactive marketing at McCann Los Angeles, said that for his movie-studio clients including Sony Pictures, behavioral targeting is becoming essential to promote new films. Plishner said in movie marketing, he's aiming to reach people who are amenable to an entertainment pitch at the time they are mulling their next outing.
"Because of the trackable nature of the medium, we have to live up to higher standards," Plishner said. More than demographics "we have to take it to the next level to find people who have been to certain sites and those that have certain behaviors."
Major sites including Yahoo that have registration data on people such as age and geographic location are already letting marketers target people with specific demographics or demonstrated behavior, without compromising personal information. Ad networks have long tried to classify their inventory by Web surfer behavior. For example, 24/7 Media would sell advertising on a collection of gaming sites on the grounds that people are interested in games.
Ad executives say that contextual targeting will come more into the spotlight in the next few years. Already, search engine marketing lets advertisers reach people when they are in a frame of mind, looking for something specific. To prove its allure, commercial search is one of theareas of growth in online advertising.
"Whenever you can offer an ad that's more targeted, then that's great," said Denise Garcia, an analyst with GartnerG2. "That's going to give them a leg up even from their print counterpart. And if they can take it one step further and get permission from the visitor to use their individual information, then they'll be delivering real added value to the advertisers."