There is a lot of excitement around social networks and the ability to understand and target consumers with an unparalleled degree of accuracy.

However the benefit we attribute to social networks actually extends to a wider group of platforms which share the dual criteria of: i) users revealing their personal identities, and ii) data collected on their behavior.

In considering the core benefit to advertisers, “social” as a ring-fence is confusing. It is more helpful to consider a new category, which we can call “behavioral networks.” This includes a more diverse range of platforms such as Google, Amazon, Placed and Ticketmaster.

With the identity plus behavior framework in place, the goal of behavioral networks is to fuel additional behavior. People tend to be more interested and reactive to things their friends, family and people they admire say and do. Behavioral networks regularly roll out new features in order to keep people expressing themselves in more ways, for longer; larger photos, buy options, new chat features, better ways to discover the things you love, more things to discover…

The more people do and say, the more we know about them. The more we know about them, the more we can anticipate products they will be most likely to buy.

The most mature behavioral networks are like live, always-on panels of millions – or billions – of consenting respondents. This “sample” has scrupulously filled out a detailed form about their interests (profiles) and go on to enrich and validate that data with every update and like.

On Facebook and Amazon, “respondents” can adjust their advertising preferences, and on Placed, location tracking is paired with surveys, resulting in a powerful combination of observed and self-reported behavior on which brands can act.

With automated targeting, media buying and reporting included, many of these giant testing grounds are also full-on marketing machines.

Performance is fine-tuned, based on the actual behavior of the very customers we wish to convert, all on a single platform. Through data-matching with other databases, you can measure who went on to purchase after they saw your message, look for more people like them, and round you go. Unsurprisingly, this “behavioral method” results in better ROI than you’ll get elsewhere.

Behavioral networks will wield their influence even further as they start to expand beyond their own walls. Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are all building out their individual networks, enabling us to  target their people with the desired behavioral characteristics as they carry out their digital lives, whether it be reading the latest news or shopping.

In turn, these additional behaviors feed back into the behavioral networks’ database to create even richer profiles for each respondent, offering limitless opportunity to target them: any time of day, within the desired context and mindset.

Which behavioral networks will own the future is still to be seen. However, the ones with the most respondents, able to collect the most comprehensive and valuable human data, are sure to prevail.

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