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behavioral targeting

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

Behavioral targeting is the presentation of content and marketing based on the previous choices of a user across websites. The well-established advertising technique relies on the user’s previous behavior on the web to customize advertising content. Behavioral targeting is the technique behind online behavioral advertising (OBA).

The targeting method uses the data from various website landing and visitor pages to provide users with advertisements that are more relevant to their interests. The technique may track users across a single website, a domain or a network of sites -- using two different approaches.

Marketers might use behavioral targeting because traditional marketing runs the risk of not connecting to the right audience and might not be effective enough to convince an individual to become a customer. Traditional marketing may fail to captivate an audience’s interest. Behavioral targeting, however, will make use of data and tracking technologies to create relevant ads for a user.

Behavioral targeting uses information such as:

  • The pages a user visited.
  • The searches they performed.
  • The time spent on pages.
  • The ad and links interacted with.
  • The last time a page was visited.

How behavioral targeting works

Behavioral targeting is separated into two categories: onsite and network. Onsite behavioral targeting gathers information about the visitor on one specific site, whereas network behavioral targeting will collect information about the visitor across multiple sites. Network behavioral targeting will not collect information such as IP or MAC addresses or cookies.

The actions and choices of users are typically stored by way of a uniquely identifiable cookie in the user’s internet cache. This cookie is used in an ongoing way to build up a profile for the user on the site or network. The choices of the users and available ads in the network are then compared by way of analytics, and the most relevant ads are then delivered.

User rights and privacy groups have often asked for transparency in what data and how it is both gathered and used. While the data these networks share doesn’t include usernames, email or telephone numbers, it can contain uniquely identifiable information including device IDs, MAC addresses, cookies or IP addresses. Regulations around data mining and advertising such as the GDPR may have deep effects on the practice or even require finding new methods of tracking.

Behavioral targeting vs. contextual targeting

Behavioral targeting and contextual targeting are similar marketing techniques with important differences to note. While behavioral targeting focuses on displaying relevant ads to the viewer, contextual targeting focuses on displaying ads relevant to the content on a webpage. So, for example, a webpage about hard-drives may be more likely to show ads for computer parts.  Contextual targeting will not typically collect information about users, but behavior-based data could be taken to improve the context and relevance of the ad.

Contextual targeting could be used to avoid GDPR, however -- assuming that no personal data is collected from a user.

Here is a video succinctly describing how behavioral targeting works. 

This was last updated in January 2020

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