Web 25: Targeting and Personalization


Late October will mark the 25th anniversary of advertising on the Web. Having been part of the team that ushered in those first primitive digital ads in 1994, I’ll be using this space in the intervening weeks to explore the fulfillment, failure and future of the web’s marketing and social promise. This week, Targeting and Personalization.

As our small team of outlaws were selling the first ads on the web, it would be more than a year till the invention of the first ad server.

Think about that for a minute.

There was no practical way to serve an ad independent of the page it was selected to run on. User targeting was impossible. To us – then – it was enough that a marketer could talk to a customer based on whether she was viewing a page about home improvement or cooking. That you had an opportunity to advertise at just the exact moment when relevant attention was being spent was, at the time, revolutionary.  Of course, that moment couldn’t scale and wouldn’t hold. Change was inevitable… but what kind?

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The deal we struck with consumers (or at least told each other at conferences) was better and more personalized advertising and content experiences in exchange for data. We’ll be watching you, but we’ll make it worth your while.  By even the most charitable estimate, we haven’t lived up to that bargain. We went on a serious bender of infinite supply and cheap data…and the hangover is a bitch.  Seeing no value, consumers have revolted. Politicians of all stripes are engaged. GDPR has led to CCPA. And major marketers are demanding heretofore unseen levels of transparency and purity.

And as a result, just maybe we’re getting back to what made this all special in the first place.

No one is naïve enough to think we’ll go backwards to a world without ad servers. But look at what is happening. First party data is quickly becoming table stakes. Marketers are taking a fresh look at context: they are moving beyond brand safety and looking for brand building environments. There’s been a boom in content marketing and high-production-value video adjacencies. Publishers are rising to the challenge of delivering real personalization and reciprocal value to marketers and consumers.

We’re not going to start hard coding ads onto web pages again. But if we pay attention, we might realize that we’ve found the source code for a healthy web for marketers, publishers and consumers. A little bit of ’94 might still be good for us.