Five Ways to Avoid Misinterpreting Consumer Behavior

  |  June 18, 2008   |  Comments

A major life event offers insights into how to provide a better foundation for building a behavioral plan.

A challenge with behavioral targeting (and interpersonal relationships, in general) is properly interpreting consumer behavior to respond with a proper message. Consequently, a large amount of money is invested with the premise that if a consumer performs a certain action (e.g., visits a wedding site), then the behavior signifies that she's in market for a certain product (e.g., a wedding dress) and may be targeted with a certain advertisement (e.g., an invitation to a trunk show). However, as experience as taught us personally and professionally, human behavior isn't always transparent and requires additional insight from the observer.

I recently had a major life event, giving birth to twin boys who each measured 5 pounds, 8 ounces, and were 18 inches long when they were born. Since they were born with all the same statistics, I proceeded to treat them the same; I fed them the same amount, had them sleep for the same amount each day and in the same place. Well, it backfired. Twin A had a ferocious appetite and at four weeks was guzzling seven-ounce bottles down, making us wonder if we needed to offer him a slice of pizza next or call Jenny Craig. Conversely, Twin B thought he was training for a body-building competition and would eat two-ounce meals every three hours.

Once I stepped back from my charts and childrearing books, I was able to observe the patterns of behavior and, therefore, alter my approach (not the other way around). How many times do we do the same thing as marketers? How many times do we receive a brief with a line for the target audience: "adults 25-54 with a HH income of $75,000," and develop multimillion dollar plans assuming that the consumers' media habits are the same for the household making $75,000 in San Francisco as the one in Biloxi?

A friend once told me that she was bombarded by baby advertisements after purchasing a present for a baby shower off a registry. She said she visited the retail site once but proceeded to receive messages for five weeks after that before she cleared her cookies. She actually didn't remember visiting the site and asked me why she would see these ads (and provided me, as an industry rep, with her personal example on why online adverting is bad). Although my initial reaction was to defend online advertising -- and behavioral targeting, in general -- it did remind me that behavioral marketing's foundation can be shaky at times.

How can we provide a better foundation to build a behavioral plan against?

Below, five aspects to consider when we interpret consumer behavior:

  • The behavior pattern is essential. In and of itself, a single behavior is meaningless. For example, just because someone visits an automotive site doesn't mean she's in market to buy a car. However, if this person (cookie) visits an automotive site regularly or several automotive sites in a short time and clicks to various similar sections, then a pattern of behavior emerges that can be targeted effectively.

  • Get off their backs. Once a behavioral pattern has been established and acted on, advertisers need to either maintain the communication or get off consumers' backs. This is also done by observing behavior. Are they clicking on ads? Are they still researching the same product? How long are consumers typically in market for this product? Think about it in personal terms: you wouldn't keep calling a prospective date if he or she never returned your calls (unless you want a restraining order placed against you).

  • Consumers are paranoid. Consumers want great deals, but most of the behavioral targeted ads available are generic, offering little more than tipping off consumers that they are being targeted (which makes them paranoid and wondering where they were caught). Bottom line: provide value and be transparent.

  • Know your product and audience. If the average purchase cycle for your product is three weeks or if it's seasonal, targeting consumers out of this time frame (without any acknowledgment back) not only is a waste of money but will also deter future prospects when they are back in the market.

  • Be flexible. Like my twins, no two consumers are the same. Therefore, be willing to offer unique offers and messaging to various consumer groups. For example, if you target sedan buyers on a predominantly woman-oriented site, provide messaging that would speak to this segment and not the same recycled creative running across the rest of the campaign. What's important to women? Are they moms? How will they be using this product?

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Anna Papadopoulos

Based in New York, Anna Papadopoulos has held several digital media positions and has worked across many sectors including automotive, financial, pharmaceutical, and CPG.

An advocate for creative media thinking and an early digital pioneer, Anna has been a part of several industry firsts, including the first fully integrated campaign and podcast for Volvo and has been a ClickZ contributor since 2005. She began her career as a media negotiator for TBS Media Management, where she bought for media clients such as CVS and RadioShack. Anna earned her bachelor's degree in journalism from St. John's University in New York.

Follow her on Twitter @annapapadopoulo and on LinkedIn.

Anna's ideas and columns represent only her own opinion and not her company's.

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