Behavioral Targeting: In the Consumer’s Shoes

I love to read. I also love fashion. My tastes in both are pretty eclectic. I also spend a lot of time buying books and clothes, among other things, online regularly from a variety of Web-based merchants. The UPS guy loves me. I believe I benefit from the behavioral targeting that follows my preferences and actions, but variably. It depends on whether I’m actively searching for something or I’m the passive recipient of an ad that doesn’t address an immediate need. If we marketers put ourselves in the consumer’s shoes for a moment, we see the need to treat these two circumstances very differently.

Consumer Directed Search: I Need It Now!

Like most online consumers, my journey generally begins in one of two places. If I have a specific need or want, I go to my trusted merchants who have my shipping and billing info saved and can helpfully suggest incremental purchases to help blow my budget. If that route fails, I invariably revert to search engines to guide me to likely purveyors. Though I’m following a directed search, I’m easily persuaded by relevant, timely promotions and offers.

My behavior is predictable and builds a profile of information that’s valuable to both sellers and me. I knowingly trade a little privacy for a fair amount of customer service. As a customer I benefit from easy access to relevant options, but because my tastes run in many directions the accuracy isn’t always spot on to my immediate need. If sellers profile me correctly, I won’t be upset because it still might be an item of interest, even if not what I’m actively looking for at the moment.

I’m in the driver’s seat and likely more open to messaging because it suits my needs right now. Since I’m in buy mode, more aggressive messaging is acceptable, particularly promotions. Immediacy’s important because the need is there. If not satisfied, I’ll try a competitive site. If I leave a favorite site without buying, something’s surely wrong and should be corrected posthaste. Now would be a good time to remind me of generous, simple return policies. I’m a sucker for free shipping or time-sensitive offers.

On the whole, behavioral targeting should help when I have an immediate need by presenting a narrower, more relevant set of options when I’m shopping. It saves me from sifting through a mélange of items that hold no interest, yet it doesn’t remove those options from my reach. Think of behavioral targeting as a shortcut for consumers. The only downside might be if sellers profile me as a regular buyer who doesn’t need promos to buy, or if they somehow develop a Svengali-like ability to make me buy more or more often. I hope I have more sense and discipline than that. For the record, I know of no available Svengali programs.

The idea of tracking behaviors for sales purposes may make a more privacy-sensitive consumer’s skin crawl. Advertisers should be sensitive to messaging frequency to ensure consumers don’t feel threatened. Perhaps even offer them a way to opt out of profiling to increase their comfort level.

Advertiser Developed Search: Wouldn’t You Like to Consider This Now?

In what I call a developed need, I’m exposed to messaging that attempts to create a need or address a past need that hasn’t been expressed or exhibited recently. As a consumer, I’m a passive recipient of what should still be relevant messaging if advertisers use behavioral targeting appropriately. Perhaps it responds to a need inferred by my behavior, but it’s clearly at a second tier of immediacy and further from action than an active, directed search. The difference is one of timing and control.

The likely scenario: I’m surfing on a research or entertainment mission when I’m presented with product or buy opportunities I didn’t call up. This is more like the mass reach of olden days, updated with sophisticated profiling to make it more relevant to me. I’m not looking for black pumps at the moment, but I may have expressed an interest in them recently or was observed looking for them.

I recognize I’m not the typical online consumer and you the reader aren’t, either. We pay more attention to advertising and are able to some degree to trace its origin. Moreover, we distinguish real privacy issues from the bogeyman and understand the tradeoffs. It’s not that we’re smarter then the average Joe or Jane, but this is our livelihood, our passion, so we’re well informed.

The consumer benefits from the developed search outreaches to a lesser degree than they do during directed searches. As advertisers can usually distinguish between the two, we should encourage restraint in the volume of messaging passive consumers receive. If behavioral targeting is to remain effective, consumers must feel as if the communications are a lucky happenstance. It should be like finding a five-dollar bill on the street, not like they’re being shadowed.

Related reading