Catch Me If You Can

Just who are you?

It’s not a trick question, but it doesn’t have a single answer, either. I’m a dad, a husband, a programmer, a homeowner, a marketing executive, a blue belt in karate, an avid reader, a college professor, and a writer. I’m all these, but these aspects of my persona won’t create an equation that truly describes me. Can you be described any more simply?

When we try to define consumers by their online behaviors, we drift from developing a realistic understanding of who they are and what their needs and interests might be. Instead, we create a two-dimensional data construct that might fit into a designated slot (if you push hard enough). Simply put, your surfing habits today aren’t necessarily indicative of what you’re interested in purchasing tomorrow, next week, or next year.

If that weren’t the case, based on today’s surfing pattern I’d be a prime target for any advertiser looking for a consumer who checked his bank balance, requested a homeowner’s insurance quote, wandered an ad agency site looking for a phone number, looked up a domain name, checked out headlines, or logged into a university server and downloaded two audio books.

From this list, the only thing I’m currently in the market for is a new homeowner’s insurance policy, and even that need is lukewarm. Nothing else on the list is even slightly indicative of the fact I have a new puppy, am fiendishly making fixes to the house in my spare time, have been organizing a summer schedule for my kids who will be out of school in a few weeks, have a washing machine older than both of my children combined, and need new carpeting (did I mention I have a new puppy?)

My past behavior isn’t necessarily indicative of my future behavior. Although it’s a place to start for many behavioral marketing vendors, using past histories as a way of planning for future behaviors isn’t unlike using a car’s rearview mirror to navigate the road. You may make some progress, but the first turn will put you in a ditch.

Not only are my personal needs and interests diverse, but I’m not the only one using my computer. I think it’s safe to say my 10-year-old son and I are different people. Though I can appreciate his interests, I personally don’t spend a great deal of time surfing Nicklelodeon, Homestar Runner, or the official Weird Al Web site. Yet you can be certain any data profile of my computer indicates I have the tastes of a 10 year old.

Measure Intent, not Interest

When you walk into a department store, what do you buy? No doubt the answer is something like, “It depends on what I need.” As consumers, we have an ongoing needs list. These needs are based on replacing similar items, improving our lives, resolving existing problems, and giving in to desire. Needs are also governed by factors such as income, practicality, overall value, and usefulness.

I once owned a pickup truck. I liked my truck for the convenience it provided when I needed to cart around furniture, cement, garbage, or wood. I liked riding higher than the rest of the traffic. It may have made me feel a bit more macho, too. On the other hand, it chugged gas; it was next to useless in a snowstorm, hard to park in the city, and a lousy family car. I eventually traded it for a minivan. The practical need of moving two kids, a wife, a dog, and all our assorted possessions around safely and efficiently outweighed my need to have something that could carry 12 sheets of wallboard.

The change doesn’t mean I’m not interested in pickup trucks, but I can honestly say I have no intention of buying another one. I may visit sites featuring trucks just to see what’s out there, but my interest has a long way to go before it’s converted into intention.

This isn’t to say surfing habits don’t indicate intent. But extracting intent by compiling a list of sites visited is bad science. Although repeat visits to a specific site or visits to many similar sites may indicate true interest in a product or service, at what point does that interest convert to intent?

The best way to obtain this information is to let the consumer tell you. Wise marketers give site visitors the opportunity to create and follow paths that define those intentions. Sometimes, just asking “Are you planning to buy a new pickup truck soon?” is a much better indicator than watching and guessing.

Behavioral analysis is still in its infancy when it comes to marketing. This space will continue to grow and change. The good news is you and I have gotten here soon enough to learn how to make this work for our clients. Someday, we’ll look back on all this uncertainty and laugh.

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