Defining the Target to Target the Defined

The two fundamental deficiencies that currently hinder behavioral targeting’s growth are standardization and reach. Before we dive into the million-dollar question of how better to track behaviors, let’s step back and understand what a behavior is. After all, if behavioral targeting is about targeting consumers’ behaviors, we must first define the parameters to monitor before we can track behavior accurately.

So what exactly constitutes a behavior, and what can be defined as a behavior?

“The American Heritage Dictionary” defines “behavior” as:

2a. The actions or reactions of a person or animal in response to external or internal stimuli.

2b. One of these actions or reactions.

3. The manner in which something functions or operates.

The dictionary definitions got me thinking further about the online landscape. The question of frequency and recency came to mind.

Frequency Vs. Recency: The Right Question?

Is frequency more important, or recency? In behavioral targeting, this is a highly debated topic for vendors and agencies alike. One major reason for this rivalry is, not surprisingly, both schools of thought are equally important in gauging a behavior. Frequency is an indication of a repetitive pattern or action, which, when applied to site visits and page views, statistically implies a user’s psychographic interests and likings.

Recency, on the other hand, represents a more carpe diem media perspective. For example, if a user has visited various travel sites within the last 5-10 hours and searched for flights or hotels, his recent activities strongly suggest he’s in a travel mindset. The user, then, is a highly desirable candidate for a travel-related ad.

Does frequency really translate into relevance and affinity, or is it just an indication of some routine and mundane behavior?

Let’s say I go on Expedia.com several times a week to check costs of flights from San Francisco to New York. Am I more likely to go to New York every week compared to a business traveler? Perhaps. I may just be tracking the fare because, as a value-sensitive consumer, I plan trips around cost. I’ll go to New York when the price is right. So, though it may be relevant for me to receive some travel ads, I shouldn’t be bombarded with them every time I go online.

Interpretation of consumer online behaviors should be an iterative synthesis of both frequency and recency. Instead of asking which one is Batman and which Robin, ask, “What’s the allowable window to track both frequency and relevancy?” If someone searches for flights online, should the relevancy window to receive advertising be two days or two weeks? Depending on a product’s shelf life and purchase involvement, windows should be different lengths to further increase the advertising relevance.

Focus on the “Be” Part of Behavior

Unless you’ve been living in a cave in Madagascar, I’ll assume you’ve read some of the recent research that implies decreasing consumer TV consumption is directly linked to increasing online use. Let’s not kid ourselves. The big boy ain’t disappearing any time soon! TV is like the rainforest; though being depleted of its former size and density, its importance to life will ensure its vitality to survive adverse conditions.

Before we start holding up “Online Saves the Day” placards and parading around town, let’s make sure we don’t mistake online’s recent triumph as an indication of offline’s demise. A shifting media consumption trend doesn’t represent doomsday for any particular medium. Rather, it symbolizes the birth of a multitasking, multimedia palette of living, a natural byproduct of a complex modern lifestyle.

The fragmented use and voracious consumption of different media have exponentially increased marketers’ workload to reach consumers. To target a multitasking consumer, marketers must learn how to integrate all data to monitor multimedia behavior. This means we must focus on the “be” part of behavior and truly comprehend how people utilize and consume each type of media and how they simply are.

Natural skeptics are probably shaking their heads and frowning. How naive of me to think we can truly integrate offline, online, and direct mail data into one synthesized analysis. Utopian as it sounds, this integration is where we need to be. Maybe this ultimate behavioral targeting system isn’t yet mature, but it’s important for us to work toward this platform to truly define the target.

What Does This Mean for Online Media?

The fickle, whimsical nature of human characteristics, along with the selection of available media, make behavior difficult to define and even harder to track. What’s defined as a behavior this month may not be valid next, which is exactly why targeting should follow the overall behavior of users in a medium-agnostic manner.

At the heart of behavioral targeting is holistic understanding of basic consumer behavior marketing concepts. Understanding how consumers are is more strategic in the long run than taking into account their online click-stream recency and frequency.

Behavioral targeting shouldn’t only be limited to the online application. It should be the core of any integrated marketing effort: collecting and synthesizing data from all media sources to comprehend a target’s mindset and action and, consequently, to map out a user’s lifetime purchase behaviors.

This reality is closer than you think.

Andy is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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