Internals or Externals?

Are your prospects “internals” or “externals”? Knowing the answer might just change the way you market to them… and indicate whether you should use the Web at all.

A recent paper entitled “Consumer Control in Online Environments” published by three faculty members of eLab (part of Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management), contains an intriguing look at how consumers use the Web. You can (and should!) read the whole paper yourself, but the gist of the argument is that consumers use the Web differently depending on their views of the world. “Internals,” people who believe that they’re responsible for their own destinies, are more likely to use the Web in an active fashion, gathering information as a supplement to their lives. On the other hand, “externals,” people who believe their destinies are shaped by outside forces, are more likely to use the Web in a passive manner, allowing themselves to become immersed in online entertainment and generally giving up other activities to go online.

These differences in Web usage may also indicate how these people respond to marketing on the Web. Internally oriented people are often early adopters, more willing to try new technologies and look for new experiences. Internals want control of their lives and grab it by looking for information online in a very goal-directed manner. They aren’t easily swayed by entertainment or fluff. Internals don’t mess around online: They get in, get the information they want, and get out.

Externals are more likely to come to new things later in the game and spend most of their time engaged in more passive activities — sucking up entertainment, participating in chat rooms, and looking for other escapes from their analog-world lives. Externals are much more likely to surf around looking for information in a nonlinear way. And when it comes to setting priorities, externals are more likely to substitute the Web for other activities in their quest for escape.

If you think about it, these two groups match pretty closely with the early- and late-adopter groups. Early adopters are more tech savvy, easily bored, and often in a “just the facts” mode. On the other hand, those who come later are often there to be entertained and want things made quick and easy — the very market America Online has been so successful in cornering.

When you’re looking at using the Web (or other technologies) for marketing, thinking about your prospects as either internals or externals can help focus how you deliver your marketing information. For the internals (often tech folks), text-based email and an “information” rather than “persuasion” sell might work best. Don’t try to sway them with marketing fluff — just give ’em the facts and make it easy for them to feel in control of the situation. And don’t waste money on banner ads. Drawing them in through Web search positioning (internals are great search-engine users) might be the best way to spend your marketing cash.

For your more external customers (coincidentally, those who are probably heavier TV viewers), an approach that emphasizes ease of use, entertainment, and escape might be the way to go. I’d suspect that externals respond more to high-end creative, as long as it doesn’t require them to download any new plug-ins. They may also respond better to advergames, short-form animations, and other, more “immersive” forms of content. In short, advertising to these folks follows the conventions of successful consumer advertising. Hmm… makes you think.

Is this study the definitive answer on how people use the Web? It’s doubtful. But as we all seek to better integrate the Web into our marketing plans and begin evaluating new technologies, such as TiVo or interactive TV, these distinctions do serve as a benchmark for looking at new technologies and new audiences. It’s no surprise that many of the new consumer technologies appeal to the internal model of control. Interactive TV is a goal-directed viewer’s dream, and mobile technology definitely appeals to those who want to integrate the Web into their lives. But early adopters and those more self-actualized internals don’t make up the bulk of the population. Most people want escape. They want to turn over the locus of control to external forces. Marketing to these people in a way that takes advantage of this fact makes sense. An effort that tries to entice them with control when they don’t want it is doomed for failure.

Related reading