Is Q4 Consumer Behavior Aberrant?

When some retailers spend disproportionately to the calendar in the fourth quarter, they may be merely meeting demand and maintaining competitive parity, therefore spending in proportion to the opportunity. Those who spend differently, not just more, however, may win the game.

A recent Atlas Institute survey documents online consumer shopping patterns for the last five years and finds consistent trends. Consumers research and shop online at work during the week, especially Mondays and Tuesdays, then visit stores on the weekend.

Another study exploring search behavior released in July by Performics, a DoubleClick division, details a distinct change in consumer search behavior for holiday shoppers. Many fourth quarter users buy for others. These gift-givers start with broader searches, which drives click prices up. In fact, the average CPC (define) fell 50 percent from Q4 2005 to Q1 2006. Total spend rose in Q4, as did the number of active keywords.

How do these changes affect a behavioral targeting plan for Q4? Should they?

We know fourth quarter consumers are fishing; they’re more active but less directed, since shopping for second cousin Sue isn’t as precise as shopping for yourself or a closer loved ones. How can we use that insight to define behaviors that allow us to segment likely customers? Will the Q4 consumer we capture and profile match the needs of that same consumer at other times of year, or is the Q4 behavior too aberrant to translate into future data points of any reliability?

Q4 is also do-or-die time. As marketers stretch to hit year-end numbers, they must respond to a number of challenges, including ad clutter and inventory crunches. Behavioral targeting can provide an excellent response to inventory constraints, allowing marketers to find their audiences outside of contextually relevant placements.

There are things we can do now to help make Q4 targeting more successful. Your Q3 to-do list:

  • Build your audience pool now, while ad inventory is available and more reasonably priced.
  • Mine last year’s Q4 data for insights into audience makeup and behaviors. You may find your media plans should change.
  • Leave tracking pixels (specific to sites or networks) in place even if you’re not using them right now. If you take them down, you’ll be identifying your audience from scratch.
  • Reassess competitors’ Q4 strategies from last year.

Q4 to do list:

  • Stretch your Q4 budget by prioritizing conversion of those customers or prospects with which you already have some contact. Focusing on good customer or prospect data points you already have is most productive at this point.
  • Test creative sequencing for research and shopping messaging on Mondays and Tuesdays and “set up” the store visit later in the week with time-sensitive promos for the weekend. In general, free shipping and liberal return policies may influence shoppers.
  • Consider increasing frequency caps in Q4, as impulse purchases are more likely.
  • Concentrate on “almost customers,” those who have visited your site and exhibited shopping behaviors or who have expressed interest but haven’t bought.
  • Couple behavioral targeting with ad sequencing and offers for your best customers, such as “Buy today and receive by Dec 24th.”
  • When testing ads or promotions, go broad. Stay at the category level or offer a discount instead of a special deal on a specific product. Remember, the consumer’s fishing and may not have an exact target in mind.

Q4 customer behavior isn’t aberrant. It’s predictable, reasonable shopping behavior that fits the season but likely not the rest of the year. Q4 skews patterns if you persist in relating those patterns to the other three quarters but not if you compare them to previous Q4s.

Advertisers must change their thinking and planning and adapt to consumer cycles. That means new customers and customer data collected in Q4 should be used cautiously in the new year. That new customer who bought the cuckoo clock for cousin Sue may not be in the market for another novelty clock till the next jolly holiday season. On the other hand, you may have just developed a devoted cuckoo fan. Only time will tell. Q4 customer data points should be analyzed for future shopping and buying patterns to help plan for the next holiday season. This learning helps advertisers understand the value of those customers and how to message them during the course of the year.

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