It’s Greek to Me: Behavioral Targeting the Ancient Way

If Croesus goes to war, he will destroy a great empire. –The Oracle of Delphi

In the eighth century B.C.E., Delphi was the most important shrine in Greece. The ancients believed the location was at the world’s center. People came from everywhere to have their questions about the future answered by the Pythia, the priestess who presided over the Oracle of Apollo. Her answers, usually inscrutable, could determine the course of everything, from harvest to war.

I had the pleasure of visiting Delphi this summer, and it got me thinking about advertising. With both advertising and the oracle, success lies in the message. The Pythia would provide cryptic messages from which seekers draw their own conclusions. If you asked, “Which path should I take?” the reply would be something like, “You will take the path that is open.” In this manner, the Pythia was never wrong and seekers would feel the message was tailored specifically for them.

A lot of advertising, particularly teaser advertising, comprises cryptic or ambiguous messaging. Even keystone campaigns like Nike’s “Just Do It” and Apple’s “Think Different” are open to interpretation. With the Web’s advent, unbranded campaigns that drive people to a URL is common practice, relying on consumer curiosity and perhaps a clever tagline.

What about behavioral targeting? Are we communicating with our customers like oracles? Does vague messaging play a role in this?

First, no messaging can resonate with consumers if it isn’t relevant. My husband, who claims he never clicks on a banner (yes, he’s one of them), not only clicked on a banner recently but configured a car and set up a test drive right from an ad. The difference between that last time and the hundreds of times before? He was in-market for a car, and the message was relevant.

Let’s assume the message is relevant and the media placement appropriate. Now what?

Mistakes with behavioral messaging typically lie in two extremes: the message is either too direct or too general. One that’s too direct uses the consumer’s name in the ad. That’s like meeting a stranger who knows your name. Yes, you’ll grab people’s attention, but it may be unwanted attention. If people haven’t directly introduced themselves (online, that means opted in to receive a message directly from the sender), then don’t use their name or other personal information.

In the same respect, creating copy that takes into account historical behavior must also be controlled. Consumers don’t want to feel as if they’re being monitored, although they want relevant messages and offers.

What’s a marketer to do? The situation is akin to addressing a sensitive subject with someone who hasn’t explicitly talked to you about it, but who may benefit from your help nevertheless.

In real-world interpersonal relationships, we provide opportunities for friends or acquaintances to engage us in a subject. In advertising, we should also create opportunities for target audiences to communicate with us, then provide relevant offers and messages based on the information they offer. If we ignore consumer feedback, which in the behavioral targeting world translates into actions consumers take or don’t take, we should avoid entering the conversation.

On the flip side, many behavioral ads are generic and repurposed from other placements. The ads usually run at a very high frequency and say the same thing repeatedly to the same person in various environments.

It’s like the spouse (not mine, of course) who won’t drop a topic and persists in mentioning it regardless of where you are or how much time you have. As Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

The oracle may have worked wonders for seekers in the ancient world, but information-age customers want dialogue. One-way communication makes people suspicious about the fine print. They want communications on their own terms, and they want to remain in control. Get too close too quickly, and you’ll turn them off. Remain too distant and you risk alienation.

Listen carefully. Consumers will provide you with clues to follow for success.

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