Planting the Seeds of Our Future

The last year or so has seen tremendous growth in all digital marketing endeavors. That’s created a talent shortage that leaves many behavioral marketing vendors, agencies, and marketers desperately searching for immediate help. We’re also looking for the next generation of online advertising pros. Online media departments are poaching talent from the shop down the block or from their publisher partners, but the more forward-thinking are building the talent pool through cross-training of existing staff and ground-up training of entry-level marketers.

Behavioral marketing in particular should lend itself to learning from long-standing academic work in the consumer behavior field. But where’s the intersection of academic training and research on consumer behavior and online behavioral targeting? I’m looking in part to academia to contribute to behavioral targeting’s future in two ways.

Meaningful Curriculum Changes

Colleges and universities are many steps behind where they need to be to prepare future marketers. Most undergraduate and graduate programs are woefully lacking in online depth, and curricula are almost never paired with the data agility necessary in today’s information-intensive environments. A college graduate who is versed in marketing basics, consumer behavior, data manipulation, and interpretation and who can write well would be a wonderful gift. I’ll take a dozen, please.

Perhaps more important, our colleges aren’t teaching students how to think about behavior in interactive environments, how to recognize patterns, and how to understand motivations and actions. These are the basics of marketing in our world, but we’re not turning out beginners with a foundation on which to build.

It’s not the kids. This generation of young adults has grown up with the Internet. It’s device- and Web-savvy. Students must be hungry to apply their energy and enthusiasm to their generation’s channel, and they likely have tremendous insights to contribute to the conversation. My bet is the progressive schools that can establish the right mix of classes and approach will be oversubscribed immediately. That would be great news for them… and the industry.

It may be the professors. Most tenured professors aren’t trained in, nor have they worked in, online marketing. They may not have a comfort level with its application. The field is too new. The theory is presented in numerous how-to books published by pioneer practitioners, but that theory hasn’t matured and may never mature in an industry so dynamic that the opportunities and tools literally change monthly, if not weekly. With the ups and downs, bubbles and mythology that have surrounded online marketing, staid educational institutions could once be forgiven for waiting to see how permanent this trend might be.

They no longer have that excuse.

Marketing practitioners also bear some of this responsibility. We should consider teaching sabbaticals to veteran online marketers and sponsor meaningful paid and unpaid internship programs and co-op education opportunities. We should partner with local educational institutions to help them create a course, build case studies for dissection, or develop a major curriculum that will produce the entry-level staffers who can become tomorrow’s innovators. From a purely practical standpoint, we must plant the seeds of our own future.


Never before have we been so rich in consumer behavior data points. Most deep pools of online consumer behavior data currently belong to commercial entities. They built the data engines, collect the data, and use it for their or their clients’ purposes. Sometimes, they explore their data for deeper insights and publish whitepapers that answer questions that interest them. But the stock of data that describes online consumer behavior is disconnected from third parties who have the scientific training and objectivity to really plumb the information.

If we were to aggregate data across sources for a super pool of online behavioral information and give it to a research institution, we might begin to test theories that would advance online and behavioral marketing. This could conceivably create the basis for a new field of study in online consumer behavior that would provide a bountiful return to the industry in the same way consumer behavior studies have advanced marketing in general for decades.

Researchers who might conduct this work are the same professors who will inspire not only future online marketers but also future online marketing professors. Our industry depends on more and better insights and more and better marketers to help create those insights. We should be able to count on our academic institutions to contribute to this growth.

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