Quest for Targeting: Behavior vs. Intent

Last week, I participated in internal management training. It focused on a variety of corporate delights. In addition to learning about the importance of leadership, innovation, and strategic resource management, we also talked about the general psychology behind why people do what they do.

One point discussed was the difference between behavior and intent. That inevitably led me to think about behavioral targeting, as I found this differentiation extremely relevant to the topic of this column.

Behavior, as the “what exactly do you do?” consultant eloquently defined it, is a tangible act one can see. Reading is a behavior, as are eating, writing, and surfing the Web. Intent, however, is something that’s not so visible. It represents the latent motive of an action.

This raised a few questions. Is there a difference between behavior and intent when it comes to behavioral targeting? If so, how many of the behaviors we track are truly representative of consumer intent, and how many are just mindless clicks?

If people mundanely perform a routine action, how much information do they really absorb and retain from the advertising messaging targeted to that behavior?

Do behaviors really convey intent, and at what point do they depreciate to mundane routines? Should marketers target intent rather than behavior?

I asked myself the bottom-line question: Is intent more important than behavior in the game of behavioral targeting?

Are You What You Do, or Do You Do What You Are?

We all have routine actions we perform regularly. For example, I walk four blocks every day to the office. Because this experience has become such a robotic routine, my behaviors (or lack of them) are rather limited. This habitual pilgrimage to work has become a mindless promenade. I’m unintentionally oblivious to the buildings and signage along this path.

Though behaviors are academically defined as actions or reactions of a person (or animal) in response to external or internal stimuli, I’d argue behaviors can be completely limited and dictated according to the stimuli provided. This means perhaps the reason consumers clicked on a banner or visited a site isn’t because they intended so. Rather, perhaps their actions were “guided” and “encouraged” by the site navigation or the page layout.

If intent is the state mind at the time one carries out an action, does behavior linearly translate intents? It’s important for marketers to differentiate intent-based behavior from routine-based behavior.

Maybe my daily walks have led to a state of complacency in which I no longer exhibit intent-based behavior but rather routine-based behavior. Whether advertising should have a disruptive quality is arguable, but I’m quite certain my intent each morning is to get to the office. It’s unlikely I’d take any detours.

Beware the Digital Divide

Despite increasing broadband usage, a significant number of consumers are still on dial-up. This means though over half the U.S. population is downloading MP3s, watching film trailers, and using VOIP (define), plenty of other folks are still just checking email, weather, and not much else.

The 2004 USC Annenberg study of consumer Internet behavior showed not only are behaviors different between light and heavy online users, there’s a great digital divide between dial-up and broadband users. The research further suggests this inequality manifests a Web-experiential discrepancy for users. High-speed connections can exponentially increase functionality, usage, and online activity.

This is a critical consideration when it comes to planning a behaviorally targeted campaign. The digital divide may mean predetermined limitations restrict consumer behavior. It can create innate predispositions and prejudices leading to data inconsistency and possibly tainted results.

Before you write the laundry list of behaviors that define your target segment, be sure to discount behaviors that may be influenced by connection speed.

What Does This Mean for Online?

A recently released comScore study found 9 of 10 online searchers buy offline the products they searched. Though the findings didn’t statistically link online search behavior with purchase intent (only 25 percent of searchers went on a make a purchase within 12 weeks of the initial search), it did reveal behaviors are manifestations of intent. Search is a visible action resulting from a purchase consideration.

Whether behavior implies intent is something I’ll leave to behavioral psychologists. What’s important for marketers is the need to recognize the difference between an intent-based and a routine-based action. Site navigation and layout can dictate and confine users to certain types of behavior.

Behaviors are fickle. They’re subject to change. Once they become attitudes, they stabilize into characteristic, predictable predispositions. I’m not here to remind you of everything you learned in Psych 101. What I will say is before zealously adding behavioral targeting into the online marketing mix, make sure you clearly define objectives so you know what to track and monitor. And consider the macro elements that possibly influenced your target segment’s behaviors.

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

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