Shaping Consumer Behavior

People used to say, “Advertising is about influencing people’s decisions.”

Advertising is meant to call something to the public’s attention, highlighting desirable qualities to arouse a desire to buy or to promote brands and their products. In essence, advertising makes people believe — believe in a product they need to buy or in a brand because it promises the world.

To effectively influence people’s perception, agencies brainstorm hour after hour and create campaign after campaign in an attempt to crack the consumer behavior code and to fully understand why people do certain things. The simple goal is to persuade them to believe.

The process of convincing doesn’t come easily. It often requires carefully planned monitoring and management of the processes and stages one has to go through to become a full believer.

In most media discussions, behavioral targeting is still viewed as a front-end targeting technology that tracks anonymous user activities. Marketers can then deliver relevant messaging to appeal to the audience based on profiled behaviors.

But there’s another interpretation marketers must bear in mind: behavioral targeting can shape consumer behavior, so consumers ultimately become the customers brands want to target.

The Pavlovian Way

If any of Ivan Pavlov‘s findings on conditioning can be applied to online media, it’s that behavior is learned.

Learning comes from personal experience. It’s a very individual process. People gain knowledge from their experiences, and no two people react to an experience in an identical manner. Each learns different things, depending on how a situation affects her needs. Previous experience conditions a person to respond to some things and ignore others. This ultimately contributes to the formation of a behavior.

Sound familiar?

This learnable behavior paradigm exists in the online world as well. Personal experience is a primary reasons why sites track users uniquely and individually, with either log-in names or IP addresses. Aside from the obvious CRM (define) benefits, tracking users individually gives a site the opportunity to communicate with consumers on a one-to-one basis to improve the overall online experience.

Behavior can be a guided learning process, and consumer actions are limited to the options available within a site. If someone asked if you like the color blue, you answer either yes or no. If someone asked if you like blue or red, you’re likely to say no to one and yes to the other (even if you don’t like either). This simple persuasion technique can be applied to shaping consumer behaviors and actions.

Know the “Why”

All behaviors have meaning. There are always a cause for a behavior and a result of it. Marketers can’t neglect the “why” part of the equation, because one can’t (or shouldn’t) target consumer actions one doesn’t comprehend.

Media planners are obsessed with the “how.” More often than not, media folks focus on how consumers buy, surf, navigate, and consume across multiple media. How can I efficiently reach the target audience? How can I improve the frequency conversion ratio?

Although “how” has long been the pillar of media planning, “why” has historically been an account or communications planning responsibility. It’s much easier to follow the media brief and focus on how to reach these people than to try to figure out why people behave the way they do.

This must change. To effectively persuade, the ad must communicate to the audience the message it wants to relay in the most relevant way. Of course, an individual recipient is capable of interpreting the ad any way she wants.

To shape consumer actions, you must understand why people accept, ignore, or rally against your messaging.

What Does This Mean for Online Media?

A good marketer doesn’t simply provide information for consumers. He provides a calculated path for consumers to discover the information and strengthen their learning. Only in an iterative process can true consumer engagement occur.

Online media must be smarter, particularly when various disciplines converge at the same consumer focal point. With all the data and targeting tools at planners’ disposal, that little extra bit of curiosity could be the final persuasion for the next six-figure incremental client budget. We have a chance to shape consumer behaviors rather than simply monitor and react to them.

Sure, consumer empowerment and control are hot topics and a rising trend. But don’t forget, even in a world where choices are expected, decisions are still made based on options provided.

Before you launch your next behavioral targeting campaign, think about how you want consumers to behave. Calculate all the possible actions a consumer can take from a given starting point. Before you observe and analyze, know you can still shape their behaviors and actions with levers built into the campaign.

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