Targeting Behavior, Maslow’s Way

Abraham Maslow developed a theory of personality that’s influenced a gamut of professional industries, including psychology, education, and marketing. His explanation of the hierarchy of needs has been quoted, referenced, used, and applied to explain many human behaviors.

Maslow’s theory describes numerous realities of personal experiences. Many people find the theory accurately describes their own experiences and behaviors that are identifiable but have never been put into words. Indeed, Maslow’s laconic, clear delineation and definition of these human needs have perhaps made his theory so practical and widely used.

In many ways, media consumption can be interpreted and studied using Maslow’s theory. Since media development intimately follows consumers’ needs, the evolution of media is consequently and inevitably shaped by the different needs. This is especially true for online, the medium currently offering the most personalization, interactivity, and adaptability.

In the context of behavioral targeting, then, media planners and marketers must have a deeper comprehension of consumer needs and behaviors. Understanding the past and current behavioral evolution can only help better predict and target in the future.

From Physiological Needs to Self-Actualization

Maslow’s theory suggests five distinctive stages of human needs: physiological needs (biological basic needs such as oxygen, food, water, and body temperature); safety, love/affection/belongingness; esteem (from self and others); and self-actualization (self-identification and creation).

If we reflect on the Internet’s development, consumers’ behaviors online, and their use of the medium, the chronological progression maps to the Maslow’s hierarchy.

Generally, at the beginning of a user’s online tenure, the Internet is about efficient, simple communications, such as email and curiosity browsing. As the user gains more experience, the need for safety becomes crucial (think antivirus and other security solutions) to sustain the medium’s regular usage.

Broadband penetration has certainly bridged the digital divide and has accelerated the time required to move from basic needs (physiological needs) to higher needs (safety). The faster connection speed allows and fosters a more complete online experience.

Once the user becomes an experienced navigator and feels secure about the access, he enters the stage of love/affection/belongingness. This has clearly been demonstrated (and still is) by the rise of online communities, chat rooms, and the like in the last few years.

These elements then evolve into P2P (define) reviews, ratings, and recommendations, as well as other forms of validation systems, which allow the user to not only gain credibility within a group but ultimately create his own groups.

Consider the rise of Web-hosting companies: how many there are, how many sites have been registered, and how many businesses have been built on the esteem-building models (e.g., eBay,, and Yahoo) that allow personalization and personal unique creation (blogs, reviews, subscription to RSS feeds, podcasting, etc).

The striking similarities between consumer’s online behavior and Maslow’s academic theory are worthy of further study. To properly target and influence behavior, we must understand the nature of its metamorphosis to help us better plan and anticipate the future.

What’s the Current Stage?

It’s only a matter of time before the Internet reaches close to 100 percent penetration. Some markets will get there faster than others. Eventually, everyone will experience self-actualization in which people not only personalize the environment in which they consume the content, but they also strive hard to create their own identities in the virtual space.

If we consider the most sophisticated online behavior available today (regardless of adoption and usage percentages) as representative of the current state, we’re transitioning into “i-existentialism,” in which consumers are obsessed with finding out the how, why, and what of their online identities.

The Internet has spawned a knowledge-driven generation. As information and its communication become more transparent, people increasingly exhibit curious behaviors that will lead them to information.

According to Maslow, understanding, along with aesthetics and spirituality, is considered a higher-level need beyond the initial five.

What Does This Mean for Online Media?

The Internet is often referred to as a reflective medium: the more time people spend using the Internet, the more it adapts and morphs with the users. This adaptive nature makes online media planning fast and furious. The scope is much more complex as consumer behaviors outpace marketers’ ability to establish reliable tracking and measuring systems.

As marketers, we must keep a close watch on the shifting trends in consumer behaviors. As media move toward a more behaviorally targeted model, and away from a demographic one, identifying these trends can help us develop strategies to target more precisely and efficiently. They can also provide keen insights for relevant and specific needs required by each stage, thus allowing us to segment the target audience by stages. This ultimately equips marketers to allow consumer learning to gain trust and loyalty.

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