The Great Behavioral Divide

The average commute time by train in London is 45-55 minutes. That’s a sizable chunk of time for people to entertain themselves with whatever they want. Besides reading books and newspapers and snoozing (quite popular in the morning), listening to music is one of the most common commuter activities.

The other day, two people standing next to me on the train were listening to iPods. Both had the nearly ubiquitous (quickly becoming trite) white headphones hanging from their ears. Though the iPod’s popularity isn’t a surprise given all the 2005 hype and record-setting holiday sales figures, what intrigued me was how different the two people were.

One was a typical London banker-looking man dressed in an iconic British pinstripe suit. He cut a mature appearance of business flare (holding a copy of “The Financial Times,” of course). The other was a teenage girl with dreadlocks, dressed as if she’d just woken up from a night of partying in the dorm. She carried a ragged backpack.

These two people had nothing visible in common (lifestyle, profession, age, gender, etc.), yet both own iPod. I wondered what the common appeal was that made both purchase the iPod.

Interest in music and embracement of technology is an obvious answer. But if we dig slightly deeper into their psychographic profiles, we may find they both use iTunes, perhaps both even visit music sites.

Which brings up an age-old question in a new context: in the digital age of behavioral segmentation and targeting online, does gender really matter?

Mars vs. Venus: The Original Divide

Physically and psychologically, men and women are fundamentally different. This “original divide” between the genders goes beyond the physical world and into emotional and behavioral manifestations. The question remains: if the Internet is truly a universal medium that transcends physical world limitations (e.g., geography, culture, financial status) and equally empowers both genders (consumption isn’t discriminated but self-selected), do the behaviors differ between men and women online?

According to Pew Internet and American Life Project research, the answer is yes.

This recent Pew study finds some clear differences in the way men and women use the Internet. Men tend to use the Web as a task-accomplishing tool; they retrieve information such as weather, sports, news, financial information, self-education guides; to download music and software; and to research products. Women use it first and foremost as a communications vehicle (with email as a prime reason for usage); they also search for health, medical, and religious information, as well as maps and directions.

The study also shows despite the distinct gender differences in information assimilation, site navigation, and responses to visual cues, men and women exhibit similar interaction patterns when it comes to search behaviors. Search, being an increasingly critical part of the online marketing equation, holds a key insight to understanding behavioral targeting’s application.

Emotion vs. Function: The Experiential Cleft

Most experienced marketers, especially those with e-business understanding, know the content (the product itself) and the experience (how to get the content) are the true competitive advantages for a product or brand to distinguish itself from competitors. Within these two elements, successful branding can effectively help an audience establish an emotional attachment and loyalty to the product or brand.

The act of search has no real emotional experience. It gets the searcher from point A to point B, hopefully in the most relevant, direct, quickest way possible; it serves a transactional purpose in which the experience assessment is based on the speed, quality, and quantity of content delivery. Everyone receives a similar experience of this task-oriented transaction, regardless of gender, age, culture, income, and so on.

This supports Pew’s finding that men and women have similar search behaviors. The natural differences between genders have the most influence and obvious effects on experiences that involve emotions, such as content sites (hence traditional online media placements).

This perhaps also explains why men are more likely to use Google, which dominates as the engine of choice. Women also use Google as their number one choice, but it’s closely followed by MSN and Yahoo, two of the most prominent portals that offers much more emotional experience than a simple search function.

What Does This Mean for Online Media?

The iPod craze isn’t news to most of us, but its diverse customer base still amazes me. In view of the two iPod users on the train, the iPod’s global domination of the portable MP3 space is a clear example of why companies spend large sums of marketing budget on branding.

In a commoditizing industry, goods are evaluated based on the speed and quality of delivery, such as with digital music. The only way to create brand experience is via an emotional, personal communication with the audience. It all starts with effective targeting.

Most of us have come to embrace the idea that behavior is pivotal to segmenting an online audience. Perhaps it’s better described as a “behavior first, demographic second” model. But we must not overlook the importance of demographics.

To effectively communicate with the audience, a thorough, in-depth understanding of the demographic and behavioral information is absolutely necessary. The current challenge is that unless the sites physically collect personally identifiable information (PII), gender-targeting accurately and consistently is very difficult.

Some media vendors have already begun offering targeting solutions that can combine demographic info with behavioral segments. MSN’s new adCenter offers both behavioral and demographic targeting, and Advertising.com marries behavioral segments with demographic composition data from comScore. Both Revenue Science and TACODA have such capabilities as well, since these tech vendors work directly with many publishers that collect user profile information.

Imagine the successful combination of two of marketing’s most important targeting filters: the marketing ROI (define) can be highly rewarding.

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