The Science of Behavioral Targeting

We’ve all heard it, perhaps even used it. The phrase “the art and science of…” slips out of our mouths habitually, and “art” and “science” seem to be coupled naturally when describing complex things that embody an intangible level of mastery.

Marketing is certainly one of these things. Reaching the right audience at the right time, in the right context, and with the right message is more than an exercise of gut decisions. Increasingly, it’s become an analytical interpretation of consumer insights, behaviors, and other data sources.

It should be old news that a fragmented media landscape has lead to complex and diverse consumer behaviors. Facts, data, and hard numbers have always been the foundation of science. The digital frontier has redefined marketing practices and given birth to a much more data-driven discipline. This is a main reason why, instead of continually using old-school methods of creative-driven strategies, marketing has evolved into a more media-driven paradigm.

As a byproduct of this more scientific approach, targeting has become more pivotal than ever in media planning. Its proper deployment often means the success or failure of a campaign, regardless of how good the established communications brief. Behavioral targeting, in the movement of “science becoming the new art,” leads the way to redefine media parameters.

Behavior Is In

Demographic information is helpful, but it’s just a proxy for targeting. The Internet infinitely empowers people to behave outside their predefined demo groups. In an age of consumer empowerment and personalization, marketers must remember though the ultimate choices and decisions belong to consumers, their behaviors can be guided and learned.

In a psychological sense, “behavior” is developed as a result of learning. It’s developed through experience with very individual processes and acquired on a personal basis. Knowledge is gained from a person’s experiences, and no two people react to an experience the same. This is precisely why it’s increasingly important to track behavioral data online by unique user, either anonymously or via personal identifiable information, so marketers can personally target and cater to individuals.

This also means marketers should continuously synthesize customer data and design communications with the intention of encouraging more behaviors. That way, they can create additional opportunities to gain consumer insights.

Over the past several years, “neuromarketing,” which uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans to observe how people evaluate and make decisions, has been quietly gaining awareness. Whether this nascent research will change the fundamental advertising paradigm isn’t yet relevant to behavioral targeting. But its implications — marketers are exploring ways to dive deeper into consumers behavior and psychographics — is very indicative of current trends. Targeting must be much more sophisticated than just traditional geographic, IP, and demographic filters.

Science Is the New Art

According to “The American Heritage Dictionary,” “art” is the “human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature.” In many ways, nature is a harmonious numbers game. Sea turtles lay hundreds of eggs at a time because there will only be a realistic 10 percent survival rate due to predators. This is analogous to the other consumer-provider examples that exist in the delicate ecosystem.

We know human actions are complex and behaviors are somewhat specific to their indigenous environments. Yet many studies show that regardless of language barriers and cultural differences, people make most product purchase decisions based on a similar logical progression of benefits, features, feelings, emotions, motives, urges, and needs. This means they also exhibit similar behaviors when they make these decisions.

Online, which has already fundamentally deconstructed the traditional media consumption paradigm, is the most fertile environment to capture these behaviors. It has the advantage of bringing a new level of complexity (or insight) for marketers.

For science to be the new art, we must first acknowledge and understand the power of the numbers game. In online targeting, this means we must maximize all capabilities and track as many data points as possible to connect the consumer behavior dots.

What Does This Mean for Online Media?

Forrester’s 2004 research report “Left Brain Marketing” delineates the changing role of marketing from a historical creative-driven art to a media analytics-dominant science. Interestingly, it somehow foreshadows online media’s current transformation from a tactical discipline to a business-strategy practice.

Behavioral targeting, due to its unique ability to tap into the deep sea of consumer behavioral patterns and insights, certainly leads the way to a much more sophisticated online analytics platform.

Remember, though, behavior is a one-trick pony. It’s only one variable in a multivariable analysis that should occur on every ad call when it comes to targeting. We’re barely exploring the human psyche with behavioral targeting. All behaviors have meaning, and none occurs in a vacuum. There are always outside influences that change from moment to moment, and behaviors can change from moment to moment as a result.

It’s precisely this intricate dynamic that makes targeting the new art in marketing.

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