Behavioral targeting generally hunts for affinities. You read this -- so you must be interested in that. You did this online, so it is likely you are in market for that. You are friendly with her, so you must like similar things.
But what about the deeper motives that may drive purchase decisions? Is behavioral targeting even close to tracking the desires and values that drive people to certain brands?
The recent book "Buyology" by Martin Lindstrom, and the company of the same name started by Lindstrom and partner Gary Singer, CEO, Buyology, Inc., explore the "non-conscious" or non-cognitive drivers of decision-making. I spoke with Singer recently about the kinds of insight the company brings to brands, and how this maps against the approaches online ad targeting employs.
The original research on which the Buyology approach is based involved over 2,000 people whose brain patterns were studied as they responded to different kinds of messaging and symbols to determine the key drivers that moved them towards brands.
The theory goes that more than 85% of our decision process is really motivated by a deeper set of motives than conscious thought. Singer explains it as a two-by-two matrix in which one square in the decision set is transactional (price, promotions, etc. ) and the other is "relationship" -- or "the context in which you evaluate those transactions."
The same set of transactional offers may be made by two different companies, but our relationship to those companies determines two very different responses to the actions. "On the vertical there is conscious vs. non-conscious," says Singer. "There are things a brand does to me that I am very consciously aware about, and then there are things they do to me I am less consciously aware about. That is one framework we think about, which is right now most people are only measuring the conscious transactions because that is the easiest thing to measure."
Lindstrom studied brain responses to brands that seemed to have strong followings, like Apple, Starbucks, Harley-Davidson, and some, like AT&T and Microsoft, that had endured strong public criticism, even comparing them all to response to Catholic Church iconography among devout Catholics. "We identified what we call 'relationship drivers' that included things like clear vision, does the user of the brand have a sense of what is meaningfully distinctive about the brand, rituals, symbols, storytelling, etc.," says Singer. "These are the very tangible, measurable attributes that constitute strong non-conscious relationships between users and brands."
To use the reigning king of brand loyalty, Apple, this is a brand where just about anyone you ask can identify its clear vision. "You will get some version of usability and design," says Singer. When it comes to symbol, story and ritual, Apple is almost a textbook case of using the levers that drive desire for a brand. "Any Apple store is remarkable in the mythology that is communicated by the store," he says. "At the 59th St. store in New York you have a glass cube with absolutely nothing on it except for the visibility of the logo in the middle of the cube, and you have people actually walk down into this environment. It is the equivalent of walking into the Sistine Chapel. It is amazing. That leads you to the use of grandeur. Apple is unbelievably affective at employing symbols and ritual and storytelling and even a sense of mystery."
But if consumers are truly motivated by so much that is "non-conscious" and driven to buy brands according to richer affinity to story, ritual, meaning, vision, etc., then how does online ad targeting map against these patterns, I wondered. Is the simple pursuit of people's search patterns and content consumption really on the right trail, or does it miss addressing the largest areas of consumption motivation?
"I think that online advertising is very sophisticated in terms of the targeting tools they are using and very primitive in terms of their communications," says Singer, the former chief strategy officer at Interbrand. "I would say that the vast majority of online communications is in the upper-right-hand box of our matrix, which is very cognitive and very transactional. Where it is sophisticated is the ability to micro-target and to identify people very specifically. The vast majority of what I have seen has been extremely cognitive.
"So remember most of this is being driven by gearheads and digital geeks. All of these search engines are ultimately computer code and it doesn't get any more linear than that. And they are building algorithms that are extraordinarily logical.
"So Google at the head of the camp here is using a mathematical formulation to target people based on their behavior surfing the Net. So basically, in my opinion what is going on right now is, people are very sophisticated in identifying a very narrow group of people and delivering a relatively clumsy message. I don't think there is a lot of understanding and utilization of a more sophisticated understanding of the real motivations going on here and how to tap into those," Singer says.
In other words, online marketing messages are in line with only a small part of what motivates people to make a purchase decision and is missing much else. Relevant behaviors are being narrowly defined as an immediate need to acquire a good and the tools are not being used to more deeply understand the motivations behind the buy.
Singer says, "I think the hopeful future lies in using these targeting tools to uncover much more powerful insights. So if I can identify people either through search terms or search behavior who have exhibited certain characteristics, how do I reflect the understanding of those people in the message that is delivered to them?"
Right now almost everyone is looking at the same sets of data about us online. But in Singer's view, the next stage of data is to get beyond targeting and to contribute to messaging. "The real opportunity is, how do I provide you with proprietary understanding that gives you an edge versus the competition? I think that is where the behemoths on the supply side are going to be heading. Google is going to be looking for ways to be more proprietary and more provocative in the information, the access and ultimately the messaging that they offer their marketers."