Behavior Modification: The Mobile Edition

I don’t know who exactly came up with the term “behavioral targeting,” but if we ever do identify the scoundrel, I recommend at least public vilification. Better still, at the next OMMA Data event let’s pull the wag out behind the hotel and administer a wedgie.

No one in the media industries asks recovering academics like myself for advice on these things. But even I could have told all of you a decade ago that in American culture attaching the term “behavioral” to anything (ANYTHING, I say) is not going to turn out well.

I know whereof I speak. The “father of behaviorism,” John B. Watson, was one of the subjects of my own doctoral dissertation. Watson famously denied the existence of consciousness altogether and insisted humanity was the sum total of their habits. In an infamous “Little Albert experiment,” Watson conditioned an 11-month-old boy to fear a white rat that he intuitively considered fun and fuzzy. American were horrified. Because he was the original idiot science nerd, Watson followed up with a child rearing book that advised Draconian toilet training and insane rigor. An extramarital affair led to his dismissal from Johns Hopkins in 1920, which in turn led to his move into (wait for it) the advertising industry. I can’t make this stuff up.

B.F. Skinner met with similar controversy when his theories of human action seemed to many wholly dismissive of thinking, emotion or perception as elements in our behavior.

Rightly or wrongly, Americans have a reflex reaction to behavioral theory because it always seems to start by diminishing one of the hallmarks of our cultural identity: free will. You just aren’t going to get very far here tossing that term around. For online advertising, that realization came a bit late in the game, after the Federal Trade Commission pretty much stamped much of the field "OBA" (for online behavioral advertising). Now all the industry can do is peddle back with euphemisms like “Interest-based advertising.” Yeah, like that's going to work.

This is all preamble to my noting the return of the term “behavior” to marketing discussions of mobile media. As any smartphone or tablet user knows, the introduction of these gadgets into our lives in recent years has introduced new media consumption patterns. Many of us (myself included) now spend much of the TV prime-time hours with one eye on the iPad and the other on the TV. Arguments over sports trivia or who starred in which film during lunches and coffee breaks have been forever transformed by the ubiquitous accessibility of mobile search. Waiting -- on lines, in offices, for meals, just about anywhere -- is an opportunity to consult messages and news on a cell phone.

New behaviors and rituals are emerging, and so marketers are trying to capture and insert themselves into these new attention paths -- and shape them as well. The check-in was among the first attempts to modify our behaviors in the mobile realm, to get us into a new mobilized habit of signaling to our social network where we were and what we were doing. I have to admit I always found this check-in trope annoying precisely because it felt like a false behavior being foisted upon us, more for the interests of startups than for us. Goby CEO Mark Watkins wrote a widely shared piece in ReadWriteWeb this week called, ominously,  “2011: the Year The Check-In Died.” Basically he argues that most check-in schemes are waning because the activity did not render much value for the user.

The counterargument from check-in diehards is that eventually we will see value attached to checking in at places. Well, maybe. I would argue that the core problem here is that checking in feels like a “behavior,” not an “activity.” There is a world of difference between handing a cashier a loyalty or rewards card at checkout (essentially a check-in), and having to jump through a hoop of pulling a phone out, launching an app and actively broadcasting where I am. In the first case, I already have my wallet out to make a payment, and the benefit of using the card is immediate and demonstrable. In the latter case, I am having to activate a new action for an amorphous benefit.

Obviously the answer to all of this is passive checking in, where the technology via RFID or other geolocation maneuvers detect presence and checks in for you. But that scenario at best requires proactive management of where and why you do and don’t want to be checked in. And the model gets creepy awfully fast.

My point is that we are embarking on a new stage of digital evolution, where behavior is of tantamount concern to all members of the mobile marketing value chain. I am already seeing startups insist that their apps are sparking “new behaviors” among user. Second-screen tablet and smartphone apps are early culprits in this. Apps that are designed to run in tandem with TV programs are claiming they are “driving new behaviors” that will benefit brands.  

I reported earlier this week on new research claiming that location-based mobile promotions can modify shopping activity according to how much of a discount is offered how close to the point of sale. The shopkick app, which offers rewards points for engaging with brand content, scanning items and checking in at stores, claimed it had helped cause a second Black Friday of store traffic recently by pushing extra rewards opportunities to people.

An early location-based marketer told me a story years ago about how a simple text message sent to just a fraction of mallgoers during one experiment influenced user behaviors in ways you could see. He was standing in the mall and signaled to his home office to drop the planned text message, which offered opted-in users a free Apple Store gift card to the first 10 customers who came to a specific store in the mall. He told me he literally saw waves of people look at their phones as they all got the message at the same time and race through the mall to nab this flash sale. “The security staff at the mall insisted that we never do that again,” he told me. It risked real mayhem.  

All promotions are in some measure about incentivizing desired behaviors, to be sure. But mobile media personalizes everything and so raises the stakes and the sensitivities around everything we do. Take care what you do here -- and the terminology you use to describe it.   

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5 comments about "Behavior Modification: The Mobile Edition".
  1. Jeff Hirsch from CPXi , March 16, 2012 at 1:01 p.m.
    In my former role as the CEO of AudienceScience (formerly Revenue Science) I publicly apologized while on numerous panels at various industry events for the fact that company coined the term "behavioral." It was introduced by our former CEO around 2003 and I agree that it was an unfortunate moniker that stuck. On behalf of my former company, I'll apologize again. That said, when you are leading the charge on something as important as the use of data to drive digital efficiency and performance, the word was a relevant descriptor.
  2. Louis Moynihan from Demandbase , March 16, 2012 at 1:34 p.m.
    Agreed. I am trying to create a better term for an upcoming B2B Display product, that has positive implications on Mobile too. So I am trying to figure out what the alternatives are for the term "behavioral" Maybe: * Efficient Targeting * Attractive Targeting * Opt-in targeting obviously, they all sound horrible, but do you have any ideas as to what might work better even if it sounds awful ?
  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , March 16, 2012 at 3:05 p.m.
    Very Pavlovian, no ?
  4. Ronald Stack from Zavee LLC , March 16, 2012 at 6:07 p.m.
    Linking the loyalty/reward program to a credit/debit card is another approach. The same activity (card tender) both completes the purchase and triggers the reward. Best may be to combine registered card with passive check-in, so the consumer can see geo-targeted info and offers prior to purchase and earn rewards when the purchase is made.
  5. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia , March 26, 2012 at 2:58 p.m.
    Louis -- semantically speaking -- while the word "behavioral" brings up the negative connotation of being studied like a lab rat -- to my mind the reason you can't find a phrase that fits is because the word "targeting" is actually worse than behavioral: it connotes the sense that consumers are being hunted, like prey. "Profiling" is equally bad. I'd go with a term that uses two positives .. along the lines of "Anticipatory fulfillment "