Q&A: Wooing Women through Behavioral Targeting

Women's marketing expert Andrea Learned likes to think that women test out brands almost as if they're dating those brands. When it comes to employing behavioral targeting to woo women, Learned, the president of Learned on Women and co-author of Don't Think Pink: What Really Makes Women Buy, stresses the fine line between attracting women and turning them off. We checked in with Learned for more insights into this market.

Behavioral Insider: How would you describe behavioral marketing?

Andrea Learned: My understanding of it is, bottom line, it's not what people are buying, it's how they're buying. There's no way you can market to all women everywhere; you have to really examine how this very specific group of women is responding and reacting and behaving in their lives overall, to figure out how you're going to present your brand in a way that fits what they're already used to.

BI: That raises a broader issue: I follow this stuff for a living, so when I say behavioral targeting, I'm referring to certain companies and what they do. But when people like you hear the word 'behavioral,' you hear it in the more classic, traditional, advertising sense, so there's a disconnect there.

Learned: There is a disconnect there. It's one of those things that's so industry-specific and so technical that I think there's a learning curve for brands to kind of get in there.... I think that you can hire a company to really dial in and do behavioral targeting, but you are still going to have to talk to the people and do the kinds of research outside of just following them around online.

BI: Do you think there's a difference in the way women use the Internet -- or visit certain Web sites and interact with them -- and the way men do? Is there a difference in the way those things should be interpreted [by behavioral marketers]?

Learned: Yes. If you ever read Paco Underhill's Why We Buy: The Science Of Shopping, he talks about how the way men and women shop offline is almost the reverse online. So, offline, women shopping potentially can be more of a social thing, and they meander with their girlfriends or whatever; and men are like, "Yuck, I can't stand this. I'm going to go buy my pair of shorts. I'm out." Online it's [the] reverse, in that women are much more tactical, and they do their research and they don't meander. Men tend to get lost in Web sites more.

BI: In behavioral targeting they would say, so-and-so was already visiting this travel page, and that time she saw this ad copy. Now let's show her this one, which has a little bit more of a direct-response angle to it. Is there a difference in the way women might respond to certain types of messages if they see multiple ads from the same company over, say, a month-long period?

Learned: Women like to get the sense that they're known, that they're understood... If you can, over time, make something more and more relevant, women do give you a chance. I like to say they kind of go out on dates with brands.

BI: One of the things that people bring up when it comes to customizing ad messages based on previous behavior is the privacy concern. [Consumers] might appreciate the sense of being understood, but if it gets too detailed, there's a fine line.

Learned: Advertisers need to know how savvy their women's market is in terms of their Web use --- their familiarity or their learning curve. They probably have their five profiles of women, so if they're targeting women who are sort of newer to the Web, they're going to have to walk a fine line there.... Whereas an ad would change for somebody who's a more sophisticated Web user, [when] we already know that this woman isn't, we're not going to freak her out. We're going to be a little bit more subtle with how we refine this ad. There are different comfort levels.

BI: Let's say I've done research online on consumer electronics over the past month, and let's say Yahoo!'s gathered this information on me, and I happen to come back, maybe visiting their national news section. But they know that I'm that same person who has been searching out this other stuff, so they target me and say, 'Go to Buy.com and pick up that digital camera that you wanted.'

Learned: I'm thinking that that isn't going to be as effective with women.... One of the things that is true about women is, they'll notice disconnects. If it's something that doesn't fit, or seems to come out of nowhere, there's going to be a red flag, or a little bit more suspicion of it.

BI: Is it also just that people who are more easily distracted are more likely to respond?

Learned: Potentially, but I think it's more about the way the brains are working. There's so much more involved in a woman's purchase. She can't be doing all this research and still not have bought it and then be on the Yahoo site and have them go, 'Boom -- this camera's for sale.' It's almost like a flash interruption. That isn't going to influence her, because her mind is gathering [information]; women process things in a much more gathering style. Behavioral targeting, much as it may seem like it's really dialing in, it could throw off something that a woman's [been] building in her head or gathering for a long time.