As an online publisher, you probably use audience targeting: whether done through algorithms or manually by an editor, the aim of audience targeting is to increase the probability that your site visitors will read more of your content. Here are some reflections and suggestions based on my experience as a consumer of digital media, and as someone who’s spent a couple of decades studying consumer behavior.
1. Target behaviors, not people. A significant focus of audience targeting is on “understanding” each site visitor, and presenting content relevant to that visitor. However, a more valuable approach might be to consider what the visitor is doing at the specific time of the visit. For example, if I landed on your page by clicking a link from an email newsletter, there is a good chance that my current focus is on going back to reading my email, not browsing more news. In contrast, if I came in from another part of your site, I am probably in the mood to explore.
2. Focus on the present, not the past. Many behavioral targeting techniques look at a user’s past behavior, for example based on cookies or data from prior visits. However, this is not always a good predictor of current interests. By focusing too heavily on the past, you assume that users’ tastes and behavior don’t change, and are likely to miss your visitors’ evolving interests and passions.
3. Encourage serendipity. Site optimization and targeting techniques tend to reduce choices, based on the assumption that whatever you liked before is indicative of what might interest you now. However, this can stifle serendipity. Our thirst for knowledge is often quenched when we find new, unexpected things. So, along with the recommendations from your editors or your targeting algorithms, make sure you inject plenty of random, unexpected items.
4. There’s no such thing as “average” behavior. I buy a lot of things online: sometimes for myself, other times for friends, for kids, for colleagues, or even as a favor to someone else. If one were to look at my “average” shopping behavior, they might conclude that I am either a lunatic or suffer from multiple personalities. Likewise with the way I follow the news: Some days I feel like deep, insightful pieces; sometimes I am in the mood for a quick, light read; other times I might see something that I think a friend will find interesting. Trying to come up with an average representation of my preferences can lead to meaningless results.
5. When in doubt, ask. It’s surprising to me how rarely Web sites ask me what I’m interested in at a particular moment. When I first register on a new site, I am often asked about my interests and preferences. Why not give me unobtrusive options to let you know what I’m looking for or interested in each time I visit your site?
6. Think about long-term satisfaction and loyalty. There’s little doubt that most publishers are focused on maximizing engagement right now. You win if I click, you lose if I close the window. Still, sometimes pushing me to click content or trying to prevent me from leaving your site will just annoy me and make it less likely that I will come back.
7. Focus on quality. Ultimately, the best way to make your visitors happy and loyal is to write good content and create a positive user experience. Giving your target audience something meaningful and memorable is the best way to build a loyal audience. If publishers spent more time creating quality content and less time trying to grab eyeballs in the short term, we would all be better off.