Toward 'Open Source' BT: Conversation as Behavior

"Perception is reality" is a truism most successful brands understand instinctively. Yet as Justin Cooper, chief innovation and marketing officer at Passenger, explains below, few brands have ever taken the next step of understanding brand perception and loyalty as changing and changeable behaviors linked to conversation, community, advocacy and influence.

Behavioral Insider: What Passenger does in developing social media tools and community building for brands at first glance seems pretty far afield of behavioral targeting and advertising. How do you see what you do relating to behavioral targeting?

Justin Cooper: The days of tell and sell are over. Behavioral targeting, as most brands still think of it, is locked in an obsolete notion of what advertising is supposed to be limited to. What I mean is, most still are fixated on how people respond to banner ads. That's what they call behavior. But the bottom line is, customers don't care about banner ads. They care about the kinds of experience and associations they have with brands, products and services. They care above all about what real people, especially like-minded people, think and say.



BI: How is what you're talking about fundamentally different from just capturing what consumers are saying on chat rooms, for instance?

Cooper:There are many technologies that enable brands to listen in on and eavesdrop, if you will, on what people are saying about them online. But what we're talking about is real two-way engagement and interaction. We power private brand communities using consumers who've signed up to be in them. These social networks or brand communities can include from hundreds to several thousand people. The kinds of activities can include reviewing new products before they're released, reviewing or even helping to create advertisements and other brand networks, or to develop their own blogs and discussion groups.

BI: Who are some of the brands you've worked with, and what are their motivations in developing branded communities?

Cooper: Sarah Lee has developed a site. When they first did, we wondered, 'Well, are people going to want to talk about Ballpark Franks?' But what we found is a great deal of activity involving ideas for changes in product features or whole new products or initiatives. ABC-TV's 'Lost' has a thriving private community of 2,000 passionate viewers. Before producers make decisions on the show, they tap into what the community is saying every day.

BI: How does this enhanced participation translate into monitorable behavior?

Cooper: The way the most passionate consumers interact with the brand is the most profoundly relevant behavior there is. The crux of it is to monitor in a longitudinal way how preferences change over time. We provide tools to take a look at what brand loyalists and advocates are saying: what their preferences are and their attitudes and how they change day to day week to week, month to month. A primary difference between our platform and standard behavioral targeting is that everything we do is based on unique identifiers. All our members are completely opt-in. Unlike a traditional focus group, no one gets paid.

Another focus of behavior is to be able to look at clusters within the community and see what associations with products and brand attributes they share. We also want to look at how connections are formed, and identify patterns of influence. We segment groups by their types of preferences and how and what influences them. By engaging advocates, you get far deeper insight into who customers are, and what drives them in decision-making.

BI: What kinds of matrices do brands look at?

Cooper: The motivation is insuring the efficacy of the brand. History is all too full of examples of brands that became incredibly successful because they knew what their customers wanted, and then grew out of sync with their market because they weren't listening anymore.

There's plenty of evidence we're accumulating that advocates are not only the most representative customers, they are also the most influential. They are where, if you are paying attention, you can get early reads on how needs, interests and perceptions of your brands are really changing and evolving, as well as how relevant your brand is. You can learn how your brand is perceived and how your behavior is working. And that perception then changes reality, if you can find out what turns fans into brand fanatics and brand loyalists into advocates. We did a study a few years ago which will be updated -- but back then it was established that for one brand each advocate on average directly influenced 19 other buying decisions related to the product. So you have a profound derivative effect from cultivating and understanding the processes of loyalty, advocacy and influence.

BI: What's the near-term goal for where you want to see adoption of the approach headed?

Cooper: We've been very selective about the customers we've worked with so far. We've been lucky enough to collaborate with the most forward-thinking brands out there, Coca-Cola, Disney, Sarah Lee and others. Over the next period the goal is to extend the approach beyond the early-adopters to make brand conversation, advocacy and influence understood more widely as an integral component of understanding behavior, as well as make setting up and monitoring community a process that's much faster and easier to set up -- something brands can do themselves in a day or two to get started right away.

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