Buyer beware: behavioral science vs. behavioral marketing

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In the digital world, new buzz words sprout and spread faster than the crabgrass in my lawn. One of those recent buzz words is behavioral marketing (sometimes called behavioral targeting). As an agency founded on the principal that applying behavioral science to marketing communications leads to better conversations, I thought I would make sure brand mangers know what the application of behavioral science is (and what behavioral targeting isn't).

Behavioral science applied to marketing communications engages and targets consumers based on their beliefs, needs, motivations and barriers toward a particular behavior.

Behavioral science is based on the “ologies” (psychology, anthropology and sociology) and attempts to understand and predict human behavior based on real science with rigorous disciplines, methodologies and standards. When we apply this approach to marketing, we uncover deeper insights into why people act the way the do, what buttons we need to push to get them to act the way we would like and how to have more human and genuine conversations that ultimately lead to more engaging and enduring communications between the brand and its prospects and customers.

Behavioral targeting, on the other hand, uses transactional data (i.e. click stream data/analysis) to better target individuals who should be receiving an ad/message. While this is certainly smarter than simply buying a run-of-site or educated guesswork, it is not understanding the true underlying motivation and drivers that cause humans to behave the way they do.

Even the Obama administration understands that behavioral science is the key to getting taxpayers to act in a way that benefits us all. They have hired Cass R. Sunstein, co-author of Nudge, to head the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and include behavioral science  as a part of its consumer financial protection efforts.

So before you assume that all behavioral marketing is the same, ask your agency to explain how they uncover the behavior. What is their scientific expertise?  What tools and methodologies do they employ: transactional data alone or a combination of data sets? After all, we are complex beings and much of what we do cannot be defined in simple terms.

Jay Bigelow is president, MicroMass Communications

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