Digital marketers should focus on intent over behaviour

Everyone these days has a funny story about how the internet thinks they have an unhealthy penchant for something – lingerie, perhaps, or leather upholstery – because of some careless act of idle browsing that has led to being incessantly followed around by targeted ads.

Michael Barnett

For me, it’s fake sunglasses. Ever since researching this investigative report on counterfeiters who tout their wares on social media, most ads served to me on Facebook seem to say something like: “Rar Bam aviators, only £20!”

‘Retargeting’, as we now call the tactic of showing people ads for products they have already viewed, has some fairly impressive case studies doing the rounds. You can see why: it’s the digital equivalent of a shop assistant who’s noticed you staring indecisively at a sofa popping in to your living room the next day to say: “Oh, go on!”

Sometimes, as a consumer, you’ll give in because it’s what you wanted after all.

But I struggle to believe this holds true for the majority of retargeted ads today, for one simple reason – more often than not they mistake the fact you’ve looked at something for an intention to buy it.

It’s an easy mistake to make, granted. You’d think, for example, that if someone puts an item in an online basket and enters their address details, it’s a signal of their purchase intent, or at least a high level of consideration. But some sites make doing that necessary in order to find out how long delivery takes. This makes inferring the level of intent very problematic, meaning that a marketer could be wasting money sending retargeted ads to the person when they didn’t really plan to buy.

To illustrate a second problem, here’s another real-world analogy for retargeted ads. As a student, I worked for a summer selling punting tours on the river Cam. If you saw someone heading down the steps towards the ticket desk and acted quickly enough, you could shove a sales slip into their hand before they got there – the customer got a discount and the salesman got commission. Everyone was happy. Except, of course, the tour company that had just had both ends of its profit margin sliced off.

I probably generated extra business with my presence, but I can also guarantee from the anguished responses of “for the 12th time, no!” that being asked repeatedly if they wanted to go punting turned more than a few people off the concept completely.

In this instance, we’re referring to the wastefulness of paying for ads that convince people to do what they were going to do anyway, as well as the unquantifiable annoyance of receiving too many of them.

Yet retargeting seems to work. And if A/B testing shows you earn better return on investment with it than without, then by all means it’s what you should be doing.

However, you can make the return higher still by trying harder to devise a campaign that responds not to arbitrary behaviour types – such as just looking at a product – but instead to reliable signals of intent where just one extra push is what’s needed to seal the deal. And that means setting up the customer’s entire journey through your site so that those signals are loud and clear.

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