Technology, data and behavioural science make for interesting bedfellows - but which one should be in charge?
We have the data, but do we have the knowledge?
As marketers grow increasingly sophisticated in their efforts to gather consumer data, a panel of experts with backgrounds in anthropology, behavioural science, digital strategy and media planning, have explained why we only have half of what is really needed to make the most of Information Age advertising.
In a fascinating debate at the 2017 Connected Consumer Conference, hosted by Mediatel, we learned what was essentially a magic formula for better advertising - but the ingredients to make it work were not always easy to acquire.
"Technology is now helping us to study human behaviour in a much more detailed way," says Tom Laranjo, managing director, Total Media.
"Applying an ethnographic approach in digital, you can start to really dig deep into a range of behaviours that drive our decisions."
However, this has generated so much excitement it has quickly led, in many cases, to over-claims and over-investment much too early on in the game, Laranjo warns.
"We're very good at gathering information at scale, but what we're not so brilliant at, yet, is having knowledge.
"Knowledge is the addition of experience and context to information. We're not necessarily at the stage of being able to use the data as powerfully as we one day might."
Tamsin Hussey, left, with Tom Laranjo at the Connected Consumer Conference
For agencies making the investment in this area, Laranjo's comments might make them pause for thought. He suggests that although we have more data than ever before, the application of behavioural science to truly understand motivations and decisions is too often being applied in a very "granular" fashion.
There is also a temptation in the agency world to organise information without applying the right level of scientific reasoning.
“What behavioural science is so brilliant at is giving us the capability to understand a higher order problem and then see about the relativity of marketing within that problem,” Laranjo says.
“I think what agencies are trying to do at the moment is codify those signs very rapidly, give it an acronym and sell it. That’s a mistake."
Laranjo says this approach risks glossing over more complex or nuanced behaviours which could have led to more effective marketing.
“Most of what we do is not actually consuming," he says. "We are not actually consumers, we are people, and we do a lot of other things other than consumption.”
Meanwhile, Tamsin Hussey, a senior digital strategist at Infosys, says a challenge in the world of agencies, or even organisations as a whole, is trying to get everyone to work together and towards the same behaviour change goal.
"It’s never the media alone," she says. "It’s the media with a problem, with a solution, with the technology, with a great user experience, with the right kind of feedback.
"Only that sort of holistic approach can result in the big shift in behaviour that you want to see."
The technology must serve the behaviour
Richard Chataway, founder of Communication Science Group, says you don't have to look far to see behavioural science working well with technology.
For Chataway, a disciple of Rory Sutherland, some of the most successful companies on the planet learned long ago that a behaviour-first approach should always be the starting point. That's why Amazon, Google and Apple have created such popular products and services.
"Take Google, from the start they designed tech that could meet a consumer need and tackle a behavioual challenge," he says.
"When Google first launched in the late 90s it wasn't the only search engine. But what they understood was the behaviour inherent in people's search patterns. They knew they should rank pages by what other people were searching for rather than providing a directory of available websites. They also knew simplicity was key and designed one simple search bar.
Yahoo, on the other hand, had buttons all over the place; it had options to search by different categories...and now it's fallen by the wayside."
Richard Shotton (chair), left, with Chataway
For Chataway, this is an example of why advertisers should also deploy a behaviour-first approach if they want get “upstream of a problem”.
By this, Chataway means figuring out the source of the challenge and then deciding what the most effective solution, or “lever”, is to change behaviour.
“Ultimately clients want to change behaviour in some way,” Chataway says. “Whatever brief you get from them will be a behaviour change - whether that’s getting the consumer to buy more products, or use a service in a different way.”
The real opportunity is to use behavioural science more strategically to get an understanding of what the key drivers and barriers really are to a particular challenge.
This could even lead to more profound conclusions - such as questioning whether the solution is even to advertise at all.
“Why are you advertising in the first place? What role does advertising play? Is it the most effective lever for you to be changing behaviour? Because if it’s not then there are other solutions you can offer to clients,” Chataway says.
“Some of the most successful projects and programmes I’ve worked on in the past have been non-advertising led solutions.”
Finding the motivation
Digital marketing has given rise to a new age of personalisation, so how does a behaviour-first approach fit in?
"We spend a lot of time talking about personalisation, cookies and hyper-personalisation," says Laranjo, "but the opportunity is actually linked to groups of commonality behaviour, so motivation changes much more readily than behaviour."
Laranjo explains that we have thousands of different motivations for what we do and addressing them is interesting for marketers as it provides the opportunity for thousands of different dynamic creative iterations, or hyper-personalisation for different media or products.
"But in the end, our behaviours are often frighteningly, startlingly similar," he says.
"Addressing that, and starting there - that is where our focus should be."
And it's not just that our behaviours are strikingly similar - they are very rigid too, as Bill Bernbach, the late advertising creative director, noted a long time ago.
"It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary.
"It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own."
Yet armed with this knowledge, adland now arguably has the sophisticated technology and the big data it produces to really make us think twice about ourselves.