Advertising is about awareness and resonance leading to engagement, desire, and purchase. Savvy ad guys constantly try to improve our ability to understand, target, and get inside the heads of specific customers to optimize the efficiency and effectiveness of the memes and means of communication.
Traditionally, the tools for calibrating images, messages, concepts, and media choices were multiple forms of qualitative and quantitative market research and media-usage ratings filtered through creative gut instinct. Behavioral data and neuroscience are new tools for hedging our bets and for cueing creatives. However, old habits are hard to break.
New approaches and new research raise the prospect of identifying the ways we think, process, understand, and choose content, which should inform how ads are made and where ads are placed. This is the Holy Grail that art directors, copywriters, strategic planners, and user interface designers perennially chase.
Underlying these approaches are an array of assumptions worth articulating:
Different people think and process in different ways.
Thinking styles are hard-wired from birth.
Much of our thinking process is subconscious.
How we think determines our behavioral choices.
There are identifiable brain processing styles.
We are overwhelmed with inputs and stimuli.
A lot of our thinking is dedicated to sorting and filtering.
The Internet has changed the way we read and process; maybe how we think.
If you know how we think, you can figure out better ways to communicate.
If you can tag people by how they think, you can persuade them better or faster.
The obvious conclusion is to create a segmentation scheme that accurately reflects differences among target audiences then craft messages that appeal directly to each segment delivered according to stated or inferred customer preferences.
Sounds like a piece of cake — doesn’t it?
Countless personality-survey instruments exist that type and segment people along some variation of the Myers-Briggs axes. They range from sophisticated tools to simple magazine-like quizzes. Each purports to help understand what kind of person you are and by understanding personality types and/or matching it with demographic data, marketers can infer likes, dislikes, and media preferences.
In the direct and database world, marketers have become extremely sophisticated at using behavioral data and purchase history to model segments and predict likely behaviors. Yet having mastered serial regressions techniques, these guys can tell you who is likely to buy with very good accuracy, but they don’t know why.
How and why researchers slice and dice the audience seems to make all the difference. The battle to determine the best, the most accurate research methodology has been going on since the first ad was written.
Among the classic arguments used to promote or to discredit various technical approaches are:
The people who make the ads aren’t the same as those who receive them.
The sample isn’t statistically significant, representative, or project able.
The data doesn’t control for environmental or cultural factors.
The data only shows what they do, not why they do it.
The segments are fancifully named, but you can’t actually find these customers.
The segments align with sellers' desires, not buyers’ needs.
Into this ongoing debate comes Xyte Technologies, a start-up behavioral research firm in Madison, WI, led by Linda McIsaac, a psychologist.
Xyte starts with a personality profile and layers on different data in seven steps to create a funnel-like filtration process that supposedly can predict who will like and respond to specific creative stimuli. In working with clients like CBS TV Networks and Pepsi, they conduct additional product/service-centric surveys that probe for buying habits, leisure activities, and media usage.
The filtration process begins with a 16 cell segmentation scheme, “Xying Insights,” which promises in 28 questions to “identify different ways people absorb, process, and delineate information” as well as “understand how the mind functions.” The cells are pretty discrete. The biggest cell, “Organize,” is just 16% of the population, and the smallest, “Operate,” is just 3%, five times smaller. These segments have been tested and validated by overlaying them on panels representative of the U.S. population operated by Knowledge Networks and StartSampling
These serious claims, tested in military, corrections, youth development, and HR markets, seem to border on the efficacy of the Vulcan mind-meld.
Don’t take my word for it. Take the personality test and make your own assessment: Ping firstname.lastname@example.org for a personal password to the survey.
Layered on top of the 16 behavioral profiles are four sets of “dichotomies” that separate consumers by how their minds work, where they get their energy from, what makes them comfortable, and what their dominant decision-making time frame. Tacked on to these results are the intimately correlated variables of income and education and some consideration for environment, genetics, and personal experiences.
Mind function is divided between “weavers,” who weave data together and see interruptions as opportunities for intellectual riffs, versus “drivers,” who are precise step-by-step linear thinkers. Energy is either passive and inward-facing and protective or outward-facing and aggressively proactive. Comfort is a function of either rational and logical thinking or people-oriented feelings as the dominant approach for assessing information. Decision-making focuses on whether you are a short-term, in-the-moment thinker or a future-focused, abstract thinker.
When the four dichotomies are overlaid on the 16 personality types they yield four decision-making constructs.
Mind. People who solve problems and think visually or in abstractions. They rely on instinct to make decisions and have a wry sense of humor.
Word. Stories, words, and people matter most. Puns, plays on words, rhythms, and cadences resonate with them. Most of the creative community falls in this bucket.
Body. These customers learn by touching and feeling. Tangibility and experience influences their choices. They like what they know and are resistant to change.
Hand. They hold it and know it. Short-term focused, hardly engaged these consumers are mavericks who don’t respond to emotional appeals.
By addressing these constructs directly, advertisers avoid talking to themselves and instead appeal to the way each segment perceives their reality. On the basis of this worldview, Xyte argues that since Word people only represent 18.5% of the population, the copy, visuals, and channels that turn them on don’t work for the other 81.5% of us. This disparity in job function explains why so many ads fall flat; we’re talking to ourselves, not our target audiences. Moreover, they argue that the clients who approve creative work share the word propensity and therefore compound the error.
The yield for creatives from this complex series of overlays and calculations is a formula to make ads resonate and stick better with their intended audiences. By using this matrix of data, writers, designers, and producers can identify and map content, input sense, receptivity, word choice, visuals, comfort, humor, music, and media channel to better engage, incite, and motivate target audiences. The promise is that marketers can speak each individual’s “brain language.”
It’s weird and Orwellian that what we think of as personal, idiosyncratic, and complex can be known and studied. Nobody likes feeling that exposed. The idea that our innate preferences and subconscious bio-mechanical systems can be explored and exploited by marketers is uncomfortably intrusive. Perhaps neuro-behavioral science can make us better at what we do. Even if this creeps you out, it is worth a serious look.