Targeting Ads to Individual Brains

Advertising is about awareness and resonance leading to engagement, desire and purchase. Savvy ad guys are constantly trying to improve our ability to understand, target and get inside the heads of target 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. But 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 are perennially chasing.

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?

There are countless personality survey instruments 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 on-going 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, called “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 US 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. But don’t take my word for it. Take the personality test and make your own assessment.

Ping 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 their dominant decision-making  time frame. Tacked on to these results are the intimatelycorrelated 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. And 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 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, wiord 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 big-brotherish 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 Yet maybe neuro-behavioral science can make us better at what we do. Even if this creeps you out, it’s worth looking at seriously.

One Response to Targeting Ads to Individual Brains

  1. Sue February 11, 2011 at 5:12 am #

    Interesting stuff – of course, the identification of different personality types goes right back to Hippocrates and the Four Humors – and probably earlier! New and more sophisticated systems are always worth a look, but I am convinced that the Holy Grail will never be found as whether you can predict future behaviour 100% by looking at the past is debatable.