Thursday, May 22, 2008

For Behavior Detection, Simple Triggers May Do the Trick

I was in the middle of writing last week’s post, on marketing systems that react to customers’ Web behavior, when I got a phone call from a friend at a marketing services agency who excitedly described his firm’s success with exactly such programs. Mostly this confirmed my belief that these programs are increasingly important. But it also prompted me to rethink the role of predictive modeling in these projects.

To back up just a bit, behavioral targeting is a hot topic right now in the world of Web marketing. It usually refers to systems that use customer behavior to predict which offers a visitor will find most attractive. By displaying the right offer for each person, rather than showing the same thing to everyone, average response rates can be increased significantly.

This type of behavioral targeting relies heavily on automated models that find correlations between the a relatively small amount of data and subsequent choices. Vendors like Certona and [X+1]tell me they can usually make valuable distinctions among visitors after as few as a half-dozen clicks.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this works because the system is able to track the results of making different offers. But this simple condition is not always met. The type of behavior tracking I wrote about last week—seeing which pages a visitor selected, what information they downloaded, how long they spent in different areas of the site, how often they returned, and so on—often relates to large, considered purchases. The sales cycle for these extends over many interactions as the customer educates herself, gets others involved for their opinions and approvals, speaks with sales people, and moves slowly towards a decision. A single Web visit rarely results in an offer that is rejected or accepted on the spot. Without a set of outcomes—that is, a list of offers that were accepted or rejected—predictive modeling systems don’t have anything to predict.

If your goal is to find a way to do predictive modeling, there are a couple of ways around this. One is to tie together the string of interactions and link them with the customer’s ultimate purchase decision. This can be used to estimate the value of a lead in a lead scoring system. Another solution is to make intermediate offers during each interaction, of “products” such as white papers and sales person contacts. These could be made through display ads on the Web site or something more direct like an email or phone call. The result is to give the modeling system something to predict. You have to be careful, of course, to check the impact of these offers on the customer’s ultimate purchase behavior: a phone call or email might annoy people (not to mention reminding them that you are watching). Information such as comparisons with competitors may be popular but could lead them to delay their decision or even end up purchasing something else.

Of course, predictive modeling is not an end in itself, unless you happen to sell predictive modeling software. The business issue is how to make the best use of the information about detailed Web (and other) behaviors. This information can signal something important about a customer even if it doesn’t include response to an explicit offer.

As I wrote last week, one approach to exploiting this information is to let salespeople review it and decide how to react. This is expensive but make sense where a small number of customers to monitor have been identified in advance. Where manual review is not feasible, behavior detection software including SAS Interaction Management, Unica Affinium Detect, Fair Isaac OfferPoint, Harte-Hanks Allink Agent, Eventricity and ASA Customer Opportunity Advisor can scan huge volumes of information for significant patterns. They can then either react automatically or alert a sales person to take a closer look.

The behavior detection systems monitor complex patterns over multiple interactions. These are usually defined in advance through sophisticated manual and statistical analysis. But trigger events can also be as basic as an abandoned shopping cart or search for information on pricing. These can be identified intuitively, defined in simple rules and captured with standard technology. What’s important is not that sophisticated analytics can uncover subtle relationships, but that access to detailed data exposes behavior which was previously hidden. This is what my friend on the phone found so exciting—it was like finding gold nuggets lying on ground: all you had to do was look.

That said, even simple behavior-based triggers need some technical support. A good marketer can easily think of triggers to consider: in fact, a good marketer can easily think of many more triggers than it’s practical to exploit. So a testing process, and system to support the process, is needed to determine which triggers are actually worth deploying. This involves setting up the triggers, reacting when they fire, and measuring the short- and long-term results. The process can never be fully automated because the trigger definitions themselves will come from humans who perceive new opportunities. But it should be as automated as possible so the company can test new ideas as conditions change over time.

Fortunately, the technical requirements for this sort of testing and execution are largely the same as the requirements for other types of marketing execution. This means that any good customer management system should already meet them. (Another way to look at it: if your customer management system can’t support this, you probably need a new one anyway.)

So my point, for once, is not that some cool new technology can make you rich. It’s that you can do cool new things with your existing technology that can make you rich. All you have to do is look.

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