It Takes More Than A Village

As anyone publishing a web site knows, you have a front row seat when it comes to observing a multitude of visitor behaviors. Yet, when it comes to advertising, we continue to profile site visitors in such an unsophisticated manner. Our profiles tend to group visitors into a single community or two, based on demographics, interests or subject areas.

We haven’t yet begun taking advantage of ethnographic insights, where visitor behaviors are understood both independently and as part of communities. When we do, the impact to advertising will be significant — following behaviors as they are being expressed.

At the moment, search ads quite literally respond to what visitors search while contextual ads appear based on specific content. However, these ad placements can’t foresee visitor intentions. Take for example travelers. They may be armchair dreamers, more budget conscious, long-term planners, or last minute vacationers. Just because 10 people search for travel excursions in the same manner, does not mean that their needs are exactly the same. Different visitors reflect separate communities of interest.

In yesterday’s Ad Age (paid access), author Tom Neveril addresses the bigger picture of customer wants and desires. He claims we should pay more attention to what consumers do. He says marketers typically research past behaviors, by triggering memories. He pushes for more focus on current behaviors, by asking consumers to journal. Tom also advocates capturing and understanding present behaviors. It’s hard to follow someone around in their native habitat. At least in the search environment, we’re lucky to see the natives!

What exactly is ethnographics? It’s a well-developed research methodology originally applied by sociologists and anthropologists. Modern-day market researchers often short-cut the process, but still have to “tune-in” with consumers and their activities. The idea is to study the emic perspective, or behaviors based on how individuals within communities perceive them. By studying and better understanding relevant communities, individual needs may be addressed better too.

One of the underpinnings of ethnographics, according to NCSU Professor David Garson, is defining the relevant community or communities of interest. In his Northern Carolina State University class notes, he explains, “In some settings, this can be difficult. Community, formal organization, informal group, and individual-level perceptions may all play a causal role in the subject under study, and the importance of these may vary by time, place, and issue. There is a possibility that an ethnographic focus may overestimate the role of community culture and underestimate the causal role of individual psychological or of sub-community (or for that matter, extra-community) forces.”

Why ethnographics? It provides an opportunity to add community targeting to the marketing arsenal. Web publishers tend to focus on visitor status and marketing responses. Segmentation is based on first vs. repeat visits; where visitors arrived from; whether they registered; or if they trigger specific key pages. These are valuable drivers of outcome, but knowing who you collectively reached is important too.

Fortunately, it’s getting easier to define multiple communities based on how visitors communicate. First, there are explicit communities. You can gauge interests based on what’s saved, shared or voted on — providing opinions to be mined. Whatever biases are included, they do reflect native interests. As a start, these interests can be profiled for ad purposes.

Implicit communities have the ability to capture even more about individuals. They aren’t dependent on outward participation levels or socialization. We should start thinking about visitors in terms of everything they consume on your domain. What are the intentions driving browsing and searching behaviors? My advice is not to get too distracted by web logs or pathing tools. It’s almost better to see changes that emerge suddenly or when you see any critical mass of interest forming. Technology has caught up in this arena too — for you to create dynamic profiles and also respond to your natives.

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