A Parable for Digital Marketing

“Data Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is by  Ali Mirian, General Manager of Ecosystem at Recyclebank.

“I can’t help it. It’s in my nature.” These were the final words of the scorpion as he was drowning.

It all started when the scorpion asked a turtle to carry him across the river. The turtle, naturally, was dubious and unwilling to risk the scorpion’s sting. “But if I sting you, I’ll drown and nobody wins,” responded the scorpion. Fair point. The turtle, finally convinced, began the journey across the river with the scorpion on its back. Half way across, the scorpion does the unthinkable and stings the turtle. The turtle cries out to the drowning scorpion, “Why did you sting me knowing what would happen?” The scorpion answers with its final breath, “I can’t help it. It’s in my nature.”

This story, first told to me as a kid, helped shape my view on human behavior throughout my childhood — that we are who we are, so deal with it. Nobody ever mentioned there was another side to that coin. After centuries of research and debate, we now know that we are shaped by our nature, but can be nurtured as well.

Behavioral advertising is a nature discipline. You identify segments and affinity groups, make conclusions and predictions about their nature, and then target them. Now in its second decade, this discipline has evolved by effectively improving accuracy and increasing specificity, through constant refinement and extrapolation. We’re basically getting better at selecting the right message, time, and people. But selecting is not the same as affecting.

Many opined on the now famous New York Times article about how Target meticulously looks for signals in behavior change moments in consumers’ lives, for example “right around the birth of a child, when parents are exhausted and overwhelmed and their shopping patterns and brand loyalties are up for grabs.” And how Febreze was a success, not by changing habits, but by tapping into existing habits that were deeply ingrained.

But our algorithms have fallen short as a nurture discipline. Where we have only begun to evolve is in using what we know about people to create changes in behavior. Emerging gamification models are focused on just that and subscribe to the theory that a change in behavior is far more powerful and lasting than merely influencing a purchase. These models create useful new blueprints in behavior change by marrying age-old practices like loyalty programs with new-age game mechanics. The Internet’s connection economy amplifies them.

While the industry has come a long way in understanding the impact of behavior on messaging, it has been less focused on how messaging impacts behavior. Can we take the years of R&D in areas of purchase intent and the marketing funnel to make consumers more socially responsible? Can we apply what we know about shopping behavior for packaged goods or automobiles to drive more environmentally friendly decisions? You bet we can. Consumers are not hard-wired or change-proof, and will change behavior with the right motivation.

Just like Foursquare motivates with badges, new attempts employ a whole host of tactics. Rypple rewards employee performance with tangible rewards. Nike’s Fuelband encourages physical fitness by tracking your performance. Superfunner layers an educational curriculum with game mechanics like leveling up and earning points. Unlike the stick of a soda tax, IBM has invented a carrot of incentives to encourage healthy eating habits. Even Angry Birds uses a clever game to raise our consciousness about the ancient struggle between pigs and birds.

With today’s infrastructure and tools, there has never been a better time to apply our best practices beyond behavioral advertising and on to behavior change. The Internet first brought accessibility and choice to the mainstream. Now the growth in popularity of curation models, recommendation engines, and aggregators of all kinds indicate the consumer’s yearning to be guided by experts. This applies not just to the content they read, or products they are interested in, but to things that might elevate their social status, enhance their daily lives, or leave a positive legacy for the next generation.

The lesson that the scorpion and turtle has taught us is not just about an acceptance of our nature. It taught us that, even at our own peril, we are open. That we are the turtle as much as we are the scorpion.

The late writer David Rakoff wrote about the scorpion and the turtle, and summed it up best:

Though it may spell destruction, we still ask for more

Since it beats staying dry but so lonely on shore.

So we make ourselves open while knowing full well

It’s essentially saying, ‘Please, come pierce my shell.’

Follow Ali Mirian (@sitegeist) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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