When behaviour meets maths

As the industry obsesses over stats and clicks, Tom Laranjo from Total Media looks at how behavioural insights can elevate programmatic buying

Laranjo: ‘has the industry forgotten how purchasing behaviours and motivations impact on campaigns?’
Laranjo: ‘has the industry forgotten how purchasing behaviours and motivations impact on campaigns?’

In the past 30 years, the media industry has experienced a raft of changes, from the fragmentation of channels to a huge digital transformation, where focus is on click-through-rates and acquisitions.

With all the changes in traditional media planning and buying, have we lost our ability to understand the behaviours underpinning consumers’ purchasing decisions?

Our industry is among the most advanced and dynamic in the world: with new tools and platforms being launched daily, media channels are in a constant state of flux and the landscape looks very different to that of 30 years ago.

Buying tools such as programmatic (the use of an automated, algorithmic approach to the buying and selling of online ad space) are fundamentally changing the way media planners operate.

In particular, programmatic buying – which was merely a twinkle in a digital buyer’s eye a few years ago – has revolutionised the way media planners buy campaigns, enabling them to target ever-more segmented audiences.

It’s through this intelligent automation process that planners and marketers can harness huge volumes of consumer data to better target their communications. But are they targeting people or generic profiles?

With all the emphasis seemingly on numbers, statistics and clicks, has the media industry forgotten how customers’ purchasing behaviours and motivations impact on campaigns?

Accuracy without precision

In The Signal & The Noise, Nate Silver argued that, while access to overwhelming volumes of data has enabled us to be more accurate, this has not necessarily led to greater precision. This is potentially true of "data-driven" programmatic trading.

We can now design ever-more accurate audiences using first-, second- and third-party data. We can target intent or "behaviour" or context. But are we being more precise?

Combining a huge variety of different data sources to create "accurate" target audience groups and trading these audiences in real time, while appealing, should not be an instant reflex. Above this should sit a greater understanding of what drives our behaviour.

Not just our digital behaviour but how we behave overall and what guides our decisions in all fields. Questions such as "In what context do I feel powerful?" or "When in my life do I feel a need for new experiences?" or "How does technology alter behaviour?" should sit above our instinct to dive into the detail.

Take, for example, a campaign targeted to millennials to promote a new range of sports apparel. An accurate trading audience could be "aged 18-30, viewed content about x sports brand in last 30 days, targeted across multiple devices (laptop, tablet and mobile) to account for "tri-screening".


What’s something you can usefully accomplish in 30 seconds?

I can make my daughter laugh without fail.

What should everyone in marketing or the media have accomplished by the age of 30?

Everyone should have had the courage to say no.

You’ve got £30 burning a hole in your pocket: what do you buy?

Thirty lottery tickets. Not that I’m a rabid gambler.

What’s something you can do in 30 minutes that will change your life?

Propose, get married, have a baby, complete on a house – a lot can happen in 30 minutes!


While this audience is certainly accurate, a challenge comes with targeting across devices. What numerous studies have shown is that we are cognitively unable to multitask. We can either listen or speak or read. One task at a time, no matter what age or gender. Not only can we not multitask but doing so comes with a significant cost to concentration and task completion (see Stanford University’s 2009 study).

This means that while we can accurately target simultaneously, cross-platform we are targeting a behaviour (multitasking) that has a negative, cognitive cost.

While transparency, viewability and quality all dominate the conversation around programmatic trading, perhaps an equally important question is: "How are we taking advantage of the spectacular opportunity that programmatic trading, combined with real behavioural insights, offers to deliver more precise campaigns?" Technology should enable us to target behaviour, not drive it.

Tom Laranjo is the managing director at Total Media