Real time advertising could play a role in sustainable behaviour change

Originally published in Guardian Sustainable Business in 2014 following on from two features I wrote for the Drum on the rise of programmatic media trading and its disruption of the advertising industry. They’re quite technical, but read them here and here (I recommend Digiday’s WTF series if you want help decoding all the jargon).

If you read the marketing press at all, you will have heard of a new trend in “real time advertising”. If not, you’ll be aware of sites asking you to opt into cookies, or being followed around the internet by shoes you almost bought a week ago.

Gone are the days when advertisers had to buy large amounts of space in a magazine they hoped the target demographic would read. Now, individuals can be targeted, based on information harvested from your desktop and mobile phone. Ad space is bought and sold in real time, based on what data predicts you might do next.

The most prevalent way of using this technology is re-targeting, where advertisements appear for sites you have recently visited. However, data collecting and pattern spotting are now getting more sophisticated. Analytics agencies claim to be able to predict where you might go next and place ads for corresponding sites. If you have searched for flights to Amsterdam, you might start to see adverts for Amsterdam hotels, car hire and money changing services.

A recent campaign, designed to increase sales of Vodafone roaming packages in the Netherlands over the summer reportedly improved conversion rates by 198%. If buying behaviour can be changed in this way, could other behaviours? Could real time advertising be used to act as nudges towards more sustainable behaviour? Given the industry is advancing at such a rate, the question may not be “what could we do with this technology?”, but rather “what should we do with it?”

Personal data collected in this way is already being used, with consent, in smoking cessation studies. Human behaviour is strongly influenced by situation. Data collected through mobile phones is used to pinpoint situations where the user is most likely to want to smoke and time the delivery of text messages or other nudges. UCL recently analysed the StopAdvisor website, which demonstrated a 36% higher quit rate among smokers with lower incomes who used the interactive site over a static information website.

Dr Jamie Brown, research associate at UCL, who was heavily involved in the StopAdvisor study sums up the advantages of digitally placed nudges: “Previously, there would have been a disconnect between the messaging and the call to action. You may have seen a hard-hitting smoking campaign on television and thought about quitting, but not been able to get a doctor’s appointment that week. Here you have the opportunity to connect the two.”

Personalisation: a mixed bag

However, changing a health-based behaviour through a series of structured interventions in an environment where they’ve opted in is very different to changing a more abstract one in the advertising space. While there is much hype surrounding real time advertising, not everyone is convinced the technology is advanced enough to be truly effective. One issue is the ability for the ads to be truly personalised.

We know that the more personalised something is, the more likely we are to react well to it (think of the success of Coca-Cola’s named cans), yet, if something is not personalised enough, it can actually cause negative reactants. Dr Felix Naughton, senior research associate at the University of Cambridge, explains how we find crudely personalised spam insulting. Those of us sharing devices who have received untimely clues to our partner’s Christmas present searches, or been chased around Facebook by weight loss products merely because we are in our 30s and female will know this well.

Both academics and agency people are sceptical that changing complex or habitual behaviours could be achieved through real time advertising alone, but seemed to think it could be used as a part of a framework of interventions. However, it seems that the technology is not currently being used by behaviour change agencies and according to Oliver Payne, founder of behaviour change agency, The Hunting Dynasty, the need for better targeting is not the reason.

He talks of an agency knowledge gap around behaviour change and calls for more psychologists and anthropologists to be recruited into communications. He also warns of the mistake of overvaluing “creativity” when designing strategies for behavioural change; starting with the sometimes repetitive or unglamorous methods that are proven to work is often better. Indeed, much of the current conversation around real time advertising is about the way it is bought and sold “programmatically” (much like the stock market) and not about how it can be effectively integrated into the creative process.

Of course, all of this use of data to manipulate behaviour strays dangerously into debatable ethical territory. As recent scandals involving Facebook and OKCupid have shown, people don’t take kindly to being manipulated without their consent. Jez Groom, group chief strategy officer of Ogilvy & Mather and co-founder of #ogilvychange identifies some of the ethical issues with combining personal data with psychology to nudge them to make certain choices: “You’re looking at personal, subconscious signals and you’re using this to direct people to things that are not necessarily in their best interests in the long term… I think we’re quite close to the line of acceptability already, and that’s a narrative I wouldn’t want to happen.”

However, others, such as Todd Tran, Nexage’s Europe managing director, believe the evidence suggests we are happy for advertisers to send us relevant advertisements and currently have limited privacy fears with respect to it. He believes we are seeing an emerging conversation where consumers will be “building, providing and selling their profiles to take control of the process and increase the percentage of relevant ads”. This, in itself could represent a behaviour change opportunity. Could users start to opt into advertising that nudges them towards a sustainable lifestyle?

Real time advertising could have a future as a behaviour change tool as part of a wider strategy, but it still needs to overcome current technological barriers and an agency skills gap before it will do. In the interim, it will continue be used to make it easier for us to buy ever more things.

Melbourne: poached eggs and epiphanies

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Melbourne is a huge culture shock after Hong Kong. It’s a sprawling low rise mix of wild west and Berlin cool with stylish and disarmingly friendly residents. Vegetarian restaurants, bars, vintage stores and endless coffee shops line the graffitied streets of Fitzroy and laneways of the City, reminding me of Hackney or Montpelier in Bristol. Coffee is a serious business, brunch is the most important meal of the day and the north/south divide created by the Yarra river is a cultural as well as physical one. The weather is like an April day in the UK, flitting from bright sunshine, to intense cold wind to torrential rain in an instant. It’s familiar and strange all at once, both reminding me of home and the furthest away from it I’ve ever been.

It’s easy to see why Melbourne regularly gets voted the most livable city on Earth. The city is navigable, public transport workable, working hours seem reasonable and compensation adequate. The pace of life strikes me as one of gentle hedonism: a contented slow burn, fuelled mostly by (delicious) filter coffee and organic poached eggs. With my experience of urban living being the London lifestyle of sleep deprivation, intense highs, grinding lows and chaotic humanity, it’s surprisingly hard to get used to.

Comms and marketing are intriguing. There is a simple, direct and straightforwardness that is artless at times and refreshing at others. Common sense and straight talking are clearly valued. Sustainability communications seem few and far between. Those that I see are from familiar sources: local campaign groups, restaurants or in parks and fall into the usual camps of too rational, expressing ‘dos & don’ts’ signaling a premium, failing to connect action and consequence or misdirected humour.

Harry as 'Crapman'!
Harry as ‘Crapman’!
Wipe for Wildlife
Wipe for Wildlife

So, here’s a summary of what I’ve learned:

  • Australian history is fascinating: After a couple of days weaving in and out of vintage shops and drinking delicious fancy coffee (Proud Mary’s reputation is well deserved). I head to the Melbourne Museum to learn something about Australian history (a topic which I am woefully ignorant of). The aboriginal exhibition is frustrating at first, assuming knowledge which, as a Brit, I just don’t possess and alluding to a sensitivity which I therefore can’t initially comprehend. Displays interview living aborigines on subjects such as culture, possessions and respect and captioned objects suggest an approach to both art and culture which hasn’t changed much over thousands of years. Those that feature in the exhibition are articulate and fiercely proud of their heritage. The horrifyingly recent reality of the ‘White Australia’ immigration policy and the ‘Stolen generation’ of Aboriginal children is an insight into the divisions within Australian society and are currently front and centre in Australian politics. It is obvious that Australia has its own issues and a rich cultural heritage that is very different to ours, no matter how similar the culture might initially seem.
  • 9bn people can’t want the same stuff: In the aboriginal exhibition, I find a placard that neatly puts into words the uneasiness I felt about the proliferation of Western brands in Hong Kong and the ubiquity of the hipster sensibility:

    “Each of our different family groups or clans have different totems. Gilgar Gundtij- our totem is the emu. So we don’t eat the emu. Our neighbouring tribal family group, the Kerrupjmara, their family totem is the diamond headed snake, so they don’t eat that, but they eat the emu. And of course, if we were hungry, we would eat the diamond headed snake..”

    To someone who loves the experience of different cultures, this convergence of tastes, desires and aspirations just feels wrong. Also, when coupled with the increasing population, the demand for the same things is presumably increasing resource pressures for products such as coffee. I know, from previous work that companies such as Nescafe and Cadbury’s have already predicted this and are taking action with programmes such as the ‘Cocoa Plan’. However, it makes me think that growth strategies that don’t respect and encourage cultural diversity are inherently unsustainable.
  • Points of wonder are being used as ‘epiphany moments’: Another enormous difference from home is the exotic, colourful and totally alien flora and fauna. A visit to the Yarra Valley Healesville Sanctuary means meeting wombats, Tasmanian devils (sinister with sharp teeth and blood red ears), dingos, koalas and evil looking snakes and the Royal Botanical Gardens are beautiful. Half way up Guilfoyle’s volcano, there is a sign showing a view over Melbourne when it was built, to be compared with now. It then attempts to link the development of Melbourne (and our human impact) to climate change. Back at Healesville, they try it too, with signs asking visitors to ‘Wipe for Wildlife’ and using the dodgy ‘Crapman’ to promote recycled toilet tissue. The parks and zoos are trying to use the wonder and excitement of discovery as epiphany moments: moments which change points of view or behaviour, which OgilvyEarth’s Mainstream Green research found to be really important in forming people’s points of view on sustainability.
    The issue here is that it’s not always executed well. The messaging I saw was still too rational and often too literal. Humour, such as the oddly named ‘Crapman’ doesn’t really work and aspiration isn’t always used correctly (no one wants to be a ‘tosser’ but then I doubt anyone wants to be a ‘Watersaver’ either). Australia’s natural beauty and unusual fauna presents such an opportunity to create these epiphanies, but need to inject more emotion and create a clearer call to action to be truly successful.
'Epiphany' comms in the Royal Botanical Gardens
‘Epiphany’ comms in the Royal Botanical Gardens

My own epiphany comes whilst drinking beer late on in the week and pressing my friends about livability. I express doubts about Melbourne’s pace of life, and probe them about whether it is ‘enough’ for them after London. Surely this is a utopia and not a genuine alternative to London life? In response to the questioning he sips his beer, sighs a relaxed sigh and responds that he would find it hard going back to London, oscillating between a 1 and a 10 all the time, knowing that life could be a constant 7 to 8. Would I swap crowded tube journeys, incredible nightlife, sleep deprivation, cutting edge galleries and mass of humanity for this fun, chilled, smaller town lifestyle? Yes, I probably would.

Places to visit (that I can remember the names of): Vegie Bar, The Night Cat, Proud Mary, Huxtaburger and Huxtable, The Tyranny of Distance, ‘No Lights, No Lycra‘ (it will change your life)