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.

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