Intention economy is a concept first coined by Doc Searles for the Linux Journal back in 2007. He described it as growing around “buyers, not sellers. It leverages the simple fact that buyers are the first source of money, and that they come ready-made. You don't need advertising to make them.”
He filled out the idea in a book published last year, explaining in an interview with the Harvard Business Review why it is such a different view from the conventional one. “What we’ve had for the most part is attention paid almost entirely to what happens on the supply side. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just an incomplete picture. And because we have operated in the mass market for so long - where economies of scale and the absence of fine and clear messaging coming back from the demand side - we have required templating the marketplace.”
What has changed is the extent to which consumers are now signalling their intentions through their online behaviour, from visiting web sites to search for information through to reviewing the products or services they have bought. “That kind of signaling - which is implicit in the internet in the first place - once it becomes normalised and fully equipped on the demand side, is going to be much more useful,” he said.
Digital marketers have certainly woken up to the possibilities that arise from tapping into these signals and adjusting their messages and offers accordingly. It is at this point that the challenges need to be faced around how to convert the idea of marketing to intention into practicable and sustainable processes. That means finding the right data and the technology to capture, manage, analyse and operationalise it.
Simon James, strategic planning director, Sapient Nitro, explains how this changes things.
“While advertising is based on getting attention, the battle for intent is where things are moving to in digital marketing. That is why Google makes the money it does out of the internet, because it is the master of intention. Twenty years ago, we were building predictive models based on what we thought the consumer was going to do. That is a blunt instrument compared to what we can do now with digital data ‘in the now’,” he says.
As a starting point, he advocates using web log data to understand what visitors to the brand online are actually doing. “For one telco client, 2 per cent of its subscribers were searching for ‘how do I cancel my contract’ on its web site every month. There is a lot of value at stake in something that specific which might trigger an outbound call, email or SMS when you know who the individual is. If you don’t, you need to look at options like retargeting,” he says.
For that to happen, the company needs to encourage registration and log-in, which is becoming increasingly commonplace. But the switch towards intention-based marketing is not a simple one. “Financial services providers are good at trying to cross-sell, but they need to take care when all the consumer wants to do is find out something like a reminder of their PIN which doesn’t add any value. It is less about communications and more about content - less marketing, more service,” says James.
“You can make a stronger brand impact by providing a positive brand experience than by targeting an offer. Often, the consumer just wants the site to work - it doesn’t have to be the best site in the world,” he says. “Marketing has put a lot of emphasis on personalisation engines and sending the right offer. That is good, but you also need to address the customer’s issues and optimise the experience.”
Ed Ballard, marketing technology strategist, connected experiences, RAPP makes a similar point about trying to get registration in order to power intention-driven messages. This shifts the mass of non-identifiable visitors towards being identifiable (although the 80/20 rule is at work in terms of how many will take this step).
Ballard points out that the impact will vary depending on what the consumer is doing. “In the basket abandonment phase, it is about the journey towards ‘buy now’ - it doesn’t matter who they were historically. In the consideration phase, it is about knowing who they are. Consumers will look at multiple products - if they sign up for an email newsletter, it tells you who they are and you can recognise if they are not yet ready to make a decision. Once you see them narrow their range of considered products, that triggers another type of communication and offer,” he says.
Consideration phases vary in length - for a car, it may be 90-plus days, but for a phone case, it will be minutes. This is driving some differences in how intention marketing is being enacted across different sectors and also where the relevant data will be found. One of the issues is that intention data is derived largely from third parties and may not be persistent or reliable.
That has allowed new types of data owner to arise who have a near-real time view of consumers which provides powerful insights. VisualDNA is one example which is helping to fuel the change, as chief commercial officer Ian Woolley explains: “The use of big data in marketing as a whole is still relatively new. Part of this is because the market is still learning how to use data, with the market changing fast.”
He recognises that some still doubt the credibility of new data sets. For example, media buyers rarely have time to delve into the data they buy in order to assess its quality or test its performance. Campaign results will be affected by these factors which makes a true validation difficult.
“Our data is first party, collected from quizzes, so we know it’s reliable, as is our inference model which scales our data over a wider database of 240 million third-party users. Demand for our demographic segments is high, but we think the market will move forward with brand preference and emotive data,” he says. This takes the data beyond classic demographics although not to full intention.
Says Woolley: “It’s not strictly in-market intent data as the industry understands it. But it’s helpful for those brands who want to reach people on the basis of preferences and personality, rather than just on the web sites you think your customers visit.” He also argues that dimensions such as lifestyle, brand preferences and psychographic traits do not change much, whereas predicting intent from sites visited or content consumed may not be as accurate as some claim.
Some of the behaviours covered by the intention economy concept are stable. Ballard says there are repeating patterns and that consideration fits into a clear buying cycle. That allows marketers to set up marketing lifecycles. “If you know that somebody has just stayed in your hotel, you can email them asking for a review. That creates a better engagement and joins up the digital journey,” he says.
Not that this means a simple transfer of CRM principles into the new behavioural marketing plan. It may be that intention will wreak even bigger changes, as James says: “The very definition of marketing is under siege. It used to mean communications - that is not true anymore. What we are seeing is a move towards marketing’s impact on the new customer service platform.”