Targeting TACTs with Data Mining

Color me dubious everytime I read a pop press report that reveals the man behind the curtain doing a deed that Changes Everything. As my first Rule of Persuasion proclaims:

There Are No Laws of Persuasion and If There Were, Why Would Anyone Tell You?

Those beautifully written press accounts are either exaggerated or false since anyone with a Law would produce Stupendous Windowpanes that everyone could see for themselves (unless, of course, the Queen of Tomorrow maven with the Law deceived with dishonest financial reports which, of course, would probably get caught and lead to jail, so we’d find the Stupendous Windowpane later). But, this one could be true.

Andrew Pole had just started working as a statistician for Target in 2002, when two colleagues from the marketing department stopped by his desk to ask an odd question: “If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn’t want us to know, can you do that? ”

This quote adds another element that colors me dubious – data miners. The computer revolution has created many effects, but huge amounts of data is perhaps the worst. Consider another Rule of Persuasion and Its implications.

If You Can’t Count It, You Can’t Change It. (But simply because you can Count it, doesn’t mean you can Change it.)

Sure, data mining Counts, but the Count may not lead to Change, but rather to General Semantics and confusing the Number for the Change or eating the menu. With these clever caveats front and central, return to Andrew Pole. Could Target target pregnant women without the knowledge, cooperation, or permission of those women?

Yeah. They could. Huge companies like Target do generate an awesome data stream on individuals and at the individual level of analysis, not group. Hit the database, select only female customers, then track purchase and observe when some women suddenly begin buying pregnancy and baby related products at Target for a sustained period of time then stop making those purchases. Now you can make two comparisons. First, compare the purchase behavior just before to the purchase behavior during pregnancy. Second, compare apparently pregnant women to women customers who never bought pregnancy and baby related products; compare purchase history. You will see Medium to Large Windowpane differences, I guarantee it. Differences in what they buy, when they buy it, how they pay for it, what else they buy, and on and on.

Now. Realize that this little statistical trick is not persuasion. It merely finds Other Guys with specific attributes. That’s a key part of the TACT – who does what where and when – but a TACT is not persuasion, it’s the aim of persuasion.

The persuasion here is how you handle this information. This is the analysis of the Local and a computational definition of a partial TACT. Merely having the data does not make the sale which is the ultimate TACT you seek in this Local. That’s the persuasion part, the important part, indeed the only part that really Counts. If you read the long article you see that marketers have been trying for many years to identify pregnant women as special Other Guys. Computers and data mining are merely a new toy for the old game.

What persuasion play do you make with this information? Apparently the Same Old Thing with Target. The article narrates a fun example of an angry father walking into a Target store with flyers mailed to his teen age daughter still living at home with her parents. The angry father demanded to know why Target was sending promotional materials about babies and pregnancy to his little girl.

The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again. On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”

Now, this cute little story seems to imply success for Target, but what is the success? Sure, they figured out a teen age girl still living with her parents was pregnant before her father knew it. Stop the bytes! For the first time in the history of the world, Dad Is The Last To Know! But, did Target make the sale? Did Target get the TACTs?

The article provides no answer to that. Worse still, consider the persuasion play Target made that triggered this colorful story: Mailed out promotional materials! Good grief, this is as old as dirt, water, and mud which is to say it is as old as Claude Hopkins, the 19th century persuasion maven who invented modern advertising and marketing. Target sits on the cutting edge of data mining, neuroanalytics, and social media, but still runs Claude Hopkins persuasion plays?

The remainder of the long article is a loopy quilt of persuasion concepts and plays that sounds smart, but is only FauxItAll. Instead of Tipping Points, Outliers, Stickiness, Built To Last, In Search of Excellence, or Switch, it is Habits as the central organizing principle. The Power of Habits is a new book coming out from – Ta-Da! – a New York Times author that explains the persuasion New New Thing, Habit! The NYT is doing what it can to launch this book from their writer including long articles based on the book by said writer. Hard not to move some product when you put a platform like the Times behind it.

From what I’ve read of the Habits book it is well written account of poorly understood persuasion and influence concepts with an emphasis upon Reinforcement Theory. The well written part will carry the book (along with a little help from Times friends). But, if you want to understand how conditioning produces habits and the practical implications of that, you’ll need to do a bit more reading. If you just want to FauxItAll, then you might like it.

P.S. Hey, Target marketing. Consider Dissonance plays in your pregnancy materials. If you do It right, you’ll have those vaunted New Customer For Life Habits!