Expert Consumer Research from Covance Food Solutions

Is The Road To Marketing Success Paved With Good Intentions?



By Tom Ewing

You’ve only just got used to content marketing – now KBS+ Ventures has introduced a new term to the marketing lexicon: intent marketing. From Google AdWords through promoted Facebook and Twitter posts to mobile, location-based advertising, intent marketing is anything that markets to consumers based on their intent. It’s a snappy, one-size fits all term that simplifies the sprawl of modern marketing tools.

It’s a useful coining. And I completely agree with the idea that if you know intent, it’s much easier to change behavior. People’s decisions are generally rapid, instinctive, and emotionally driven. You can influence them far better when you go with the grain of behavior. In fact, most of your job as a behavioral marketer is to find a place between intent and action where you can intervene to sway the eventual choice. These behavioral activations are what intent marketing aims to create.


So how powerful is it? If you know someone’s intent, you’re in a great position. But how do you know it? After all, there are really two kinds of intent. Declared intent – where you know what somebody wants – is a different thing from assumed intent – where you think you know what somebody wants.

Take a shopping trip. A shopping list is declared intent – if someone has cat food on their shopping list, they’re probably going to buy cat food. Your job as a marketer is to make it easier for them to buy your cat food brand, not to buy cat food in general.

But entering a shop is assumed intent. You can assume they’re interested in at least browsing, and probably buying. But they might just walk out again, and you don’t have much idea what or how much they’re going to buy, and so on. And there are degrees of assumed intent – looking in a shop window is another degree back; setting off for the shops yet another. A behavioral prompt that works at the till might not work in a shop window.

Every retailer knows this, but retail interventions have never been called “intent marketing” – because offline we are humbler about our knowledge of intent. We don’t have access to people’s shopping lists. Our knowledge of declared intent is opaque and we rely on assumptions.

The digitization and datafication of our everyday lives changes that. We do know what people search for on the net, and what they “like” and what they do. With mobile, we can follow them too. So the web makes – or seems to make – intent far more transparent and less assumed.

But does it really? Almost everything online is assumed intent – no matter how tangible and quantifiable it feels, or how much you want it to be otherwise. What intent does a Facebook “like” signal? Or even a branded app download?

One partial exception is search. When someone searches for something, you know what they want to find out about and you know that they want to find out about it now. So this is why Google is so effective as “intent marketing” – it’s as close as you get to declared intent, a genuine behavior you can intervene in (and Google does, with AdWords). Everything else in KBS+ Ventures’ schema is vaguer. It’s knowledge that you hope, via analysis, to build intent from – it’s not pure intent data.


Of course, you can make your intent data better. By aggregating assumed intent over time, you can build up effective pictures from data and patterns of behavior. Targeting and data-led marketing aims at incremental increases in intent accuracy, sharpening the odds that you’ll put your behavioral activations in the right place at the right time – even though your competitors most likely have similar data.

As an example of how important intent data is becoming, consider the iPhone 5S. Among its new features – overlooked in the media next to the fingerprint sensor – was iBeacon, which essentially turns the phone into a localized marketing platform, with stores and brands able to send bespoke messages. Or, in the unlovely English of the tech world, “personalized micro-location based notification”. Will this enhance the shopping experience or simply spam it? The responsibility lies in retailers’ hands – assuming, of course, consumers don’t just switch it off.

The practicalities of intent data lag behind its hype. Even so, it’s a broadly positive trend, since unlike the “intent” generated by decades of surveys, this is rooted in actual, not claimed, behavior. As a buzzword, “intent marketing” looks like a winner – a useful rebranding and simplifying of existing tools which focuses the marketer’s mind on changing behavior.


The only danger comes in believing intent is the whole story. Intent marketing puts the focus on the moment of decision or activation. It’s all about delivering the right prompt at the right time. And this carries a couple of problems.

The first is simply the temptation to identify activation with information. Promotions, offers, adverts – these are the meat and drink of targeting as it’s currently practiced. But behavior is not always best triggered by explicit marketing efforts. I’d argue that they are only part of the story.

A really effective intent marketing strategy will include a wider universe of behavioral prompts, looking at environmental cues (like scent or lighting in retail, or UX online) and social cues – as well as personalized, just-in-time marketing. Factor those in and you’ll have a much more comprehensive picture of behavioral activation.

The second issue is more serious: activation is only ever half the picture. It goes hand-in-hand with longer-term brand-building efforts. In The Long And The Short Of It, a superb empirical analysis of advertising success published earlier this year, marketing scientists Les Binet and Peter Field examine successful campaigns to uncover the ideal balance between brand-building and activation activity. They conclude successful marketing is around 60% brand-building, 40% activation.

So activation – intent marketing included – is crucial, but not all-important. The danger is that, because a flood of data has liberated intent marketing, intent becomes seen as the only thing that matters.

For years, we’ve seen claims that data and technology “transform” advertising and marketing. Marketers talk excitedly about how the brand used to be the hero of marketing, but the consumer is the hero now.

It’s a foolish binary. Marketing isn’t a children’s story – it’s always had more than one hero. So much of what we know about marketing science – that you can’t grow brands just by targeting the already-interested, for instance, or that brand building via emotional advertising has enormous long-term payoff – tells us how crucial brand-building is. A focus only on intent marketing would be desperately short-termist.

Is it possible that in the future the balance will shift a little towards activation? Yes, of course! But there’s no evidence that the balance of ROI – as opposed to the balance of buzz – has moved yet. Make no mistake, the buzz is deserved. Intent marketing is a great way to better focus your efforts on people’s real behavior. But activation alone will never be enough.

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6 responses to “Is The Road To Marketing Success Paved With Good Intentions?

  1. Again we must ask the obvious. Are consumers going to view this kind of marketing as manipulative and a break in the covenant that underlies social media communications? The answer invariably will be yes. Once the stats come in on the incidence of turning off geo-locators a lot of this communications opportunity will start to look very weak indeed.

    Sentiment analysis has already demonstrated limited effectiveness. No one is addressing the serious issue that the whole modus operandi of social media is that users control who is in their space. Once they start to notice brands using paid blogs and the like, there will be a marked turning away from such communications and probably those brands.

  2. Chris – yes, as I said in the piece – “assuming, of course, consumers don’t just switch it off”. Will they? The stats are already coming in, incidentally – I saw a report suggesting it’s running at about 1/3 switch-off for location trackers. Likely to rise? Depends how intrusive this stuff is. (Though a two-thirds “response rate” might have other research methodologies drooling).

    On the wider point of whether native advertising, brands in social media, etc. will or won’t work – I’m not convinced of its general effectiveness but I don’t see any general evidence that people are actively shunning brands on social media, as opposed to ridiculing or ignoring ones who do it badly on a case by case basis. Promoted Tweets and posts have become accepted parts of the Twitter and Facebook ecosysytem, and the money being spent there is only rising. I’m by no means a fan, and I think ads generally degrade the social media experience – but not to the point where you can see a marked drop in people using it. And attempts to do without them haven’t really taken off.

  3. Tom, thank you for sharing a new term. Just what we need is another set of adjective’s? Not to take exception to your post but I would like to offer the following:

    Every human being uses their brain with either 911 or 411 thinking. The intent marketing concept already exists in the marketing world and goes by several names!

    To “intervene” is nothing more than changing “cat food on a written list” or channeling the same thought using the WWW. Again, nothing happens until 911 or 411. The actual selection of “Brand” can be price, shelf placement, color, media (many choices), etc.

    And really like the “consumer is the hero”. Create a path that satisfies C2B and B2C and the Marketeer will be the “Savior”.

    joe underwood
    Area Code Shopper
    Titan Fence, Inc.
    Woof Woof Roofs

  4. Martin & Doc,

    I have never believed every sales pitch nor every BRAND claim and the WWW does tell lies but the WWW does offer some instant answers (maybe not the right answer but quick). Martin just a great throw back too digest? I cannot type C2B enough times?

    Titan Fence, Inc.
    Area Code Shoper

  5. Great article and great intent Tom.
    I have to agree that the WWW makes it easier for us marketers to target potential clients and see their intent and where they are in their buying process. But I agree with Chris too regarding the fact that marketing will look too much like manipulative at some point…

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