Women and Marketing: Does Our Data Define Us?

Marketers get keen as to what drives women to shop based on habits.

Good and bad, everyone has habits. Flossing, exercising, online shopping, putting two teaspoons of sugar in your tea – the things we do on a daily basis end up shaping a large part of who we are, whether we realize it or not.

Habits used to be something we could keep to ourselves. If we liked to buy a pint of Ben & Jerry’s every Thursday night, we were free to do that. Nobody else needed to know about it, save perhaps for the quasi-judgmental person at the cashier.

But increasingly, our personal habits – more specifically, data about what we buy and when we’re most likely to buy it – are sought after by retailers, marketers, and statisticians. And there is one group whose personal purchasing data is most desirable: working women aged 24 to 54.

A recent New York Times Magazine article highlighted the tactics that retail giant Target uses to tailor it’s marketing strategy to individual customers. The author, Charles Duhigg, provided the example of a fictitious shopper who, based on a complex set of algorithms created by Target’s mathematicians, had an 87 percent chance of being pregnant and due in August:

“Jenny Ward, who is 23, lives in Atlanta and in March bought cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a bright blue rug… Target knows [that if Jenny] receives a coupon via e-mail, it will most likely cue her to buy online. They know that if she receives an ad in the mail on Friday, she frequently uses it on a weekend trip to the store. And they know that if they reward her with a printed receipt that entitles her to a free cup of Starbucks coffee, she’ll use it when she comes back again.”

Duhigg goes on to explain how Target amasses information on individual customers by assigning each one a guest ID number. If you’ve ever used a coupon, visited a website, paid with a credit card, filled out an online survey, or opened an email from Target or a company like it, it’s likely you have a guest ID number as well. It’s also likely that Target is already sending you tailored ads and coupons for things they know will get you in the store, like a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

As one columnist recently put it, “data is the currency of the internet.” The relationship between gaining access to our personal data and a company’s ability to boost profits is explicit and direct. A recent study found that increased government regulations on online privacy would result in reduced investment in and less innovation coming out of places like Silicon Valley, the nation’s tech-entrepreneurship capital.

So is it a bad thing if marketing firms and brands can anticipate our wants? If a runner does an online search for running shoes, wouldn’t a discount coupon for said shoes be beneficial to them?

Holly Buchanan is a marketing consultant and author who specializes in web-based marketing geared towards women. Buchanan says that when it comes to personalized marketing, a consumer’s reaction depends largely on the context in which they received the ad.

“For women who want a more relevant shopping experience, if your Amazon account suggests books you might like based on your past purchases, that’s helping to make your shopping experience better,” said Buchanan. “But what people get turned off by is the creepy factor. If you’re in Gmail and you get served up an ad based on content in a personal email. That’s creepy because you’re not in a shopping environment; you’re in a personal environment.”

The methods used by marketing firms to figure out what women want have progressed far beyond traditional focus groups. In addition to the habit-based research collected by large retailers like Target, Buchanan says other online marketing tactics include searching Twitter hashtags on a certain topic, reading personal product reviews on websites like Yelp, using targeted ads on Facebook, and interpreting website analytics to ascertain who is viewing what.

Google’s often criticized new privacy policy takes everything one step further by integrating the personal data collected across all Google products (think YouTube, Google+, Gmail, Google Maps, and Chrome) into one pool. Marketers can then use this information to customize ads across a wider platform.

There’s a reason, of course, why profit-seeking companies and eager marketers want women’s data specifically. Long known to marketers as CPOs or “chief purchasing officers,” women make 80 percent of the buying decisions in American homes.

“Women control so much [purchasing] power because so often they’re the ones doing the initial research,” Buchanan says. “As advertisers you have to get on her radar screen first in order to get his radar screen.”

An underlying maxim in marketing, according to Buchanan, is to go by what people actually do, rather than what they say they do. That is why data about female’s actual shopping habits, rather than data collected by asking women about their shopping habits, is so sought after.

“Any research you can do that measures consumer behavior versus what consumers say they do is incredibly valuable,” Buchanan says. “For women, there’s a lot of judgment in society (for mothers in particular), so they will tell you ideally what they’re going to do, but that isn’t necessarily what they’ll do.”

Image: tiseb

Rosie Spinks

Rosie Spinks is a freelance journalist from California with a degree in Environmental Studies. Her work has been published in publications including Sierra magazine, GOOD magazine, the Ecologist, and the Guardian Environment Network. A passion for travel, running barefoot outdoors, and reconnecting people to what is good dominates most of her thoughts. You can follow her writing on Twitter and Tumblr.