Why humans are not as predictable as marketers might like

by Nigel Hollis | March 25, 2019

I have been reflecting a lot recently on the efficacy of personalised targeting. While I totally understand the desire to make the payoff from marketing more predictable, as someone with some knowledge of insights and analytics I cannot help but wonder if the panacea of right person, right place, right time, might never be fully achievable.

Increasingly, in meta analyses conducted by Kantar and other firms we are beginning to see that digital is just another media channel; one that has its own unique properties and challenges. In our CrossMedia studies we find that once share of spend is equivalised, digital performs very similarly to other channels in terms of brand building. But given the much-touted advantages of digital – better targeted, more timely and adaptable – how could that be?

Listening to the Ted Radio Hour recently, I was struck by a statement made by Brian Little, a research professor in psychology at the University of Cambridge; he was reflecting on the fact that while personality traits are in part inherited it is possible for people to go against those traits and that they change over time, and said,

“We're wonderfully complex creatures. And I think that part of the delight of our complexity is that we're not as predictable as we might be.”


In many ways my own experience suggests that this is true. I have reflected elsewhere on the fact even though I may set out to buy a specific brand, writing it down on a shopping list, if that brand is not available I will end up buying another one. Kyle Findlay recently sent me a paper by Constantin Michael, Jan Hofmeyr and himself that compares stated purchase intention, e.g. buy most often, against actual purchasing behaviour from panel and loyalty records finds little relationship over three months, but a far stronger relationship over 12 months. Given the chaotic influences on any individual packaged goods purchase this is hardly surprising.

But what if we look at it from the other side, using only behavioural data, could we accurately infer what a person’s real brand preference was? Yes, we probably could, given enough data and time. If you have all my purchasing data, across different stores, you could probably figure out that I prefer Pete’s Coffee, ground French Roast, even though I will buy other brands as the need arises. That might work for packaged goods which are typically instinctive and habitual purchases, but what about cars, financial services or airlines? Now things get a lot more complex and other factors start to influence choice, working against my attitudinal preferences.

Based on the work we at Kantar have done over the years I know that we can predict behaviour fairly accurately based on an individual’s stated intentions, but the outcome is very dependent on circumstance. Across hundreds of people, for instance when predicting market share, the predictions turn out to be very accurate and stable, particularly when you take market size factors like brand size into effect, but at the respondent level not so much (something confirmed by the paper referenced above).

Now apply that learning to digital advertising. Do you really think that ad targeting is going to be accurate any time soon given the quality of data used? Please share your thoughts.


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  1. Nigel, April 06, 2019

    Thanks for the comments. 

    Duncan, thanks for the build, much appreciated. My colleague Josh Samuel just produced a similar proof integrating our BrandDynamics attitudinal data with Kantar Worldpanel's behavioral data. Rather than stated intent, however, we used looked at respondents where purchasing was aligned with positive attitudes compared to purchasers whose attitudes were not aligned. The predisposed buyers went on to buy 70% more than the undisposed. 

    Fiona, if you mean marketers are humans and therefore subject to misplaced beliefs, a desire for a simple answer, an unwillingness to think, then, yes, I agree with you. 

    Lee, I guess the big digital companies are just doing what we tell our clients to do: reach out, make sure you are salient and be consistent. The difference is marketers should be questioning that hype in a way that normal people do not.

  2. Ed C, March 26, 2019
    Bryce Harper (who just signed a $330m contract with the Phillies) is a career 0.279 hitter, though in the past 4 years, he hasn't hit within 30 points of that. The relatable point is that while his average nets to 0.279, he's either been MUCH better or MUCH worse the last 4 years. Perhaps the conclusion is that if we want to predict Bryce Harper's batting average in any one year, a consumer's behavior in any one category, or the stock market performance in any given short-time frame, we can't with any degree of certainty, but in the absence of just winging it, these averages (that Bryce Harper is good, that Nigel will buy Pete's, or that the market will go up are the best "actionnable" insights we can draw.
  3. Lee Smith, March 26, 2019
    Why am I relieved to read this?  Maybe it's the big digital companies telling us that humans are predictable -- being ubiquitous and noisy, they succeed at selling themselves and their media platforms, when, as you say, they are similar to other media channels and maybe they don't have all the answers?
  4. Fiona , March 25, 2019

    This is very intersting title. 

    You forgot something very important 

    marketer = human 

  5. Duncan Smith, March 25, 2019

    Hi Nigel, 

    We have also done some testing of stated purchase intent and actual purchasing and found a strong relationship over a 6-month period in one supermarket category. It was over 80% aligned, with some people buying multiple brands but still predominantly buying the one they said they would buy most often.


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