Last Updated: November 14, 2020

As you search through your favorite web pages, your eyes briefly drift to the side of a webpage. You suddenly notice the ads that have been sitting there all along — ads that actually seem interesting to you for once.

Also known as behavioral targeting, behavioral marketing profiles the prior behavior of online users in order to determine which ads those users will see next. This allows for a deeper level of ad customization, giving businesses insight into the habits and desires of consumers.

Targeted advertisments are more likely to seem interesting to users, and take into account their individual preferences to display relevant content. Understanding how to implement behavioral marketing campaigns allows marketers to reach a more receptive audience.

What is behavioral marketing?

As opposed to direct marketing, where advertisers send the same message to everyone—and expect a large portion of those people to reject the message—behavioral marketing takes online information and uses it to tailor the message to the user.

Behavioral targeting uses web analytics, computer applications and cookies, browsing and search history, and IP addresses, to create user profiles of individual consumers. With that information, the website’s ad server will then generate relevant and targeted content or advertisements that appeals to their interests. (See also Closed-Loop Marketing)

For example, those who visit the automotive section of a general news site will start seeing car ads as they browse other sections of that site—and those ads will change and become more “targeted” over time.

Consider Facebook, where users share a variety of information every day — not only about their likes and interests, but about their friends as well. That information is used not to connect consumers to ads in areas of interest, but also to create an online peer pressure of sorts—“XX likes this,” so why shouldn’t you?

The ads targeted at consumers watching YouTube videos are also often the result of behavioral marketing. A consumer’s past likes, IP location, and even comments are taken into consideration when presenting the “right” ad for their tastes and location.

Onsight Behavioral Targeting vs. Network Behavioral Targeting

Behavioral targeting focuses on individual users. By analyzing user responses and demographics, ads can be targeting to each person’s needs and interests.

Network behavioral targeting, on the other hand, focuses more on user types. For example, a visitor to a fantasy-football site is likely male, and advertising (and its presentation) will thus be geared to a male audience. Behavioral targeting could be potentially used in addition, to further pinpoint each user’s preferences.

Who employs behavioral marketing?

Most of the largest online retailers and social-media sites already use behavioral marketing technique—as do the companies that purchase ads from those sites. However, behavioral marketing isn’t only used purely to “sell you stuff.” By targeting ads to specific needs, companies can also provide goods and services that will not only fill consumer closets, but improve their quality of life. For example, a pharmaceutical company can create and implement advertising that encourages people to use and continue taking a new cancer or hyperactivity drug.

Because behavioral marketing is extremely targeted, this strategy doesn’t work as well with products that appeal to a more general audience. Additionally, because of the data being used, privacy issues—and legislation to address those issues—will affect the approaches used by marketers going forward. However, when used properly, behavioral targeting can be a very effective way to reach the right customers with the right products and services.

How is a behavioral marketing plan developed and employed?

Behavioral marketing strategies are typically enacted by companies who have access to the technology needed. Companies use automated platforms capture data such as website visits, customer relationship management (CRM) software, and email analytics. What do consumers buy—and why do they buy it? (See also Analytical Marketing)

Truly Target-ed advertising

A February 2012 article in The New York Times discussed a recent behavioral marketing campaign by Target, aimed at increasing sales of products to pregnant women and new mothers. It may have worked a bit too well.

In a Target store outside Minneapolis, a man walked in and demanded to see the manager. “My daughter got this in the mail!” he said, holding coupons the company had sent her. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?” The nonplussed manager apologized, and then called a few days later to apologize again.

The father apologized, too. He had since discovered that his daughter was already six weeks pregnant.

With that information, businesses then create behavioral profiles of customers. How many times did that person visit the website, and what for? What websites did he or she come from or go to, before/after visiting? What else did he or she post, blog, or tweet about? Has there been any direct contact with the customer?

By quickly creating messages that target consumers, consumer response rate will increase over time. As customers interacts more with a website, companies are better able to personalize the website experience to his or her past behaviors. Businesses can build content blocks on their websites that serve up ads, text, and videos, based on each visitor’s past actions. (See also Targeted Marketing)

What type of careers work with behavioral marketing strategies?

At the entry-level, most professionals working in behavior marketing campaigns begin as marketing research analysts. Analysts examine consumer data and help refine and target its use in future marketing initiatives.

Depending on the level of research, it’s possible to become an analyst without previous work experience, although the position usually requires a bachelor’s degree. The job outlook in this area is promising, and is expected to grow by 41 percent between now and 2020—far faster than the national average for all jobs. The median yearly salary for market research analysts is $60,570, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Starting Salaries, by field

  • Marketing research analyst: $33,350
  • Marketing manager: $57,750
  • Postsecondary Teacher: $51,593

Many use marketing research analysis as a stepping stone into marketing management. Marketing managers implement defined marketing campaigns and initiatives, collateral development, and database management, as well as inventory and vendor management.

Self-starters with excellent communication, multitask, and problem-solving skills will do well in these positions. A college degree in marketing or a related field, and at least a year’s marketing experience, is usually required. Job growth for these positions is about average (14 percent between now and 2020), but earnings are significantly higher, with a median yearly salary of $108,260.

Those who wish to specialize in behavioral marketing itself also often pursue careers in academic or research institutions. The most common jobs for those who pursue this track are market research analyst (above) or postsecondary educator. Postsecondary teachers usually need to have acquired a Ph.D.; however, community colleges sometimes only require a master’s degree. The median annual wage of postsecondary teachers is $62,050; and job growth between now and 2020 is projected at 17 percent, slightly higher than the national average for all jobs.

How can a marketing school help you succeed with behavioral marketing strategies?

Our Recommended Schools

  1. Grand Canyon University (GCU)

    GCU's Colangelo College of Business offers leading edge degrees that address the demands of contemporary business environments.

  2. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)

    Explore the bond between business and consumer behavior with a degree in marketing.

While your bachelor’s degree will usually be in business or marketing, many schools offer classes in behavioral marketing. Classes and/or specializations in psychology and data analysis will also help students pursue a behavioral marketing track.

Those wishing to obtain a literal degree in behavioral marketing will need to do so at the doctoral level. If you choose to seek this, you must develop your specific research agenda, as it will likely be the subject of your doctoral research and thesis.

No matter your level, a college education will help your career in behavioral marketing. Since excellent communication skills are needed, many schools require marketing majors to take four years of English, as well as courses in writing. In fact, marketing majors will take a wide range of college courses including market research, advertising strategies, and strategic planning, as well as a variety of other courses that will introduce them to different facets of marketing and consumer behavior.

Forward thinking students will also seek out internships within the marketing field in conjunction with their studies, to gain real-world experience and learn from professionals already in the field. These internships will also produce career contacts that can help students land their first job after graduation.

As technology continues to advance, behavioral marketers will need to keep up with those changes, and learn to adapt. A marketing degree gives students the foundation they need to succeed in this fast-paced and ever-changing career field—and will give students a head start as they launch their marketing careers.