People exhibit predictable behavior within specific frameworks and bounded context

If we could accurately predict consumer purchase behavior then for a business to succeed we’d just have to solve the drivers of that behavior in terms of the timing and nature of the business in question. A lettuce growing company, for instance, trading in a highly time-sensitive, fragile product, would love to know the exact peaks of lettuce demand. It would then ensure that it has sufficient supply delivered to meet them, reducing expensive wastage, avoiding transit time lags that hurt its product and by increasing sales at peak demand, it would achieve an increase in profits. 

The problem with this is that lettuce have a short shelf-life and demand surges and drops due to many factors. Some of these are easy to understand, like the weather for instance. Cool lettuce salads are always more appealing and therefore in greater demand, during hot weather. BBQs and outdoor parties in the summer months also result in more lettuce being consumed either as salads or add-ons in sandwiches and burgers. 

In the United States lettuce production in 2015 totalled nearly $1.9 billion, making lettuce the leading vegetable crop in terms of value. So, getting it right in terms of meeting demand with adequate, timely, supply is crucial. The principle, however, can be applied to virtually any other product or service. Seasonality in the way products or services are consumed permeates everything because it is governed by human behavior

Human behavior, in general, is thought to be chaotic enough to make it unpredictable and therefore a factor that is not easy to compute. But that is only true if the system we use to model human behavior fails to sufficiently take into account the context in which this behavior takes place. Context, in itself, can also be problematic particularly if the factors that contribute to it are fragmented. For the purpose of this article context is defined as the totality of factors that contribute to the immediate environment and culture in which an individual operates. 

Individual behavior arises out of perceived, individual needs and wants and, additionally, as a response to experienced stimuli and stressors generated by the immediate context the individual finds themselves in. Logically, there is a finite number of stimuli and stressors that can arise out of a specific context and functionally there is a limited number of responses available to them. Predicting human behavior therefore is a case of mapping these stimuli and stressors and understanding the range and limits of human behavior available as a response to them. 

There are many ways to visualize this but perhaps one of the easiest is offered by a particular scene in The Terminator where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s  T-800 killer android rotates through available responses to a potential challenge from a human, in order to make it stop. 

Gif from The Terminator 1984, where T-800 responds to a human

The Mathematics Of Motion

All this now brings us to a branch of mathematics that maps how objects behave when they move through space and time. Motion in physical systems creates configurations that are governed by mass, shape, the type of motion and its motive power. These configurations are, in turn, mapped my mathematicians into geometric shapes that define them and the branch of mathematics that studies this is called phase space. 

Phase space has opened up a lot of fresh opportunities to map the predictability of systems and, also, created a fresh perspective of looking at the world that we are beginning to use to further our understanding. 

What’s important to us here is that when it comes to something as seemingly unpredictable as the randomness of human behavior, there are parameters we can apply that allow us to more accurately predict what a person is likely to do or not do, in context.

When it comes to human mobility, for instance, there are fundamental laws governing it, the same way they govern every physical system. The application of contextual data reveals highly structured, stereotypical behavior in at-home individuals that, in a broader context, would not have been evident.

Similarly, human behavior in a social network can, to an extent, be predicted when we take into account context and boundaries and links to similar individuals exhibiting similar patterns of behavior.

It’s The Assumptions Not The Data

How does this help us understand human behavior in practical terms so we can, for instance, sell more lettuce for less effort and at a lower marketing cost? If we can solve this we then have a paradigm we can apply to any product or service regardless of what it is. 

We spend a lot of time and effort to define and control the context of our marketing and branding messaging usually to little avail as social media creates a notoriously porous environment that creates context collapse

Business owners, as well as marketers, also spend a lot of effort focusing on content creation and linking strategies. The thinking behind all this is that if we create the right conditions to attract the right audience we shall benefit from their attention as the search queries that brought them there are driven by an intent we gear to meet. 

But even when that may well be the case, there is no guarantee we have got our timing right. The “how many lettuce can we sell at peak demand?” problem, again. To solve that we have to be in tune with our audience so we understand the patterns of its behavior. 

We don’t need more data-capture tools for that. But we do need to start off with better assumptions. 

To fine-tune these assumptions that find their way into search engine optimization, content creation and marketing alike, we need to ask some specific questions that help us nail the fundamental aspects of human behavior. 

These ten questions help you peel back the layers of human behavior and define the context of the interaction between a customer and a business. 

  • When does someone purchase from us? Define the time and conditions that govern the bulk of purchase orders your business processes.
  • Why do they choose us to make that purchase? Detail everything that converts a prospect into a customer at the “zero moment” of purchase.
  • What prompts the need to make this purchase? Analyse and detail all the conditions that have to be met so that someone gets to the point where they consider doing business with you. Consider both an ideal, and therefore hypothetical scenario and hard data you may have on when the bulk of purchases are made from your business.
  • Where were they before they decided to make that purchase? Identify, as much as you can, the environment your prospects were in before they converted on your website. For that you will need some data analytics on where the bulk of your customers come from and what led them to you.
  • What channels did they use to make that purchase? When you know whether your customers are desktop based or mobile, on the move or stationary it allows you to better understand the behavior they exhibit as they make the decisions that give your business money.
  • What behavioral options were available to the person who made the purchase at the time? Define the factors and conditions that made those options possible or, conversely, excluded some.
  • What behavioral options became available to the person who made the purchase after the transaction was completed? Detail all the ways their behavior will change after they have done business with you.
  • What is the behavioral profile of those who do business with you? Identify behavioral constraining factors such as age, location or money that allow someone to become your customer or, lacking them, prevent them from becoming your customer.
  • What prompts your customers to give you repeat business? Identify patterns of regularity within the overall data and understand what drives that specific behavior.
  • What connections give you the most business? Identify the social networks that bring you the most customers and the communities within those social networks that deliver prospects most likely to convert. What links these individuals in those communities? 

None of this is rocket science. But answering these ten questions in the detail necessary requires patience and detail-driven work. What you will get back is a precise understanding of behavioral patterns that lead customers to your business much like the geometry of motion allows a deeper understanding of the regularity hidden within complex movements. That understanding, in turn, should change everything else you do to draw them there, convert them and keep them coming back. 

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