I've just finished reading New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg's new book, The Power of Habit. I enjoyed it a great deal (full disclosure: Charles was my student 10 years ago at Harvard Business School). Duhigg has a terrific chapter focusing on the predictive analytics function at many corporations, including Target. Many of you probably read an excerpt from the book which appeared in the New York Times. That excerpt discussed how Target tried to determine which female shoppers were pregnant so as to begin marketing key products to them before their babies were born. As we all know, predictive analytics has become a crucial area of focus for many companies. They can't seem to find enough talented folks who can mine data, conduct sophisticated analyses, and distill key insights.
Duhigg makes a key point though. Simply identifying people who are likely to want to purchase your product is not enough. You have to entice them by "making the novel seem familiar." It turns out that we are more likely to adopt a new habit if the behavior seems familiar to us. Duhigg uses the example of a new song. We tend to listen to music that has some key similarities to music heard often on the radio. We tend not to listen to dramatically different songs. Thus, radio stations sandwich such new songs between two tunes that are very familiar. That tactic entices us to give that new song a shot. Similarly, Target doesn't just come right out and bombard those pregnant women with a ton of ads and coupons for baby products. They have come to realize that these women may not want retailers to know that they are pregnant, or they might be alarmed that a company could have figured this out. Thus, retailers sandwich such targeted marketing between ads and coupons for other products unrelated to pregnancy and children. They make the novel seem familiar. It turns out that this tactic often works when it comes to getting us to adopt new habits, in life and in business.