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Andrew Pole had just started working as a statistician for Target in 2002, when two colleagues from the marketing department stopped by his desk to ask an odd question: “If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn’t want us to know, can you do that? ”

Pole has a master’s degree in statistics and another in economics, and has been obsessed with the intersection of data and human behavior most of his life. His parents were teachers in North Dakota, and while other kids were going to 4 H, Pole was doing algebra and writing computer programs. “The stereotype of a math nerd is true,” he told me when I spoke with him last year. “I kind of like going out and evangelizing analytics.”

As the marketers explained to Pole and as Pole later explained to me, back when we were still speaking and before Target told him to stop new parents are a retailer’s holy grail. Most shoppers don’t buy everything they need at one store. Instead, they buy groceries at the grocery store and toys at the toy store, and they visit Target only when they need certain items they associate with Target cleaning supplies, say, or new socks or a six month supply of toilet paper. But Target sells everything from milk to stuffed animals to lawn furniture to electronics, so one of the company’s primary goals is convincing customers that the only store they need is Target. But it’s a tough message to get across, even with the most ingenious ad campaigns, because once consumers’ shopping habits are ingrained, it’s incredibly difficult to change them.

There are, however, some brief periods in a person’s life when old routines fall apart and buying habits are suddenly in flux. One of those moments the moment, really is right around the birth of a child, when parents are exhausted and overwhelmed and their shopping patterns and brand loyalties are up for grabs. But as Target’s marketers explained to Pole, timing is everything. Because birth records are usually public, the moment a couple have a new baby, they are almost instantaneously barraged with offers and incentives and advertisements from all sorts of companies. Which means that the key is to reach them earlier, before any other retailers know a baby is on the way. Specifically, the marketers said they wanted to send specially designed ads to women in their second trimester, which is when most expectant mothers begin buying all sorts of new things, like prenatal vitamins and maternity clothing. “Can you give us a list?” the marketers asked.

The desire to collect information on customers is not new for Target or any other large retailer, of course. For decades, Target has collected vast amounts of data on every person who regularly walks into one of its stores. Whenever possible, Target assigns each shopper a unique code known internally as the Guest ID number that keeps tabs on everything they buy. “If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e mail we’ve sent you or visit our Web site, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID,” Pole said. “We want to know everything we can.”

Also linked to your Guest ID is demographic information like your age, whether you are married and have kids, which part of town you live in, how long it takes you to drive to the store, your estimated salary, whether you’ve moved recently, what credit cards you carry in your wallet and what Web sites you visit. Target can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own. (In a statement, Target declined to identify what demographic information it collects or purchases.) All that information is meaningless, however, without someone to analyze and make sense of it. That’s where Andrew Pole and the dozens of other members of Target’s Guest Marketing Analytics department come in. Postal Service, has a “predictive analytics” department devoted to understanding not just consumers’ shopping habits but also their personal habits, so as to more efficiently market to them. “But Target has always been one of the smartest at this,” says Eric Siegel, a consultant and the chairman of a conference called Predictive Analytics World. “We’re living through a golden age of behavioral research. It’s amazing how much we can figure out about how people think now.”

The reason Target can snoop on our shopping habits is that, over the past two decades, the science of habit formation has become a major field of research in neurology and psychology departments at hundreds of major medical centers and universities, as well as inside extremely well financed corporate labs. “Mathematicians are suddenly sexy.” As the ability to analyze data has grown more and more fine grained, the push to understand how daily habits influence our decisions has become one of the most exciting topics in clinical research, even though most of us are hardly aware those patterns exist. One study from Duke University estimated that habits, rather than conscious decision making, shape 45 percent of the choices we make every day, and recent discoveries have begun to change everything from the way we think about dieting to how doctors conceive treatments for anxiety, depression and addictions.

This research is also transforming our understanding of how habits function across organizations and societies. to the Super Bowl by focusing on how his players habitually reacted to on field cues. Before he became Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill overhauled a stumbling conglomerate, Alcoa, and turned it into a top performer in the Dow Jones by relentlessly attacking one habit a specific approach to worker safety which in turn caused a companywide transformation. The Obama campaign has hired a habit specialist as its “chief scientist” to figure out how to trigger new voting patterns among different constituencies.

Researchers have figured out how to stop people from habitually overeating and biting their nails. They can explain why some of us automatically go for a jog every morning and are more productive at work, while others oversleep and procrastinate. There is a calculus, it turns out, for mastering our subconscious urges. For companies like Target, the exhaustive rendering of our conscious and unconscious patterns into data sets and algorithms has revolutionized what they know about us and, therefore, how precisely they can sell.

Inside the brain and cognitive sciences department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are what, to the casual observer, look like dollhouse versions of surgical theaters. There are rooms with tiny scalpels, small drills and miniature saws. Even the operating tables are petite, as if prepared for 7 year old surgeons. neuroscientist named Ann Graybiel told me that she and her colleagues began exploring habits more than a decade ago by putting their wired rats into a T shaped maze with chocolate at one end. The maze was structured so that each animal was positioned behind a barrier that opened after a loud click. The first time a rat was placed in the maze, it would usually wander slowly up and down the center aisle after the barrier slid away, sniffing in corners and scratching at walls. It appeared to smell the chocolate but couldn’t figure out how to find it. There was no discernible pattern in the rat’s meanderings and no indication it was working hard to find the treat.

The probes in the rats’ heads, however, told a different story. While each animal wandered through the maze, its brain was working furiously. Every time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, the neurosensors inside the animal’s head exploded with activity. As the scientists repeated the experiment, again and again, the rats eventually stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns and began to zip through the maze with more and more speed. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: as each rat learned how to complete the maze more quickly, its mental activity decreased. As the path became more and more automatic as it became a habit the rats started thinking less and less.

This process, in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine, is called “chunking.” There are dozens, if not hundreds, of behavioral chunks we rely on every day. Some are simple: you automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, like making the kids’ lunch,
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are a little more complex. Still others are so complicated that it’s remarkable to realize that a habit could have emerged at all.

Take backing your car out of the driveway. When you first learned to drive, that act required a major dose of concentration, and for good reason: it involves peering into the rearview and side mirrors and checking for obstacles, putting your foot on the brake, moving the gearshift into reverse, removing your foot from the brake, estimating the distance between the garage and the street while keeping the wheels aligned, calculating how images in the mirrors translate into actual distances, all while applying differing amounts of pressure to the gas pedal and brake.

Now, you perform that series of actions every time you pull into the street without thinking very much. Your brain has chunked large parts of it. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any repeated behavior into a habit, because habits allow our minds to conserve effort. But conserving mental energy is tricky, because if our brains power down at the wrong moment, we might fail to notice something important, like a child riding her bike down the sidewalk or a speeding car coming down the street. So we’ve devised a clever system to determine when to let a habit take over. It’s something that happens whenever a chunk of behavior starts or ends and it helps to explain why habits are so difficult to change once they’re formed, despite our best intentions.

To understand this a little more clearly, consider again the chocolate seeking rats. What Graybiel and her colleagues found was that, as the ability to navigate the maze became habitual, there were two spikes in the rats’ brain activity once at the beginning of the maze, when the rat heard the click right before the barrier slid away, and once at the end, when the rat found the chocolate. Those spikes show when the rats’ brains were fully engaged, and the dip in neural activity between the spikes showed when the habit took over. From behind the partition, the rat wasn’t sure what waited on the other side, until it heard the click, which it had come to associate with the maze. Once it heard that sound, it knew to use the “maze habit,” and its brain activity decreased. Then at the end of the routine, when the reward appeared, the brain shook itself awake again and the chocolate signaled to the rat that this particular habit was worth remembering, and the neurological pathway was carved that much deeper.

The process within our brains that creates habits is a three step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges. What’s unique about cues and rewards, however, is how subtle they can be. Neurological studies like the ones in Graybiel’s lab have revealed that some cues span just milliseconds. And rewards can range from the obvious (like the sugar rush that a morning doughnut habit provides) to the infinitesimal (like the barely noticeable but measurable sense of relief the brain experiences after successfully navigating the driveway). Most cues and rewards, in fact, happen so quickly and are so slight that we are hardly aware of them at all. But our neural systems notice and use them to build automatic behaviors.

Habits aren’t destiny they can be ignored, changed or replaced. But it’s also true that once the loop is established and a habit emerges, your brain stops fully participating in decision making. So unless you deliberately fight a habit unless you find new cues and rewards the old pattern will unfold automatically.

“We’ve done experiments where we trained rats to run down a maze until it was a habit, and then we extinguished the habit by changing the placement of the reward,” Graybiel told me. “Then one day, we’ll put the reward in the old place and put in the rat and, by golly, the old habit will re emerge right away. Habits never really disappear.”

Luckily, simply understanding how habits work makes them easier to control. Take, for instance, a series of studies conducted a few years ago at Columbia University and the University of Alberta. Researchers wanted to understand how exercise habits emerge. In one project, 256 members of a health insurance plan were invited to classes stressing the importance of exercise. Half the participants received an extra lesson on the theories of habit formation (the structure of the habit loop) and were asked to identify cues and rewards that might help them develop exercise routines.

The results were dramatic. Over the next four months, those participants who deliberately identified cues and rewards spent twice as much time exercising as their peers. Other studies have yielded similar results. According to another recent paper, if you want to start running in the morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always putting on your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (like a midday treat or even the sense of accomplishment that comes from ritually recording your miles in a log book). After a while, your brain will start anticipating that reward craving the treat or the feeling of accomplishment and there will be a measurable neurological impulse to lace up your jogging shoes each morning.

Our relationship to e mail operates on the same principle. When a computer chimes or a smartphone vibrates with a new message, the brain starts anticipating the neurological “pleasure” (even if we don’t recognize it as such) that clicking on the e mail and reading it provides. That expectation, if unsatisfied, can build until you find yourself moved to distraction by the thought of an e mail sitting there unread even if you know, rationally, it’s most likely not important. On the other hand, once you remove the cue by disabling the buzzing of your phone or the chiming of your computer, the craving is never triggered, and you’ll find, over time, that you’re able to work productively for long stretches without checking your in box.

Some of the most ambitious habit experiments have been conducted by corporate America. To understand why executives are so entranced by this science, consider how one of the world’s largest companies, Procter Gamble, used habit insights to turn a failing product into one of its biggest sellers. P. G. is the corporate behemoth behind a whole range of products, from Downy fabric softener to Bounty paper towels to Duracell batteries and dozens of other household brands. In the mid 1990s, P. G.’s executives began a secret project to create a new product that could eradicate bad smells. P. G. spent millions developing a colorless, cheap to manufacture liquid that could be sprayed on a smoky blouse, stinky couch, old jacket or stained car interior and make it odorless. In order to market the product Febreze the company formed a team that included a former Wall Street mathematician named Drake Stimson and habit specialists, whose job was to make sure the television commercials, which they tested in Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Boise, Idaho, accentuated the product’s cues and rewards just right.

The first ad showed a woman complaining about the smoking section of a restaurant. Whenever she eats there, she says, her jacket smells like smoke. A friend tells her that if she uses Febreze, it will eliminate the odor. The cue in the ad is clear: the harsh smell of cigarette smoke. The reward: odor eliminated from clothes. The second ad featured a woman worrying about her dog, Sophie, who always sits on the couch. “Sophie will always smell like Sophie,” she says, but with Febreze, “now my furniture doesn’t have to.” The ads were put in heavy rotation. Then the marketers sat back, anticipating how they would spend their bonuses. A week passed. Then two. A month. Two months. Sales started small and got smaller. Febreze was a dud.

The panicked marketing team canvassed consumers and conducted in depth interviews to figure out what was going wrong, Stimson recalled. Their first inkling came when they visited a woman’s home outside Phoenix. The house was clean and organized. She was something of a neat freak, the woman explained. But when P. G.’s scientists walked into her living room, where her nine cats spent most of their time, the scent was so overpowering that one of them gagged.

According to Stimson, who led the Febreze team, a researcher asked the woman,
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“What do you do about the cat smell?”