F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “action is character.”

For marketers who have always been limited to relying on static information, that statement has never been more applicable.

In our perpetually connected world, static information is outdated by the time it’s collected — not because it’s inaccurate, but because it can’t model the continuous change in world we live in.

What You Do, Not What You Say

Old world marketers could make do with nouns to help predict what a customer was likely to want, but understanding today’s customers means focusing on verbs. Put simply, a customer’s actions can provide a much more detailed picture of who they are from moment to moment than simple demographic data.

  • “…I’m a million different people from one day to the next”
  •            — The Verve, Bittersweet Symphony

In the past, targeting meant building a database of customers, along with attributes like name, gender and location. Then collateral materials, such as mass mailers, were generated from product databases and sent to DMAs (designated marketing areas) because it was assumed that everyone living in a particular location shared similar characteristics.

In this model, the databases describe nouns (customers and products) and the attributes of those nouns. Unlike the real world, however, it lacks a concept of actions, events or change over time. Not quite “spray and pray,” but close. 

Perpetuals and Personalization 

Two interrelated shifts have necessitated a reevaluation of marketing paradigms: the decline of mass media (giving way to personalization) and rise of the Perpetually Connected Customer

In recent years, consumer attention has shifted away from broadcast TV and other forms of mass media, towards personal media, where people consume curated content on their own terms.

To keep pace, marketers and advertisers need to shift their framework away from describing consumers with the broad taxonomies of a mass media environment. Legacy attributes like gender, location or education level are holdovers from a time when everyone watched the same three network television stations and read the same local newspaper.

Addressing Constant Change

Instead, we need to concentrate on the combination of actions that make an individual unique (since two customers rarely follow the same sequence of interactions with the same items or content). 

Today’s Perpetually Connected Customers are not the same person from moment to moment. They are continuously accessing information, making choices and performing actions.

Taken together, these actions confirm what we have always known intrinsically (but perhaps chose to ignore): customers are multidimensional and their interests, desires and engagement-level are constantly in flux.

Targeting Moving Targets

With the number of worldwide always-on mobile Internet users topping two billion, the assumption that customers fall into static personas described by nouns and adjectives is an outdated idea. This is reflected in diminishing response rates for marketers who hold fast to a methodology that ignores the importance of actions.

Amazon was early in employing the verb as its atomic marketing unit, tailoring customer communications around insights gathered from analyzing product viewing, searching and wish-listing activity.

Another example is Spotify, where subscribers’ actions (plays, favorites and skips) shape a customized Discover Weekly playlist, alerting listeners to new content from artists they’re likely to appreciate. 

The hyper-personalized marketing email above was automatically triggered based on the customer’s specific interactions with Amazon, not demographics or other static attributes.

According to Forrester Research, such trigger-based marketing “can generate 4x more revenue and 18x greater profits”. Gartner’s Adam Sarner says that marketers who do this right “will see their marketing messages receive, at minimum, five times the response rate of non-targeted push messages.”

New Insights Require New Tools 

In the past it’s been difficult for marketers to understand user actions because those actions were largely invisible. However, the emergence of a perpetually connected mobile and digital world has changed that.

As the industry moves away from the concept of noun-centric linear journeys and embraces real-time context defined by verbs, new tools will be as important as new paradigms. If “database marketing” was the norm in the world of nouns, what kind of technology will marketing organizations need to track verbs?

  1. Compared to nouns, verb data is continuous, dynamic and abundant. That is to say, it is delivered in real-time, changes quickly and there are orders of magnitude more of it!  
  2. Targeting based on verbs — or customer interactions — is much more dynamic than targeting based on nouns. A customer’s address rarely changes, but what they are browsing, searching, or wish-listing represents a rapid stream of real-time information. Customers simply perform a lot more actions (verbs) compared to the relatively paltry number of attributes used to describe them (nouns and adjectives). 
  3. Once we understand that each set of interactions (verbs) will connect with multiple sets of content and products (nouns), it’s easy to see why these new databases will be exponentially larger than the old ones. They’ll need the ability to scale efficiently to handle the massive datasets representing vast graphs of interactions.

On a technical level, the difference between nouns and verbs can be expressed as entity data versus event dataEntity data is typically stored in relational tables with the name of the entity along with entity attributes. For example, a customer table may look like this:
















On the other hand, event data that describes a verb looks like this (in this example, customer id 298781 added product_id 78965 to their wishlist): 

  "event": "added to wishlist",
  "ip": "",
  "customer_id": "298781”,

  "product_ids": [

  “Catalog” : “Gifts”,
  "category": "Gifts > Gifts for Her",

  “Brand” : “Neomatrix”,

  “Properties” : “price drop”,

  “Channel” : “mobile web”

Systems that track this event data and construct a graph of user interactions are the future of marketing, enabling marketers to deliver true 1:1 personalization for the first time.

Marketing has always been a numbers game, but now it’s becoming more calculus than arithmetic. While nouns might have been easier to track in the past, it’s clear that verbs will be key to marketing going forward.

Title image by Dan Carlson