Intent Marketing, Then and Now

Marketing practices have always been determined by technology. Printing technology enabled the rise of popular newspapers in the mid-19th century, which allowed advertisers to target consumer audiences based on their demographics, education, political preferences and interests. Early brand marketers realized that they could differentiate from their competitors by speaking to the right audiences rather than just the biggest ones. Mass publishing eventually led to direct mail marketing, whereby companies could reach specific households based on their particular interests as reflected by their newspaper and magazine subscriptions.

Digital communication and the internet changed all of that. Instead of passively receiving marketing messages from their televisions and newspapers, consumers became active seekers of information. Starting in the 1990s, brands had a new marketing channel to leverage: the owned website. This shifted the dynamic of the consumer/brand relationship. The rise of the internet meant that brands could identify and speak directly to consumers who actively wanted to learn more about their business.

That critical distinction lies at the heart of what we now call Intent Marketing. In its simplest form, intent marketing describes a commercial interaction that relies on an initial input from the consumer. A person takes an action (a digital search or a click-through on an ad, for example), which indicates that they want more information. In the early days of digital, all parts of the funnel led to the owned company website.

The rise of social media in the early 2000s shifted the terrain again, and with it the role of intent marketing. Just as social media has transformed the way we interact with one another, so has it changed how consumers interact with brands. An individual’s digital presence now resides primarily on third-party social media platforms, and a brand’s digital presence now resides primarily in third-party digital channels like Google My Business (GMB), map apps, review sites, social media, search media, mobile marketing, and voice search.

The rise of mobile technology now means that consumers expect frictionless, specific information on demand, and this has diminished the role of brand awareness in the consumer purchase/conversion journey. 83% of search is now unbranded, which means that people are searching for what they want according to criteria other than brand. A person might search for “top-rated cell phone” or “kid-friendly pizza restaurant near me,” and the results will surface based on reviews or geographies accordingly.

This new dynamic presents challenges for marketers, but it also marks the beginning of an exciting new era for intent marketing. The challenge for marketers now is the loss of control. Consumers are finding businesses on third-party platforms like GMB and Yelp, which means that brand marketers no longer directly control the content that’s associated with their business. Instead, they have to holistically curate their brand presence across multiple platforms if they want to acquire and convert new customers.

On the flip side, never before have brand marketers had access to such accurate signals of purchase intent. A shopper who searches for running shoes on a desktop might just be doing comparative research. In contrast, a geographic search for running shoes on a mobile map app sends a very strong signal of purchase intent, and thus a golden opportunity for the savvy intent marketer.

Brands need to start thinking about their digital presence on third-party profiles like they would their owned websites, social media pages, or paid advertising campaigns. These platforms now represent both the point of consumer discovery and strong purchase intent. Intent marketing is no longer a niche, it’s the whole digital consumer journey.

Like the consumers they’re trying to reach, businesses today have access to more information than ever before. The brands and businesses that flourish in this new reality will be the ones that can optimize for consumer purchase intent by ensuring that they’re found and chosen by the people who are most ready to make a purchase decision.

It’s possible for businesses to leverage intent marketing without having to spend massive amounts on paid advertising and costly website design. For example, AI can help manage the clutter. In the new era of intent marketing, the winners will be the brands and businesses that get the right message to the right person at the right time. In that respect, some things about marketing never change.

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