strategy+business is published by PwC Strategy& LLC.
or, sign in with:
strategy and business
 / Third Quarter 2001 / Issue 24(originally published by Booz & Company)


Seize the Occasion! The Seven-Segment System for Online Marketing

Fixing Marketing’s Big Flaw
A basic flaw in Internet marketing is that marketers have failed to consider the significance of these differences in usage occasions. Instead, Internet marketers have bought into a “steady-state” theory of consumer behavior, imagining that each individual engages in a single, dominant type of behavior online, and that this user can be identified, communicated to, and sold to at all times, using solely conventional segmentation methods. “If I know the consumer,” these marketers and their consultants are saying, “I can create the ad. And on the Internet, I can use that ad any time I run into the consumer.” The fallacy should be obvious; it’s roughly equivalent to creating an ad appropriate to a given demographic group and then assuming you can run the same advertisement on The Simpsons and in a church.

Even mass customization, the great hope of Internet marketing, fails when it’s predicated on user characteristics (whether gleaned from cookies, site registrations, or other means) without considering usage characteristics equally. True, an advertiser can easily send very different banner ads to a 24-year-old graduate student and a 54-year-old CEO visiting the same business-news site. But if the content and placement of those banners aren’t also appropriate to the type of usage session the student or the CEO is in, the ads will fail. To be sure, demographics can still be critical. The student, for example, may prefer country music, and the CEO may like opera. But a grad student in a Quickies session may not be amenable to a sales pitch at all, no matter how good the offer on that hot new release from the Dixie Chicks.

Internet retailers make the same mistake as marketers, assuming they can create inflexible Web environments geared to one type of user — or, like offline food-service companies, geared to one type of usage occasion. This severely limits e-tailers’ opportunity to reach deeply into all their potential markets, both to drive sales and to enhance customer loyalty.

The great opportunity in online marketing is to use occasionalization to identify when people are most open to your marketing goals. By applying both usage occasion data and demographics, online marketers will raise the odds of communicating with their target consumers at the time those consumers are most likely to pay attention to and be influenced by the message. Similarly, online retailers can tailor their environments in real time to meet the interests of not only the user, but also the occasion.

Use Knowledge, Not Guesses
As our taxonomy shows, usage-occasion type suggests a great deal about what users are doing at a particular time. Armed with those insights, online marketers and retailers can gear their strategies and tactics to the realities of online behavior — especially the fact that users vary their behavior greatly, and that their interest in hearing from marketers consequently varies from occasion to occasion.

For marketers, this means an opportunity to move beyond “best-guess” message placement, which is based on television’s reach and frequency approach: Knowing the demographics of the audience, marketers place ads on a TV program based on its viewer numbers (reach), and the number of times those people watch it (frequency). This is marketers’ best guess on where they can reach their target audience. In Web terms, the reach and frequency method puts ads on sites that attract a certain number of visits from a certain demographic segment. The moods or motivations prompting the visits are not a factor.

Occasionalization on the Net allows marketers to access more users more effectively, by pinpointing when users are most likely to be receptive to the specific message, based both on the relevance of its content and on users’ potential to become engaged in that content. Consider this analogy: Just as drivers don’t pay attention to billboards when speeding to the emergency room, Web users in a Quickies session find banner ads a nuisance. In those cases, it’s best to leave users alone, and apply resources to those occasions when they are likely to be more responsive.

Follow Us 
Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google Plus YouTube RSS strategy+business Digital and Mobile products App Store



  1. Robert G. Docters, John N. Grim Jr., and John P. McGady, “Segments in Time,” s+b, First Quarter 1997; Click here.
  2. Horacio D. Rozanski and Gerry Bollman, “The Great Portal Payoff,” s+b, Second Quarter 2001; Click here.
  3. NetRatings Inc.: Click here.
Sign up to receive s+b newsletters and get a FREE Strategy eBook

You will initially receive up to two newsletters/week. You can unsubscribe from any newsletter by using the link found in each newsletter.