(Image Source: rB: Internet Marketing Strategies for Real Estate Professionals)
Over the weekend, I ran across an interesting article this morning from Forbes, titled “How Target Figured out a Teen Girl was Pregnant before Her Father Did.” Now, before you wander off from this post, thinking that I’m being totally random, there are connections between this article and instructional design.
Because Target keeps track of its members based on their email and credit card numbers, it has a fairly accurate customer purchasing history. By noticing certain changes in women’s shopping patters, such as suddenly buying unscented soaps, lotion, hand sanitizer, and zinc and calcium supplements, the company has been able to predict which shoppers might be pregnant, even before they begin buying baby stuff. Target uses this information to send out coupon mailings and advertisements for products they think expectant mothers might need as they progress through their pregnancy term.
This specific targeting (no pun intended) really started creeping people out. As you can imagine, most people saw this as an invasion of their privacy. So, Target began taking a different approach. Rather than sending customers “baby mailers,” filled with just baby product coupons, they began sending coupon books that ran baby product coupons along side completely unrelated items–such as lawnmowers and wine. Target discovered that when people didn’t think they were being singled out directly, they were more than willing to use the coupons.
Aside from the fact that I find this whole thing a little bit creepy myself, I have to admit that it’s rather brilliant. I’m also wondering how this might be applied to the technology we use for teaching and learning. I’m not suggesting that we begin stalking our students, but I do think there are some things we can take away from Target’s marketing strategies.
Target realizes the power of presenting their customers with a choice–even though it’s kind of a false perception of choice. Target knows that women typically won’t be buying alcohol when they are pregnant, and it’s highly unlikely (though not impossible, I’m sure) for a woman in her third tri-mester to feel the need for heavy-duty lawn equipment. Target never actually intends for them to use those coupons. But when customers are presented with those options, they still feel like they are the ones empowered by the opportunity. (They’re also probably more satisfied with the products they ultimately choose to buy, as well.)
Now, how does this connect to instructional technology?
I had a conversation the other day with one of my professors about how really good teachers help students feel empowered, capable, and in control of their learning. They make their students feel like they have a choice in the matter. A really good instructor knows that it’s much more rewarding and beneficial for students to feel like they were able to get there all on their own.
I guess my question is this: How can we use the affordances provided by technology to encourage student learning through useful choices? Technology has enabled us to do so many things, but often these options often aren’t productive or useful for students (or for instructors). I regularly hear both students and instructors complain that the technology distracts them from the content. There are too many options and it becomes overwhelming and counter-productive.
Ultimately, Target’s strategy works, not because they offer a wide range of choices, but because they know what choices their customers need or want. They recognize the choices their customers want to make and then help reinforce that desire. They reinforce their customers’ feelings of control and empowerment by offering choices that are easy to turn down.
Can we apply this strategy to students? We’ve been so concerned with offering students multiple paths to learning outcomes. I’m not saying this is entirely a bad thing, but perhaps we take it too far sometimes. Perhaps this actually doing us (and them) a disservice. Research has shown that people are more satisfied with their decisions when they are given fewer options. Maybe the key to using instructional technology effectively is strategically limiting students’ options. And–if we follow Target’s lead–this also means making sure the best options are the most desirable.
The original study was conducted by Charles Duhigg, whose full article “How Companies Learn Your Secrets” ran in the New York Times on February 16, 2012. Duhigg’s has a book, Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, being released out at the end of this month, and it looks like a really interesting read.