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Beyond demography in a fragmented digital world

Technology & Data

Beyond demography in a fragmented digital world


Demographics were the best we had, writes Steve Sammartino. It’s time to move on.

analyse-theme-badgeIf you entered the marketing game any time before the past 10 years then there is no doubt that you were brought up on a heavy diet of demographic targeting. Or let’s call it the statistical art of putting people into behavioural buckets. We were convinced that people who fell into certain behaviour buckets were highly likely to behave the same way. And by behaviour, we literally mean ‘buy behaviour’. These people, defined this way, buy this stuff.

Yep, these all knowing, all predicting human clusters told the marketers who their key target markets would be, and for a very long time it was true. Demographic clusters like gender, age, income, education, ethnicity, location, language spoken, mobility, home ownerships and employment status did tell us a great deal. They provided a pretty good indication of what people might do and, more importantly, consume. It was the best marketing tool we had, the weapon that defined ‘strategic marketing’ in the post World War II mass media era. The media loved the idea of demographics so much that they invented little pet names for different groups to define them in neat little saleable clusters: the Baby Boomers, Generation X, the Sea Changers etc. This was all designed to simplify the product development and media selling process. Both of which served each other, and helped along the factory ethic of ‘one size fits all’ demographic by demographic.

But here’s a question worth asking in a fragmented media era: Did mass media serve the demographics, or shape them? Before we answer that question, let’s wind the world back a few short years to a time before the internet exploded and the media world was limited to the mass genres. I’m talking about a time when we had the box in the corner of the living room, a radio in a teenager’s bedroom, the broadsheet newspaper in the office lunchroom and the women’s magazines on a coffee table. And from thinking back to a world when our media choices were so limited, we can then ask a few more questions:

  • Did young families really like watching sitcoms between 7.30 and 9.30, or did young families tolerate sitcoms because that’s what was on every TV channel available?
  • Did teenagers like the top 40 pop music on the radio, or did teenagers learn to like top 40 songs because that’s what was available in the 50 years before the internet?
  • Did stay home mothers really want to stay at home and be good homemakers, or did the glossy magazines espouse the virtues of this life?

Was mass media a reflector or a director? Well, it seems it was the director. If it reflected our reality, we simply wouldn’t be blessed with the infinite choices of media content we have today. We’d all be watching more of the same shows, listening to more of the same music and reading more of the same material. Instead we’ve now been blessed with infinite options for our content hungry eyeballs.

Yes, TV and demographic groups both still exist, but they’ve both fragmented to such an extent that they are barely recognisable. It turns out that our interests are far more diverse than the old world gatekeepers, or should I say, taste-makers, ever gave us credit for. The taste-makers have lost their easily targeted demographic monocultures.

Let’s take the teenager as a classic demographic from the mass marketing era. How would you define a teenager today? What do teenagers like in a world of infinite content, global connection, pricing transparency and high disposable income? How is their behaviour different from the pre-internet generation? Defining a teenager demographically is extremely easy. Yet, marketing towards them as a singular cohort is a fool’s errand. Teenagers today are as differentiated as Baby Boomers are from Generation Y.

Teenagers who live in the same location, go to the same school, with the same ethnic origin, with similar household incomes can fall into any number of sub groups: Goths, ravers, jocks, geeks, surfers, hipsters, emos, gamers… you name it. And the people they hang out with are likely to be into the same things, yet potentially come from entirely different demographic groups. Head down to any co-working space and you’ll see what I’m talking about. You’ll find ‘geeks’ of all ages, income and education type in the same space, and all into the same stuff, start-ups and technology – and deep in the mix will be a bunch of teenagers. While we can group these people, we can’t group them demographically.

This is what marketers forget: demographics only ever represented a proxy of what could be. It was the best method available at a time when it was far more difficult to make direct connections with people based on actual interests, desires and needs. But it didn’t mean that the demographic profile was an accurate measure of those with whom marketers wanted to engage. But now we can finally go one step better than demographics and into a world where we can find exactly who we are looking for. And it’s about time marketers did this. But how?

Here’s a hint: unless you’re selling a very age specific product – nappies and funerals come to mind – it’s best to leave demographic guesswork behind. What we must do instead is follow the data the digital world provides. And the best data we can find these days is when the social and interest graphs intersect.

The social graph is the connections we have made in a digital world. The network of people who want to connect, but previously may have not been able to find each other when our main constraint to human connection was physical geography. The interest graph is the online representation of the stuff we really care about. It is what we do, support and desire and so it forms a genuine identity, rather than a proxy of potential. It goes deeper than past activity ever could because it also tells the story not just of what we did, but what we want to do.

Think about a Pinterest board you own, an Instagram account you follow or a specific Facebook group you’re part of. They are not just what happened, they are also what we desire. It gets interesting for marketers when the social and interest graphs intersect. This is where the gold lies today. When we overlay how people connect and the topics they connect across, it creates a set of intentions and value systems, which have much more robustness than a demographic group ever could. When we find a group who care about what we are selling, and we make a direct connection, this removes the wastage of buying attention based on demographics and hope.

It does mean that we’ll need to do more analysis to find an audience. It does mean that our customers may be in smaller groups and widely distributed across a variety of digital platforms. And it does mean that we’ll need to work harder to find the people who care about what we sell. But, most of all, it means we won’t have the wastage that goes with old school mass media audience purchasing around demographics that hopes the right people are watching.

With the advent of social and interest graphs marketers can finally remove the luck that goes with interruption marketing in mass media forums. Instead they can interact, facilitate and even create interest groups of similar souls. And if marketers are nice, collaborative and helpful in these forums, most people will welcome them into their cohort. But mostly when we really connect with an audience based on interests and actions, we may just find out that the people our brand interacts with are not who we expected.


Steve Sammartino

Steve Sammartino is an author and futurist who sees the world through marketing eyes. He has held many senior marketing positions and has also built and sold his own startups. His latest venture is Sneaky Surf, which is bringing technology into the surf industry. His new book 'The Lessons School Forgot: How to hack your way through a technology revolution' is out now through Wiley. Connect with Steve and see his latest projects and blog at stevesammartino.com

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