The Death Of Demographics As A Targeting Tool


Military historians say that nations often err by fighting the last generation’s war when a new aggressor changes the game. Napoleon defeated much larger armies, by embracing a “democratic” model in which groups of troops made independent decisions. In modern times, guerrilla armies without ground, sea or air superiority rely on unexpected strikes and harassment until they eventually wear down the enemy’s resolve and support at home. The pattern we see in warfare is eerily similar to what we see today in advertising.

Advertisers cannot help but use military-themed words when we describe our craft. We “target” consumers with “campaigns” meant to “convert people to our side.” For much of the history of modern advertising, we have carpet-bombed broad swaths of the public with advertising messages because they happened to have a higher index of the demographic we hoped to win over. Collateral damage, in the form of “half your advertising wasted,” was just the price of victory over your competitor. But demographic targeting is left over from another generation of marketing, and those who wish to write the future must embrace new thinking to thrive.

Demographic Marketing Is A Dying Model

Demographic-driven marketing worked somewhat well in a simpler time when there were a couple of major brands and a handful of media channels. We researched consumer needs and landed on the single benefit that would appeal to the largest common denominator of people. We made ads that referred to one universal insight and hit people over the head with a simple message – again and again and again.

But we are living in new times. It seems that when you give people more options, they enjoy it. Thanks to a flood of innovation, it has never been easier to launch a new product or service and find a niche of users who will fall in love with it. Guerrilla marketers and growth hackers tell stories rather than drilling in taglines, and reach raving fans with personal touches instead of Super Bowl buys.

The idea of buying “Women, 18-34” eyeballs is way past its prime. Human society in general has undergone seismic shifts since the golden age of advertising. We are globally connected, yet closing ourselves off in special communities. There are now dozens of options in consumer surveys for race, occupation and sexual orientation. Stay-at-home Dads and on-demand project workers do the shopping. Dogs and cats are living together and feasting on artisanal kibble.

You do not have to be a new brand or Millennial marketer to make the shift to the new world, but you do need to change habits. Perhaps the best place to start is for us to abandon the use of demographics in targeting our media buys.

Interest And Intent Are Leading Change

The first step of modern targeting should be an appeal to prospects’ interests. For example, auto brands advertise in auto-related magazines and websites. We’ve done this for years, albeit too broadly. Special-interest media is too costly and cluttered, with little ability to get into the nuances of specific consumer needs.

Social apps such as Facebook can get much more granular in terms of understanding specific interests of our consumers, and allow brands to present advertising at scale whether they are logged into the app or surfing elsewhere. We will increasingly be able to not only see current interests, but begin to project and suggest what might interest people in the future. Instead of just hitting people who buy car magazines, we can see someone who is likely to be interested in buying a Jeep Wrangler to transport his new hiking gear and Labrador Retriever puppy.

Intent is the emerging targeting word of 2015. It essentially indicates when and where a consumer is raising a hand and looking to buy something. Again this is not really new. To keep the car analogy going, my car dealership knows that my lease is coming due in a few months, and, as expected, it is filling my mailbox with pitches. In the digital world, Google became a $350 billion company by serving ads to people who are looking for something specific, often leading to a purchase.

Technology is taking intent to the next level. For example: Re-targeting people who previously visited your website with ads hours or days later drives some of the highest ROI in advertising. It has limits, though, as only so many people will have visited your store – and fewer still are willing to click banner ads.

Enter Pinterest, a fast-growing tool that people use to plan purchases months before they occur. It’s like Google for when you’re not sure what to type into the search bar – and it is opening up a new way for marketers to seize the opening of intent. To win takes a change of creative, however. Instead of annoying people with banners, marketers win on Pinterest by offering up helpful content that can drive a much deeper relationship and bigger sales.

Marketing technology and big data is helping us put these superior targeting signals together. Thanks to programmatic media, brands can put interest, intent and individual consumer knowledge into a single formula. The rise of ecommerce and attribution models are making it easier to close the loop on performance, thus offering a feedback loop to allow sophisticated algorithms to adjust targeting and bidding on the fly. Sex, age and income have little to no relevance in these algorithms.

Old Habits Die Hard In New Media

I was recently working with a company on an advertising campaign to boost in-store sales of their leading food brands. We used Pinterest as a media channel to promote delicious recipe content in order to attract people looking to make desserts for a holiday weekend. As we went through KPIs and expected results, my client asked me how we would know for sure that we were getting the “right” target demographic.

In the new world of marketing, demographics mean nothing. When we have a live buyer looking for a solution it doesn’t matter if it’s a 55-year-old single man or a 17-year-old teen girl. Instead of “spray and pray” tactics aimed at winning a war for attention, I believe winning brands of the future will make peace with society’s shifts and make products and services that vary on interests and intent, rather than household size and life stage.