Why demographics fail

While marketing to broad demographic groups is something businesses have been doing since the 1950s, calling it 'targeting' is really sort of silly. After all, a demographic group is a diverse population, not a homogenous target. The 'target' Men 25 to...

While marketing to broad demographic groups is something businesses have been doing since the 1950s, calling it ‘targeting’ is really sort of silly. After all, a demographic group is a diverse population, not a homogenous target. The ‘target’ Men 25 to 54 includes Eminem and Elton John, or Johnny Rotten and Prince Charles, if you prefer.

Even if we narrow the group to Men 45 to 54, it still includes Stockwell Day and Svend Robinson. Does anyone really think that these people are similar in outlook and consumer behavior? That they are exposed to the same media? Demographics don’t define people, and they don’t even define groups very well.

Something worse: Marketers, government officials and policy advocates often talk about men or women as if they were a monolithic identity group when some are right wing, some left wing and many don’t care about politics; some are old, others young, and rich or poor and on and on. Obviously, there are some issues that affect all women or all men but these are very few and far between.

Take two radio stations, one with an urban format and the other with an alternative-rock format. Both probably skew young, 18 to 24, and probably toward men, as well, so how can the broadcasters differentiate their product to customers? The situation is even worse if the two stations have more or less the same reach. Basic demographic profiling is unlikely to yield any meaningful insight into who these audiences are and what they do. The term ‘target demo’ is largely meaningless when applied to a radio stations audience – it’s a contradiction in terms.

On the other hand, studies such as PMB, NADbank and BBM’s RTS look at precisely defined consumers – rather than vague demographics. Advertisers, their agencies and, of course, the media all use the information not only to target better and sell more, but also to gain insight into just about any customer base.

A media-consumer study can quickly show, for instance, that the urban-format listeners in our example spend more on clothes and frequent dance clubs, while the alternative crowd spend little on clothes but quite a bit on beer. The advertiser who has this type of consumer information can make an informed decision about which station is the best match, while the advertiser relying upon demographics is operating in the dark.

The situation specialty TV stations find themselves in is particularly acute. Here they are with tightly targeted audiences, just perfect for niche marketers, yet they have few (if any) tools to get the message out. For the most part, TV-audience measurement covers bare-bones demographics only. Its system, designed in the 1950s, more or less suits network television but it sure sells the specialty stations short. The situation is very similar to that of the magazine industry – it needed a consumer study to properly define select readership, and created PMB. Specialty stations need a consumer study and badly.

Facts from a media-consumer study are a bonanza of strategic marketing information. Stores shopped, restaurants frequented, investments made, products owned, leisure activities undertaken, psychographics: the list goes on and on. Add to that a comprehensive look at media exposure for print and broadcast, as well as new media, and you have a complete consumer picture.

Take the example of BBM’s RTS and the Toronto market: a database with about 9,000 respondents and almost 75 pages of questionnaire data. There aren’t many advertisers who can afford to undertake their own market research with that kind of breadth and depth, but they can gain solid information on their customers from any consumer study – be it NADbank, PMB or RTS. Even better, the data is available to advertisers for free or a very nominal cost.

Having worked at NADbank and now at BBM on RTS, I’ve seen many types of advertisers benefit from the marketing information available in a media-consumer study.

Advertisers who don’t use consumer information in their media planning are at a major disadvantage. Demographics don’t tell the whole story; in many cases, they don’t tell any story at all.

Craig Dorning is Marketing Manager, Radio, at BBM Bureau of Measurement in Toronto. He can be reached at (416) 445-9200 ext. 2081 or by e-mail at cdorning@bbm.ca., (416) 960-5255; fax (416) 960-5255.