Welcome to content strategy's post-demographic age

As we content marketers set out to reach audiences with our carefully designed and targeted communications, our strategic lead Martin Bewick asks it finally time to recognise that we’re living in a post-demographic age? Are there better ways to segment a potential audience to deliver the right message, at the right time, to the right people?

(This originally appeared on the CMA website)

Marketers have been proclaiming the death of demographics for a few years now. Back in 2014, global trends forecaster noted that consumers weren’t “behaving as they ‘should’”. It picked up on a report from the Internet Advertising Bureau that noted the majority of video game players in the UK were now women, and there were more gamers aged over 44 than under 18. So much for the stereotype of the teenage male gamer stuck away in his bedroom.

When you notice one hiccup in expectation, you discover a whole series of them. For example, countless recent reports and news headlines inform us that where once it was young adults who drank all the booze, now it’s older consumers. Or maybe you’ve read that young people, rather than being party animals, don’t go out anymore . Perhaps you’ve seen one too many Mamils speeding through the city streets or country lanes and realised that ‘cycling’ is no longer just about kids on BMXes.

Or think about travel – who journeys to the other side of the world for a holiday these days? Only the financially secure middle class? And who opts to stay local and go camping? Only those without much expendable income? Can we really be certain we know what our audience wants anymore?

New research

Of course, much of these behavioural shifts don’t signal the end of demographics as a useful insight, only that we need to refresh our demographic survey data and segment audiences accordingly. But there is one insight from these cultural developments that’s hard to deny. Age, gender, stratifications of class, and income, it seems, don’t provide the concrete insight they used to. 

The big consumer powerhouse brands agree. P&G’s consumer research uses ‘smart audiences’ profiling, rather than simple demographics. Food company Danone has created a series of ‘tribes’. A recent Marketing Week survey revealed that behaviour (44%) and location (42%) trumped age (38%) as a commonly used marketing dataset. Personal interests, life stage (distinct from age) and attitude are also deemed useful methods of segmentation. Indeed, for many market research firms, attitudinal surveys, rather than demographics, are now commonplace.  

Amid all these shades of grey, age and gender are not the trusted signifiers they once were. For marketers, is this new world one in which ‘things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’ – as poet WB Yeats might put it?

Well, yes, and no. Of course, understanding that a person’s needs are informed by more than age and gender is a useful development. However, dividing and sub-dividing any cohort with ever greater precision to create a truly accurate, personalised profile, might be costly to achieve – and hard to act on in any profitable way. The sheer quantity of data we can now access was always likely to explode any settled account of an audience, and it’s easy to get lost in the analytical debris.

Data and demographics

Over the past few years, access to ‘big data’ has been promoted as a way to achieve precision in targeted marketing. But already that is being surpassed, with ‘thick data’ now a marketing buzzword.

Thick data? That’ll be an extra set of qualitative information, allied to the ‘raw’, or ‘big’, data, to provide insight into why some consumers have certain preferences and others don’t, and why certain trends stick but some are only a flash in the pan. For ‘thick data’, read ‘more data’.

If that only sounds like adding to the confusion for content marketers seeking a simple but effective solution, then let’s take a step back. Demographics can be defined as statistical data relating to the population and particular groups within it. This still holds, and demographics can still supply useful insight on our audiences.

What has changed – when almost unlimited choice is available at our fingertips, or via a voice-controlled device – is simply that the predictable and disciplined behaviours of all kinds of people have given way to a new era of experimentation and freedom.

As a content marketer, whether you are delivering a campaign for a leading consumer brand or creating a regular publication for members of a professional organisation, this freedom of choice needs to be recognised in everything we do. Demographics still exist, but not as we knew them.

Martin Bewick – CPL Content Marketing Strategy
Martin Bewick
is content strategist
at CPL

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