How to Handle Demographic and Psychographic Segmentation (without Looking Like an Idiot)

A common newbie marketing mistake is trying to talk to everyone. There are all kinds of buzzwords around speaking to a specific audience — segmentation, demographics, psychographics, generational marketing. Today Sonia talks about a few pitfalls and best practices.

Last week the New York Times ran a funny little piece about the Baby Boomers being The Next Hot Market to sell to. It sparked some thoughts on how (and why) we divide our markets into segments, the perils of trying to speak to everyone with the same message, and some of the dangerous curves on the road to segmentation.

In this 20-minute episode, Sonia Simone talks about:

  • Using broad terms like “Boomer” and “Millennial” when those groups are incredibly diverse
  • A few examples of dumb things marketers say about the millennials
  • Demographics vs. psychographics
  • The fascinating world of recommendation algorithms
  • How to gather psychographic information when you don’t have a massive budget
  • The dangerous can of worms segmentation can open, and how to handle it

Scheduling Note: This show is moving to a Monday publication date! Look for the next episode in your favorite podcast venue on Monday, September 26.


The Show Notes


How to Handle Demographic and Psychographic Segmentation (Without Looking Like an Idiot)

Jerod Morris: Hey, Jerod Morris here. If you know anything about Rainmaker Digital and Copyblogger, you may know that we produce incredible live events. Some would say that we produce incredible live events as an excuse to throw great parties, but that’s another story. We’ve got another one coming up this October in Denver. It’s called Digital Commerce Summit, and it is entirely focused on giving you the smartest ways to create and sell digital products and services. You can find out more at Rainmaker.FM/Summit. That’s Rainmaker.FM/Summit. We’ll be talking about Digital Commerce Summit in more detail as it gets closer, but for now I’d like to let a few attendees from our past events speak for us.

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Sonia Simone: Hello there, it is so good to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the content marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant. My name is Sonia Simone. I am the Chief Content Officer for Rainmaker Digital and I hang out with the folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger blog. If you would like to get some additional resources, cool free things, and links for some of the things that we talk about, you can always find those at Copyblogger.FM. You’ll also get a complete archive for the show.

Just one minute of housekeeping before I move along. Today we publish on Thursdays. We’re going to be moving the publication date for Copyblogger.FM to Mondays. So a week from this week — Thursday a week from this week — you will not find your usual episode of Copyblogger FM. Just look for it again, it’ll pop up that following Monday. Instead of running the show on the 22nd, we’ll run it on the 26th.

Today, I want to dive into some thoughts about marketing with demographics and with psychographics. Specifically, some of the ways that that translates into marketing to age groups or marketing to specific generations. For example, marketing to baby boomers or marketing to millennials. The New York Times ran a piece — it was adorable in its way — about how the new thing has been marketing to boomers.

The piece is called at “The Hottest Startup Market? Baby Boomers.” I say it’s adorable because the idea that somehow there’s something new about marketing to baby boomers is hilarious, but I will give you a link. If you have already filled your quota and can’t read any New York Times articles this month, I don’t think you’ll miss out on too much. But I will go ahead and give you a link to that in the show notes.

One person who might be pleased at this notion is a friend of Copyblogger, Bob Bly, a well-known copywriter. He has long made a good case that companies are very stupid if they ignore this large and, statistically speaking, relatively affluent group. Although I would argue that just because your net worth is a certain number — if you’re a retired person who owns a home that’s been appreciating, that doesn’t always translate to disposable income.

Quibbles aside, he’s certainly correct that there are lots of baby boomers and statistically, they represent a lot of revenue, a lot of money that they could spend on things. You might remember Bob’s name because he and I have a difference of opinion about whether or not you should swear on your podcast. I will give you a link to that difference of opinion as expressed by me in the show notes at Copyblogger.FM.

Using Broad Terms like “Boomer” and “Millennial” When Those Groups Are Incredibly Diverse

Let’s start out with some pitfalls of this idea of marketing to a particular generation. Let’s say marketing to boomers. The most important one is that boomers are not just one thing. Of course, we all say that. We say, “Well, not everybody’s alike.” That’s obvious, that’s self evident. But really, truly they’re not, the baby boom generation in particular. It divides itself into two groups and demographers have what must be fascinating arguments about these two groups and whether or not they should really be included in the same label. There’s a group that was born between right after World War II and the middle of the 50’s, 1955. Then there’s another group born between 1955 and 1964.

In terms of just “lots of babies were born at that time,” that’s what the baby boom is. It’s a literal reference to a population boom. They’re all baby boom, but it’s usually the first group that we think of when we use that word, ‘boomer.’ Those two groups tend to define themselves differently, identify differently. A lot of that second group did not particularly identify with the term ‘baby boomers.’ It’s really that first group we think of as the classic boomers. They became young adults in the 60’s. They lived under the shadow of the Vietnam War in the United States, etc.

We have this little article in the New York Times — a fine newspaper, of course — saying the hot new thing is marketing to boomers, and before we can even get started, we have an issue in how we define the generation. That issue is not only an issue with the baby boom generation. As a matter of fact, that generation is particularly well defined by a generational term in ways that other generations don’t tend to be.

Dumb Things Marketers Say about Millennials

Let’s talk about the other generation that everybody is marketing to: the millennials. I looked this up. I wanted to know what years are we really talking about when we talk about millennials. I found some research from Pew Research that says millennials are born after 1980. Then there’s an asterisk on that and it says, “When we say born after 1980, how we’re defining that is born between 1977 and 1992.” Okay, then.

Then there’s another footnote in a different part of an article — also from Pew Research — saying that millennials are complicated, but basically it’s anybody who’s 18-34 years old today, which is not a generation, it’s an age group. Again, before we can even get started, we’re having some issues with defining what millennials are. It sounds like a picky point, but it’s not. We’re using these things as if they’re real things, and they are constructs. And they’re not even particularly robust constructs.

Here’s the other thing about the millennials. If you take that 1977 number, the earliest-born millennials are just about to hit their 40th birthday. This is not what we think about when we talk about millennials. We have this stereotype of a flighty young person or a flaky young person. I saw in the comments of one of these — it was totally priceless — “‘A bunch of lazy, spoiled kids that are buried in their phone or tablet’ — Anonymous.” Of course, you know and I know that ‘their’ is spelled incorrectly — because, naturally.

So you see articles written with a straight face by a person who is presumably not an idiot that say things like, “How can we convince millennials to use banks?” They’re 40 years old. They use banks. They’re in their 30s, late 20s. They’re actually bona fide grownup people with jobs and bank accounts. The stereotypes about millennials are a lot more robust than any actual observations about millennials.

Even if you could nail down the numbers and agree, “Okay, we’re going to talk about this period of time. We’re only going to talk about people born between this year and that year.” A lot of people born the same year don’t think the same way. Astrology also is not a real thing, sorry. Marketing to age groups has some issues, whether you’re doing it to an age range or you’re doing it to a defined generation like Gen X or millennials or baby boomers. Why do it? Why do we have articles about, “Hey, it’s the hot new market, baby boomers?”

Demographics Versus Pyschographics

It used to be that marketing by age group was one of the ways that you could effectively segment your advertising. You would buy ads targeted at a particular demographic. You bought an ad on a show that was watched by young women who were home with their children. This was a thing in the 1950s, the soap opera. Women mostly stayed home with their families and the advertising that ran during the day was aimed directly at those young women with families. Or you bought mailing lists that were targeted at people with very specific demographics and behavior. Like male golfers, 36-49, who had purchased a luxury car this year. That, by the way, would be quite an expensive list to purchase or to rent.

This kind of segmentation, demographic segmentation, existed to take a reasonable guess at how to talk with a person so that that person would buy something. We still use demographics to some degree today, especially in larger organizations and especially if you’re buying advertising. You buy advertising and you’re targeting women with families between this age and that age, etc., who live in zip codes where something else is true. Our friend, technology, and in particular, our friend, Internet-based business, came up with a really cool trick that was completely different from demographics, and that was the recommendation algorithm.

The Fascinating World of Recommendation Algorithms

As far as I can figure out, Amazon were the first people to at least use this to the degree that you see it today. To use it robustly. It’s quite possible somebody else worked on it first, and if you know of an earlier use than Amazon, I would love it if you would tweet me or leave a comment here at Copyblogger.FM and let me know. That’s just the kind of nerdy thing I like to find out more about. A recommendation algorithm is the technology that says, “People who watched X also enjoyed Y.” They use it on Netflix. You watch a movie on Netflix and people say, “The people who liked this movie and gave this movie 4-stars also gave that movie 4-stars. Do you want to watch that next?”

This is a pretty massive technological undertaking. It underpins Amazon. It underpins Netflix. It touches on how Google works. It’s based on this idea that people who like one thing — just as it happens in observation — that they often like something that’s related. People who like Phish might buy a lot of plane tickets — Phish the band, not fish the food stuff. People who like a Facebook page with resources for celiac also tend to buy a lot of gluten-free bread. People who like Steven Moffat’s show, Sherlock, also often like Steven Moffat’s show, Dr. Who. Similarities in people based on what they like. This gets us into a very buzz-wordy term: psychographics.

How to Gather Psychographic Information When You Don’t Have a Massive Budget

Psychographics is just a way that marketing people talk about taking some buyers to lunch and finding out what they are like as people rather than as collections of demographic facts. There are a lot of ways to collect psychographics. Taking people to lunch happens to be quite a good one. The thing I want you to take away is that content and psychographics totally go together like peanut butter and jelly because of the art of content. All of the psychology and how you use language. The kinds of words you use to describe things. Your values. The meaning that underpins the content that you create. All of that interesting gray area stuff that doesn’t necessarily measure well with Google Analytics is what goes into psychographics.

Then, if you pair that with the more nuts and bolts strategy with the Google Analytics, that’s when you have a winner. That’s what we call, stealing the phrase from David Ogleby who stole it from somebody else, that’s what you call the combination of the killer and the poet. As the New York Times article went into this alleged trend of marketing to baby boomers, I’m going to suggest that probably this is not a trend that ever went away.

One of their points was the longevity market. This is where it starts to get interesting. AARP estimates that the economic activity of this thing called the longevity market — people who are willing to make a purchase to live longer — is 7.6 trillion dollars. That’s interesting. Now we’re talking about something that’s interesting. Not just marketing to somebody because they were born in a particular year, but because they’re interested in a particular topic. They are interested in the topic of longevity, and their interest is such that it might sustain some purchases.

Now my little marketing brothers and sisters can perk up our ears, because now we’ve got something we can actually work with. If you followed the psychographic trail, and what I mean by that is, if you had a product in the longevity market and you talked to some of your buyers and you took them to lunch and talked to them, it might point you to the finding that mostly younger people don’t care enough about longevity to buy anything. It’s not an urgent issue for them yet, so most of the market is going to be older.

I would not be surprised to find out this was true. Seems common sense, sure, absolutely. But here’s the part that I find really cool about living when we live — it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, not really. You can find some interesting resources that might appeal to the psychographic and then you advertise to that. Right now what it means is, you find a page about longevity on Facebook and then everybody who likes that page, you serve them ads for your product. Right now, it’s Facebook. New options are going to pop up all the time. It could be that in a year I’m going to have a forehead slap and say, “I really wish I hadn’t used Facebook as an example in this podcast episode.”

It doesn’t matter. What matters is the concept that you find a group of people who have expressed an interest in the topic and then you serve advertising that is super, ultra relevant to that interest. That’s a way to actually deliver the right message to the right people instead of just spamming the universe with your “buy it, buy it, buy it.” The reason that I said that it wasn’t all that relevant whether the demographic for the longevity market is mostly older people — you would think it would be — it doesn’t matter because if there’s some massive group of 20-somethings who have an interest in longevity right now, you will find them through their interests. You don’t have to sort by age, sorting by interest works much better.

The Dangerous Can of Worms Segmentation Can Open, and How to Handle It

I started talking about pitfalls, and I’m going to talk about some more pitfalls. This is the big one if you are going to market to a demographic. It is also a pitfall if you’re going to market to baby boomers, Generation X, millennials, if you’re marketing to women, if you’re marketing to some group that can be demographically defined. Along with this idea of marketing to women or marketing to boomers comes an idea that you may not be thinking of, it may not be forefront in your mind, but it comes right along with it. That’s the idea that there are people, and then there’s this weird variant of people called ‘boomer people’ or called ‘female people.’

This leads to all kinds of very embarrassingly stupid behavior. This is what leads to marketing that is condescending. This is what leads to marketing that offends and annoys the people you’re trying to market to instead of making them feel welcomed and embraced. If you are 26 years old and you’re putting together a campaign that’s like, “Hey, boomers, remember the Beetles? They were far out. Right, man?”

I’m embarrassed for you. I’m embarrassed for all of us. It’s condescending and it’s horrible. You see it with marketing to women all the time. “Hey, ladies, it’s now offered in pink.” This is the most terrible, awful thing that you can do with your marketing. Stop it immediately. Talking to women as if women are some kind of weird, strange variant of real people and you’ve heard they like the color pink. It’s dreadful, so don’t.

Fortunately, there are antidotes to this terrible fate. The first is any time you’re doing content, you’re creating marketing and content for an audience, talk to people. If you can, in your mind, try not to think about ‘these are boomer people’ or ‘these are female people.’ Just try to think about people. That helps. Have a lot of conversations. Have a lot of conversations with the group that you’re talking to.

When I say talk to humans first, I do not mean all people are exactly the same. Because guess what? All people are not exactly the same. All people do not use the same words for things. We don’t use the same language. We don’t share the same experiences. We don’t share sometimes the same values or outlook. You can’t just talk to them like you talk to yourself unless you’re a member of that group.

Related: If you want to create content or copy for a particular group, a particular age group, a demographic, a gender, or a generation, it’s not a bad idea to have a member of that group around. If you’re in a company that markets largely or even primarily to women and you have no women writers on your staff, I would suggest that you are opening yourself up to some issues. Issues in the sense of you will be creating communication that just isn’t hitting the mark because you don’t have any women in the room to say, “I gotta say, I don’t think that’s hitting the mark.”

If you want to create copy for baby boomers, then maybe you should talk to some boomer copywriters. It is not the case that you have to exactly match everything all the time. It’s not as literal and simple as that, but if a certain group is a really important customer group for you, then you should have those voices in your team as part of the mix. It’s just common sense. I’m sure at least one person will ask me, “Do I have to be a woman to write copy for women?” No, I don’t think that’s true at all. I’m a woman and I’ve bought lots of things that were presented to me and copywritten by guys. But I will tell you there’s a lot of grievously stupid copy and content “for women” that has been written by guys who think that they are good at it.

I’m not making a case for, “Only women can write for women or only boomers can write for boomers.” I am making a case for “Take a look at your team and make sure it reflects the reality of your audience to a reasonable degree.” That’s what I’ve got for this week, thoughts on marketing to demographics, psychographics, and the boomers, Gen X, and millennials. I would love to hear about anything that you’ve done for specific age groups or specific demographic groups. If you’re brave enough to share horrible stories, that would be even better. You can send me a note on Twitter if you’re embarrassed and you want some protection. I can tell your story anonymously if you want to.

These stories are always interesting. I always open this up with tales of interesting disasters. Some of the most interesting disasters come from trying to write content for a particular group when you are not a member of that group yourself. If you don’t, metaphorically speaking, speak that group’s language as your native tongue.

Just a reminder, that this podcast will be switching to a Monday publication date. On Thursday the 22nd you will not see your beloved Copyblogger FM. Sad face. Sad trombone. But it will pop up again for you on Monday the 26th wherever you normally pick up the content. Thank you so much for your time and attention, and I’ll catch you next time. Take care, everybody.