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Still care about demographic targeting? You’re not alone

20 Aug 2018  |  Ian Dowds 
Still care about demographic targeting? You’re not alone

Data and the ability to target individuals has transformed marketing, writes Ian Dowds. But don't write off demographics just yet

What is it with the Grim Reaper and our industry? Hardly a month goes by without "the death of" something or other being proclaimed. Linear TV, radio, print newspapers, and even (so soon?) the desktop PC - the marketing industry loves to scream an early obituary. Did Mark Twain work in advertising by any chance?

But perhaps the most curious case of all concerns the strange death of demographics. How many times over the last decade have we heard the last rites?

Yet the patient, perversely, absolutely declines to slip away. And now, courtesy of US research outfit Lotame comes an interesting report with news that the prospective corpse may be in rude health after all.

We'll return to the report in slightly more detail in a minute, but perhaps it's worth remembering how we got here in the first place.

Because, seen from a certain angle, you can see why people tend to fall for the notion of the death of demographics - and the extent to which you're sold on the idea depends on how ready you are to buy in to the programmatic sales story.

The high water mark in this ideological struggle was arguably Bob Gilbreath's piece in the June 205 edition of Brand Quarterly, an article titled '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," it began.

And yes it soon becomes apparent that he has a paradigm shift up his sleeve. "We are living in new times... the first step of modern targeting should be an appeal to prospects' interests," he reveals.

So - behavioural targeting new and shiny, demographics quite frankly extinct.

Happily, some were prepared to step up and take issue with Gilbreath. People like Mark Ritson who swiftly debunked Brand Quarterly's claim in Marketing Week: "On a superficial level the [demographics are dead brigade] critics have a point. Targeting the 28-to-40-year-old mum is clearly not the optimum way to market any product or service.

"But that was always the case. There have always been shit marketers who don't do any research or segmentation and just conjure up a broad, stereotypical 'target segment' to make their marketing plan look more professional. In that sense, demographics have always been dead."

But properly utilised, demographics, he concluded, still had a vitally important part to play in the marketing process.

Was this conclusive? Did the world listen? To some bits of it, yes. To others, not so much.

Because in April 2018, another punchy article argued that demographic targeting is "dead in the water" - and a good thing too, the author added, because demographic targeting was killing brands. Worse still, it was turning much marketing and advertising into "a lie".

A lie? Enough!

The thing is, that's not the way most advertisers see the world, and with good reason. Which is why the Lotame survey of 300 US marketers is so interesting. All those surveyed purchase and/or use audience data (1st, 2nd or 3rd-party) and in their day-to-day roles are involved with at least one of digital marketing, brand marketing and programmatic advertising.

The report shows that demographic audience targeting, particularly age, is still key for most advertisers (around 76% usually or always target by age).

Demographic (age and gender) is the no. 1 choice of targeting with "interest based" and "behavioural" ranked only 4th and 6th respectively.

Advertisers need transparency and objectivity in audience measurement. So is it really any surprise that when they're seeking a foundation for planning, they turn to criteria for which there are industry-standard establishment surveys?

Who defines the criteria for identifying "interest based" or "behavioural" segments? Let's be frank, it's a free for all. There are no standards. The many and various companies that benefit from simple, often self-certificated methodologies set the criteria.

There's no industry governance of these methodologies. There is little rigour applied. It is often based solely on frequently wiped cookies on shared devices. There is little or no mobile app insight applied - unless it's a walled-garden-style first party data of the platforms or the large publishers.

All of which makes it rather galling when you hear people talking about demographics perpetuating lies.

That's not to say there is no value to interest and behavioural data. There can be, of course. It is simply that most advertisers use it knowing the limitations and dangers.

Advertisers like to have, somewhere in their planning and buying process, a foundation that they can have confidence in. Even if it is not the sharpest tool in the box, demographic data comes with a recognised industry-standard endorsement.

The Lotame report doesn't reveal to what extent the advertisers involved are more brand or response focused. Neither does it show what those marketers believe may be the key targeting criteria five years from now. However, it is still worth making the point that some of the more "traditional" media planning disciplines and processes still play a significant part for advertisers today.

And of course the world moves on. UKOM's very existence is testament to that - and our innovative hybrid methodology has evolved to keep pace with an increasingly complex digital marketplace.

But this isn't innovation for the sake of it. We do what we do because targeting and demography still lie at the heart of what advertisers want to achieve.

So, please, next time you're invited to a wake held to mark the sad demise of demographics, take a deep breath and think of Mark Twain.


Ian Dowds is CEO of UKOM

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IanDowds, CEO, UKOM on 24 Aug 2018
“Completely agree Nick Drew - I find the polemic nature of most media debates these very frustrating and one of my main mantras is that data is not a zero sum game and multiple types and sources should be used together or separately as appropriate. It is fair to say that I found the “demographic data is a lie that is killing marketing” particularly provocative!”
NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 23 Aug 2018
“An interesting point, and useful discussion - but screwy formatting (? everywhere) makes it a challenging read!
The broader point is one of reductionism, and the relentless habit of tech, media and marketing folk to say "because y exists, x is dead". There is no space in this overly simplistic worldview for "y is the ideal tool in certain circumstances; in other cases, stick with x". Hence TV is dead, killed by online; Uber is killing all other forms of transport; and conventional demographic marketing has been utterly replaced by interest-based targeting.”