Targeting 101 (or, calling them Millennials is so 2014)

Labels are just labels. People are messy and contradictory.

Our need for patterns helps us make sense of the world, it’s how our brains are wired, but it doesn’t always make it easy to predict behavior. In fact, seeing patterns and labelling a group as a stereotype can be counterproductive these days.

We were tasked by a client to “target millennials” for a campaign, so we conducted research and created a series of personas of this group, including “affluent millennials”, “lifestyle millennials” and so on, within a certain geography. Labelling a specific age segment with an aspect of their generation’s consumption habits can be risky, but it was useful for the campaign because we were mapping specific product attributes to specific behavior. What we couldn’t get the client to understand though, was that they could target product attributes to behavior while ignoring common demographics like age, income and gender.  For example, there are people in their 20s who will pay over a hundred dollars for a nice cab sav, in the same way that there are forty-year-olds who skydive on vacation. You may call them the long tail, but bucking trends is the trend these days.

So what is the new approach to targeting?

Target by behavior, not gender or age. Microtargeting on social platforms makes it relatively straightforward to deliver content to targeted audiences, but many marketers make the mistake of targeting by broad stroke demographics, not behavior. Not all Justin Bieber fans are aged between 14-25; many scuba divers are above 55. Age is no longer a reliable predictor of behavior. Targeting affluent travelers? Aim your social content at people who have traveled overseas at least once the past month, and who have liked the brand pages of relevant airlines and high-end hotel groups.

Mine data to spot non-obvious patterns that predict future behavior. For example, Target, a large American department store, identified 25 products that women expecting commonly purchased together, and sent coupons to them. In the process, they inadvertently outed one girl’s hidden pregnancy to her dad. Here’s what happened:

[A] man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation.

“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”

The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.

On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”

You can read the original New York Times story here.

In a nutshell, as marketers we should start with behavior, instead of making assumptions based on demographics. Straightforward and obvious, right?