Demographics Are Outdated

Using demographics to identify and target your audience is increasingly ineffective.

While demographics still have value, they shouldn’t be the sole or primary criteria for identifying your audience and determining the best message to deliver. As our reliance on demographics fades, so too is the effectiveness of classifying people in broad categories, such as Gen Xers and Millennials.

Demographics alone won’t tell you the most important thing you need to know about your audience, which is what they value. The emphasis on understanding what people like and how they share experiences creates new tribes and new ways to segment your audience.

During a study we conducted for a financial institution that wanted to attract Millennials, it became clear that how they felt about money and savings had largely to do with whether or not they lived with their parents. A 21-year-old working her first job and sharing an apartment with roommates has more in common with a 35-year-old in a similar situation than a peer living at home with mom and dad. This is common sense, but it is surprising how companies continue to use generic targeting schemes based on the faulty premise that everyone born between the early 1980s and 2000s will respond as a single homogeneous cohort. Trust me, I’ve seen enough RFPs come through.

This coming together around common values is related to how we access content, increasing urbanization and the growing popularity of authentic brands aligned with our values.

Our ability to access content anywhere at anytime, along with social media platforms that let us share that content, create new opportunities to interact with like-minded people — often in ways that shatter demographic boundaries.

In a 2014 interview, BBC Radio’s George Ergatoudis said, “If you look at the list of the 1,000 favorite artists for 60-year-olds and the 1,000 favorite artists for 13-year-olds, there is a 40% overlap, and if you take 30- to 39-year-olds and 13- to 19-year-olds, over 50% of their favorite artists are the same.” Can you imagine listening to 60% of the same music your parents or grandparents did when you were 13? I validated this when my 14-year-old son said he listens to Green Day, Led Zeppelin and the Stones. Cool.

Our increasingly urbanized society allows us to interact more closely while being exposed to a greater variety of cultures, ideas and experiences. According to a 2015 McKinsey Global Institute study, urban populations are growing by 65 million people every year — that’s seven new Chicagos a year, a mind-blowing statistic.

This growth leads to increasing economic spend, and brands that play on this global stage respond, not based on demographics, but in shared value experiences and by meeting individual expectations. This is why Starbucks has no stated demographic only target audience; it has created environments that allow people to share experiences. The company understands its power comes from how consumers feel when they interact with it. And when they love it, they will share it. Starbucks is one of the most popular brands shared on social media; it has more Instagram tags than Apple, McDonald’s and Coke combined.

Living in a society that allows us to connect with people and ideas in ever-expanding ways, virtually and physically, lets people more fully express themselves as individuals. Knowledge, technology and choice allow freedom of expression to blossom. It’s why consumers flock to brands that allow them to express who they are or who they want to be. We see this in fair trade coffee, Tesla and handmade crafts on Etsy. Brands allow consumers to do what they want, how they want, while feeling good about themselves. The Swedish clothing company Uniforms For The Dedicated has launched an initiative called the Rag Bag. It allows customers, once they take their new clothing out of the company shopping bag, to turn the bag inside out and place a donated item inside. Once reversed, the bag turns into a printed and pre-paid package that can be sealed and dropped in the mail. It effectively renders shopping guilt-free, even virtuous.

To more precisely target and meet the needs of your audience, look well past the demographics.

They are important, but to be truly effective in your marketing, study audience psychographics. Understand what they value, how they feel about your category, what is important to them and, above all, stay authentic. Like the old adage goes, say what you mean, and do what you say – and never stop listening to and studying your audience.