Commentary

Demographics: The Targeting Construct That Wouldn't Die

Recently, our customers have communicated a message to us loud and clear.  It is a message that may seem counterintuitive here in the 21st century, in the all-digital, micro-targeting, behavioral targeting, contextual targeting age.

Demographics, they tell us, are of paramount importance. 

No, seriously.  Demographics.  Like age, gender, household income.  I know; it's as if I told you I was converting all my MP3s to 8-track, right? 

Most of my colleagues were taken aback by this news. (Me, I wasn't surprised -- but then, I still talk on a landline phone and send faxes.)  We've been told for a good 20 years that demographics are a surrogate, an imperfect replacement for a true target -- which would be something like auto intenders, or heavy beer drinkers, or home owners, or people searching on Google for "Hawaiian vacation."  Demographics are primitive, clunky, downright archaic in this day and age.

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Aren't they?

At comScore, we're pretty excited about a new service called Segment Metrix, which essentially turns audience measurement into a behavioral targeting tool. (Author's note: that was a product plug.)  In fact, if I were absolutely, positively forced to predict, I'd guess that behavioral targeting and audience measurement were going to start to fuse together over the next few years.

But demographics refuse to die.  In fact, we all know that more than half of U.S. ad dollars are placed against traditional demographic targets -- and I'd wager, it's way more than half.  We've done a 20-year vigil at the deathbed of demographics; what, exactly, is the deal?

First off, of course, I should state the obvious: that one of the primary benefits of our service is that we do, in fact, provide demographic descriptors of Web site audiences.  Audience measurement services measure the audience to the medium, not the medium itself (the people in front of the screen, as opposed to the hits and clicks that define machine-to-machine intercourse.)  Thus far, media audiences have been comprised exclusively of people, who are in turn described by demographics.  So sure, the universe of comScore clients will sort of self-select as entities that value demographics.  I get that.

But I will argue that demographics will continue to be a valuable construct in targeting, marketing and advertising for the foreseeable future.  Let's imagine a car brand, an expensive, high performance vehicle.  Presumably its target is people planning to buy a new car, who have a certain amount of disposable income (that's a demographic right there, by the way) and who value performance and engineering.  Can't this brand rely exclusively on behavioral and contextual targeting, directing ads specifically at people who, by virtue of their behavior or the context of their media consumption, have self-identified as prospects?

I don't think so, because if they do, strategists have passed on the opportunity to build their brand.  I have to figure that this hypothetical automotive marketer wants to occupy a specific place in your mind, well before you might find yourself in the market for its vehicle.  We've always been taught that the impact of brand building is long-term and cumulative.  Coke, after all, is it.  In a perfectly behavioral-targeted world, if you never saw a Mercedes ad until you could afford one and were ready to purchase, how would you know you wanted a Mercedes?  Shouldn't you have aspired to that brand long before you walked into the dealership?  If not, we've essentially decided that brand building is irrelevant.  And I don't think we really want to go there.

Then there is the question of messaging.  Age and gender are the most ubiquitous and, some would argue, the most irrelevant demographics.  But suppose your creative, developed and honed over many years, is resonant with people of a certain generation -- but younger people aren't moved by it?  Can't brand messaging and imagery age out of relevance with new consumers?  (Or is that my father's Oldsmobile after all...)  And if messages can have varying resonance by generation, then indeed age, as a measure of year born, will continue to inform messaging and creative development.

Certainly behavioral targeting will only grow in importance, but I don't think demographics will go away as a relevant targeting construct.  I'm pretty sure we at comScore will keep providing age and gender breaks for the foreseeable future, and I'm pretty sure that's how our customers want it.

What do you think?  Are you ready to wean off demographics?

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