Demographics are a workable proxy. Get over it!

Ian Dowds, CEO, UKOM

There is a great deal of huffing and puffing by some sections of the industry about the supposed obsolescence of demographic segmentation now that technology is capable of identifying and segmenting audiences on context/behaviour/interest/intent/other. Especially when, the evangelists for each will claim, those identifications are made with absolute, up-to-the-millisecond-A.I.-driven, certainty. “Why turn back the clock?!” calls one. “Demos dead in the water” states another. And my favourite hysterical wail: “Demographics have turned marketing into a lie!” screams another.

Please be clear, I am no luddite. I recognise the ever-improving capability to apply real-time data driven insight to make programmatic campaign delivery more efficient in reducing waste and driving effective activation. Luddite? Me? Quite the opposite. I am genuinely fascinated to see how the industry will make best use of such capability, because it surely will.

However. Data is not a zero sum game. There is a whole world outside of digital ad campaigns and online activation. A world of insights that drive strategic, communications and media planning. A world where acting one way or another, dependent only on data changing by millisecond, often generated by businesses with significant commercial self-interest, would be madness in the extreme. There is a world of the bigger picture. The longer term. A broader understanding.

Nobody in this world sees demographics as absolute or exact realities. Demographics are proxies. Of course there’s the 105 year old man in Japan who trains for and runs 100m races (albeit quite slowly). Of course, if Mark Zuckerberg walks into a room of under thirty-five year olds, then the average net worth of individuals in that room rises off the scale. But those two are (whisper it) the exceptions. Of course we could put either of those two outliers into non-demographic categorisations with different commonalities in which they would not stand out or distort the cohort.

Demographics are necessarily broad categorisations on top of which should be laid a whole range of other data driven insights. Mark Ritson, responding in order to debunk a Brand Quarterly “Death of Demographics” article back in 2015, wrote: “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.”

Who knows? We may see the day when there will be an industry agreed definition of what constitutes an audience displaying an interest in buying a car, or intending to book a holiday, along with an independent verification of that audience.

In the meantime, are demographics used only as proxies? Sometimes, of course they are.  Despite the almost limitless supply of digital data and online audience segmentations, demographics are used as the foundation for UKOM’s industry standard for online audience measurement because there are independent and objective establishment surveys for them.

Independent. Objective. Important words not to be dismissed lightly.

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