Demographics are dead: the new, technical face of marketing

Technology has changed the way we understand targeting and contextual relevance. How will marketing adapt?

Over the past five years, marketing has transformed from a primarily creative process into an increasingly data-driven discipline with strong technological underpinnings.

The central purpose of marketing hasn’t changed: brands still aim to tell a story, to emotionally connect with a prospective customer, with the goal of selling a product or service. But while the need to tell an interesting, authentic story has remained constant, customers and channels have fundamentally changed. Old Marketing took a spray-and-pray approach aimed at a broad, passive audience: agencies created demographic or psychographic profiles for theoretical consumers and broadcast ads on mass-consumption channels, such as television, print, and radio. “Targeting” was primarily about identifying high concentrations of a given consumer type in a geographic area.

The era of demographics is over. Advances in data mining have enabled marketers to develop highly specific profiles of customers at the individual level, using data drawn from actual personal behavior and consumption patterns. Now when a brand tells a story, it has the ability to tailor the narrative in such a way that each potential customer finds it relevant, personally. Users have become accustomed to this kind of sophisticated targeting; broad-spectrum advertising on the Internet is now essentially spam. At the same time, there is still a fine line between “well-targeted” and “creepy.”

As data availability has improved the quality of potential opportunities, perpetual connectivity has increased the quantity. The proliferation of mobile devices, decreasing cost of data access, and popularity of social platforms have increased the number of avenues that brands have at their disposal. However, these factors have also made it harder for them to actually connect; today’s audience has an ever-shorter attention span, as focus is split across an increasing number of channels. Consumers are better informed than ever before; a price- or fact-check is simply a Google search away, whether users are in front of their TV screens or walking around stores.

This changing ecosystem has already resulted in a shift from transaction-oriented “product-centric marketing” to a relationship-focused “human-centric” approach. Consumer loyalty to brands is a thing of the past; brands now demonstrate loyalty to their customers. Marketing campaigns must be time-, place-, and context-aware. It’s also important to be technologically on point: cross-device, multi-channel, constantly measuring results and refining campaigns. Today’s technology has largely mitigated the Wanamaker problem, but a Goldilocks problem remains: consumers don’t want to be inundated with marketing that is too obnoxiously broad or too creepily specific. Consumers want relevance.

The Radar team is interested in the progression of “reaching” passive audiences to “engaging” active ones, and in the technology that enables brands to break through the noise and find the people who are most likely to love them. In upcoming months, we’ll be investigating the continuing evolution of marketing, with a focus on fusing the art of storytelling with the promise of data and the objectivity of analytics. If you’re excited about this field, or know of someone doing interesting work in the area, let us know — drop a note in the comments section, or ping me via email or Twitter.

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