Lead Forensics

It’s Time to Stop Targeting Demographics

28 February 2024


Old habits, as the oft-used proverb goes, die pretty hard. Never was this truer than with advertising’s obsession with audience demographics.

In the past – specifically, when live TV and radio reigned supreme – it was the done thing to plan campaigns around the age, gender and socioeconomic status of people tuning in. Audience attention was monopolised by a relatively small cabal of broadcasters back then, and their content, it was assumed, appealed to certain demographics. This made the marketer’s job reasonably simple: buy inventory at the right time and in the right programming, and you’d reach a large chunk of your target market.

Wastage? Par the course, unfortunately. Brands simply took it on the chin; it was always accepted that targeting by demographic was an inexact science. Sure, the advent of analytical software facilitated greater accuracy when it came to optimising campaign activity around live performance data. But the fact remained that categorising human beings – complex creatures, we can all agree – based on age, gender and socioeconomic background was always a quick-fix solution riven with imperfections.

Society is transforming, but the media industry has been slow to catch up

And now, societal change is taking place at a rate not seen since post-WWII, pushing old demographics into further obsolescence.

Take, for instance, gender. We’re moving beyond the days where women were expected to prioritise family and motherhood over their careers. In 1971, just 18% of women aged 30 had no children; in 2022, that figure had risen to 50%. Increasingly, many are choosing to be childfree full stop. How many media planners have looked at the “housewives with kids” demographic and winced? Well, there’s even more reason to do so now.

The catalysts for why people are choosing not to have children are myriad – but one factor for many will be economic uncertainty. It used to be that a middle-class income would comfortably net you a nice house, a car, and a holiday in the summer. Today, that same income will leave you on the brink of pulling your hair out as you wonder how you’ll cover your sky-high rent or mortgage, groceries, and energy bills. With previously comfortable families now struggling to make ends meet, the middle-class has consequently been squeezed to the point where some commentators argue it no longer exits. So much for targeting audiences based on the socioeconomic background – you’re either very rich, or everyone else.

And then we come to age. It’s no secret that we are now living longer; in 1900 the average life expectancy at birth for a woman was 47.5 years and a man’s 43.7; today, it’s 82.7 and 78.7 years. As a result, we’re waiting till we’re older to get married and start families (if we choose to at all). We’re also generally healthier and more active well into our silver years, though there is a caveat to this: many of us are also retiring later.

These are generalisations to an extent, but they serve the purpose of exposing how unfit for purpose old ‘tried-and-tested’ demographics are in 21st century Britain.

Context and intent are key

Instead of basing media strategies on these outmoded demographics, brands and agencies should now be looking at context and user intent. This approach helps develop a rounded understanding of buying stages by leveraging purchasing signals that take context into account.

This type of targeting significantly boosts engagement while reducing wastage; contextually relevant ad creatives reach the right people at the right stage of their purchasing journey. But what about those pesky demographics? Are they not still being bandied around by media planners when it comes to the likes of TV and radio?

Well, while we haven’t exactly seen the last of them, the good news is the sands are shifting. The rise of connected TV and addressable advertising have significantly improved the accuracy of campaign targeting.

Now, brands can access increasingly granular data on people’s viewing or listening habits, and coordinate this with purchasing signals further along the line to deliver personalised strategies that incorporate every buying stage – from initial awareness and problem recognition, through to information search and the final purchase decision.

Speak to your planning agency about transforming your media strategy into one fit for the nuances of modern life.

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