5 Reasons Your Customer's Age Doesn't Matter

age-doesnt-matterThere was a time when age used to matter for marketers. We would buy media based on presumed age ranges of audiences in the hopes that this bit of demographic information would help us reach the right people. In fact, this is one of the most time-honored traditions of marketing planning. It is also one of the dumbest. The thing about age is that it was always used as a proxy for interest. If you knew that someone was a male between the ages of 18-34, you could make a guess that they might like sports, or need deodorant, or drink beer.

The inherent problem with this model is that you are just guessing at relevance—but at the time this was the best you could do. Today, you can do better. Online, people are telling you what they are interested in. They are broadcasting their interests. Their activities are not a hidden black box, they are out in the open. So you don't have to guess that a 25-year-old male who is watching football might eat your pretzels—you can use social media and active listening to find the 41-year-old mom who has already told her friends those pretzels are her favorite food in the world. Oh, and by the way, you can find the five friends she shared that with too.

This is the power of the online environment and the new ability of targeting. Marketers don't need to rely on the crutch of age demographics any longer. The problem is, most sites and publications selling advertising still rely on these. So the TV spots, magazine ads and online banners are still being sold largely through these empty demographics, while what marketers need to care about is far different. Here are a few concrete reasons age demographics are generally a waste of time:

  1. People are age shifting and not living lives based on traditional stereotypes for their ages.
  2. The top end of a demographic (34) usually has almost nothing in common with the low end (18).
  3. Age demos leave out influencers, gift buyers, and others for whom a message may be relevant, but don't fit the age requirements because they aren't the ultimate recipient of the product.
  4. Focusing on age can take you away from emotional or relevant benefits.
  5. People lie about their age all the time.

So if you do leave age aside, what matters more? Relevance. If you find the right 25-year-old who thinks like a teenager, or a 36-year-old mom (who may technically be outside your age demographic), then that's a good thing. The only way to do it is to stop blindly thinking about age demographics and refocusing on methods of targeting that actually matter such as interests, affinity groups, location. This doesn’t mean you can forget about tailoring your message to different groups and age ranges, but the point is that you need to think of your audience in terms of action and interest—not artificially created groupings of age.

Once you do that, the places you buy media will start to follow suite. They will sell advertising based on what their audiences do and what they say and not what drop down box they chose as they were trying to register hurridly for access to a site. You have the power to demand more intelligence from the places you spend your marketing dollars. The marketers who do so will be the ones that do more than simply filling out columns on the same measurement spreadsheet year after year.  As a side bonus, they will be the ones that find their marketing working much better as well.

Read more of Rohit Bhargava's Influential Marketing blog on Fast Company.

rohit-bhargavaRohit Bhargava is SVP of Digital Strategy at Ogilvy PR and author of the award-winning book Personality Not Included, a guide for brands to be more authentic. He writes the popular non-obvious marketing blog Influential Marketing and speaks frequently around the world on social media, marketing and the power of personality. Follow him on Twitter at @rohitbhargava or become a fan on Facebook before July 31 to be among the first to get a free download of his new ebook on August 1.

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  • Jeanne-Marie Byington

    Great post, Rohit.

    How does increased lifespan and medical technology affect the original demographic models? People are having children at older ages....and will still be buying stuff for their kids well into their 50s and 60s+.

    And how does this economy address the old demographic models? People are going back to work after retirement to make ends meet...they need clothing, grooming products, cars etc. as everyone else does.

    Who is factoring in these and other fundamental changes in the economy such as the growing ranks of jobless people? Until we create jobs this group will be more than a blip in a business cycle. What are jobless young people whose parents may also be jobless buying—whether they use the Internet or not?

  • Michelle Chun-Hoon

    Age is still relevant when it comes to certain products, but I agree that many companies put too much emphasis and weight on it. Your five points are accurate and true, but age is still a factor that should be considered like many of the other demographics such as location, gender, etc. Altogether, I found your blog thoughtful and definitely an interesting read.
    -Michelle Chun-Hoon
    Intern at CKR Interactive

  • Dave Sohigian

    @Rohit - ignoring age (or, more precisely, generation) is a mistake. Although I agree that marketers often put too much weight on age (probably because it is one of the few things you can put a number on) the generation that someone belongs to is a major cultural influence.
    I think the mistake is in thinking that a "36 year old that thinks like an 18 year old" is anything like an actual 18 year old. A person who is 36 is a "Gen X'er" (born 1961-1981) and had an entirely different experience growing up than an 18-year-old "Millennial" (born 1982-2003). The Gen X definition of youth is individualism and cynicism. The Millennial definition is group cohesion and entitlement. This is based on the cultural soup we grew up in (at least in the US) and is a factor that all marketers should consider.
    A great example of the mistake of age is thinking that a 60 year old Baby Boomer (born 1943-1960) would have the same attitude as a 70 year old Silent (born 1924-1942). The formative experiences of a Boomer ("Flower Power") are very different than Silents ("Man in the Grey Flannel Suit") and marketing to them should keep this in mind.
    You can check out the "Start Here" section of my blog for some primers on generational theory: http://bit.ly/sepMf

    Dave Sohigian

  • Harold Cabezas

    Rohit, great post, I could not agree more with you.

    'Segmentation by interest or lifestyle' (written below by Freddy Nager) could be much more relevant, in most instances.

  • Edward Tierney

    Your point about relevance is relevant. Demographics are a surface layer to a deeper set of individual preferences, either for a product or for the way the message is delivered. Making decisions based upon demographics is a fool's game.

    Having agreed with that, your point on the relevance of age has a hole in it. Like many other marketers today you are starting from the perspective that the internet is the only way that people obtain their information, is the only way that people want to be marketed to and is often the only arrow in the quiver of a marketer. Age determines the types of technologies, methods of obtaining information and sources that are trusted. Now just like some 41 year olds act like a 24 year old, some 76 year olds use the internet, but many more prefer to hold the information in their hand. Like you, I am not suggesting that marketers use age to determine the medium of their message, just that they may likely have to use multiple methods to reach their customer. The method by which someone obtains the message is important, and different generations, different educational levels and different business levels (i.e. exec vs buyer) have varying preferences.

  • Freddy Nager

    It's not just age -- any sort of demographic-based marketing is rife with traps, pitfalls and propensity for change. For example, someone who wants to market to, say, Puerto Rican women from the Bronx will now have to think in terms of federal judges.

    The Gap discovered the dangers of demographic-based segmentation at a cost of $40 million when they launched the ill-conceived chain Forth & Towne to target women over 35...

    Segmentation by interest or lifestyle is the far safer -- and sensible -- way to go. Market to the Michael Jackson fan, not to an age and race category that might like Michael Jackson.

    Demographic profiling might work for some categories or products (such as Geritol), but for others it's a hazardous and not terribly thoughtful approach to marketing.

  • Laurent Rozenfeld

    Very interesting post Rohit!

    I absolutely agree with you, the internet provides so much more valuable information.
    Yet, I believe that the combination age/country has actually still a lot to offer.

    First of all, I do not believe we're really so far away from the "stereotypes" and instead of guessing, today you can use online information to improve age targeting and better categorize the market and as such have a sustainable follow-up from traditional communication and positioning to a webX.0 version.
    Knowing your audience in terms of action and interest brings indeed more clarity.

    Secondly and the most important factor is that the combination age and country give you an indication of the expected purchasing power (which is dwindling), and if I'm not mistaken, this is still curcial information.

    You can have all the information you want and create the most amazing communication models, but if people can't purchase, it's all wasted.

    Lastly, don't forget that communication comes after R&D, this means that the whole market research process should take this information into consideration. Deodorants have been developed with age in mind, thus it makes sense to communicate using the same data.

    That being said, my business is about reconciling these different perspectives. :o)


  • Harry Otsuji

    I think that the Internet has changed everything in reference to age. Notice that little children are acting like adults and old people are acting like children. In political arena, this is scary stuff, because one powerful message (lie) from a powerful messenger using today's powerful communications technology is enslaving us all. Don't think, don't differentiate - besides you're too busy with more and more things to do. It's not all about marketing - maybe, we'd have more meaningful, freer, individual lives, if we all lived and acted in accordance with the demands of our age.

    Faithfully yours,

    /s/ Harry H. Otsuji