There 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:
- People are age shifting and not living lives based on traditional stereotypes for their ages.
- The top end of a demographic (34) usually has almost nothing in common with the low end (18).
- 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.
- Focusing on age can take you away from emotional or relevant benefits.
- 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.
Rohit 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.