Time to stop being one dimensional when it comes to audience understanding

Time to stop being one dimensional when it comes to audience understanding


The way adland thinks about audiences is littered with problems. It’s time to add some further dimensions to its approach.

Peter Drucker, everyone’s favourite management consultant, once said: “the aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.”

Indeed, a crucial part of a strategist’s job is to understand ‘people’ as part of the marketing process; something we do to facilitate the creation of ‘work’ – in all its myriad forms – so that it delivers back to the business in the short, medium and long-term.

And the ways that we have worked to develop this understanding has evolved over time, from the establishment of account planning in the Sixties; to the breakaway of media agencies in the Nineties; and later the movement from mass to precision-based audiences with the arrival of broadband in the Noughties.

Another 20 years on, however, and we’ve noticed a serious snag: those pulling the marketing levers simply do not reflect the mainstream population, creating a disconnect in understanding.

Although efforts have been made to monitor and change this, unfortunately the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, with the most recent IPA census showing everything working in the wrong direction.

Meanwhile, research from Reach Solutions highlights that not only is adland not reflective of the wider populace; we unconsciously interpret and experience the world differently to mainstream audiences.

So this begs the question: can adland really understand mass market customer aspirations?

Problems with the solutions

One common way of trying to solve this ‘understanding gap’ is via segmentation.

The issue here, however, is data quality. Inaccurate data in source systems will usually result in poor grouping. For example, individuals tend to be grouped just on attributes such as age, gender and marital status. This also tends to be done with single attitudinal or panel data, so can be quite narrow.

Meanwhile, another option is to use broad generational groupings, such as ‘Gen Z’ or ‘Millennials’. But the truth is that ‘generations’ are simply random collections of people who share no special connection beyond being born within two decades of each other.

For Gen Z this is 1997 to 2013. So if the parameters are loose enough to include both Prince George and Lil Pump within a population bigger than China, is it any wonder that they fail to hold a consistent world-view?

When we also include millennials, we end up with half the world.

Triangulate towards truth

So, how do we move beyond these blunt instruments to gain a better understanding of audiences?

And how do we do so with the understanding, as David Ogilvy famously articulated, that consumers often don’t think how they feel, don’t say what they think, and don’t do what they say?

One way should be to take in a wider range of viewpoints and by using a wider range of inputs.

At Hearts we call this 3D audience planning – named thus because we triangulate around human truths using three types of analysis and observation: behavioural (what people do); attitudinal (how they explain it); and motivational (why they do it).

The benefit of this strategy is that it draws together understanding from different research approaches and techniques, as well as varied data sources, and ensures not only a more rounded understanding of audiences, but also increases the consistency of definition between media planning and buying.

Factor in GDPR, the cookie apocalypse and a fluid data and privacy landscape, and by using multiple, varied signals we also ensure that if one element is taken away the system remains standing.

Structurally, this requires doing things differently, however. For example, most understanding from agencies and marketers takes place in the attitudinal space. There may be a ton of behavioural data elsewhere in an agency too, but the division of brand and performance teams has also led to these two zones of understanding usually being separate.

Meanwhile, motivational understanding is critical, yet is often overlooked or is a pet project of an insights team.

We have to get better at stitching these elements together to improve our understanding of who is in and who is out of market, and how the audience understanding translates into creative planning, media planning, trading currencies and measurement criteria.

A cultural lens

It’s also important that we never design a segmentation and consider it ‘done’ – no matter if it’s working well for us. Over time, the cultural and wider context in which a segmentation was conceived will change – just think how different stages of the pandemic, or the rise in the cost of living, for example, might influence mass market audiences.

Consequently, we must constantly re-evaluate as the wider landscape evolves. Audiences are fluid, and thus we can’t be static in our understanding of them.

Finally, it’s also important that we build strategy teams – and ad businesses in general – that feel in tune with a broader range of audiences. This can take different forms, but recruiting from diverse backgrounds and ensuring our teams are not composed of people with entirely similar cultural interests are key.

And, as ever, it’s important to get out from behind the desktop screens (and London, too). We might feel content that we have done more to gain a deeper understanding of audiences by taking a more robust approach – but getting out into the real, three-dimensional world, is always going to help confirm that we really do understand the customer.

Simon Carr is chief strategy officer at Hearts & Science

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