The Trouble with Bubbles

By Dan Monroe

Marketing in its simplest form is about solving the problem of who you’re trying to talk to, what message you’re trying to deliver, and how to deliver it in a way that your target audience will actually pay attention. Used to be, the “who” part was easy, the “message” part was a little more difficult, and the method of delivery was fairly straightforward. None of it’s simple anymore. In fact, the who part and the message part have become particularly vexing. Why? Bubbles.

Marketing is an evolutionary beast; it always has been. Think about this: 50 years ago, advertising folk talked about markets in terms of generations. The Silent Generation. The GI Generation. The Baby Boomers. The way marketers approached you depended chiefly on how old you were. Simple. And while we continued to attribute broad-strokes characteristics to large groups of people who happened to walk the planet at the same time (in fact, we still do), we gradually became more adept at understanding markets in terms of location. This way of parsing markets, also known as market segmentation or geodemographic segmentation, found its stride in the ‘90s and is based on the premise that people who live in the same area think the same way. Birds of a feather, if you will.

Geodemographic segmentation gave rise to brilliant new ways of segmenting audiences, the most notable being Prizm,® a methodology devised by Claritas in the ‘90s (now owned by Nielsen) that suggested people who live in the same neighborhood think the same way about things. Claritas even gave us clever handles by which we could know these audiences, monikers such as “Suburban Pioneers,” and “Country Squires.” Like generational profiling, we still employ this way of thinking today.

But, now we live in a world that is producing inconceivable amounts of personal data. I read an article the other day about a company that emerged from technology developed at Cambridge that mines data from Facebook. This company has determined that their software is able to predict personality more accurately than a work colleague by analyzing just 10 Facebook “likes.” Seventy “likes” gives them a truer picture of your character than a friend or roommate could paint. One hundred and fifty “likes” tells them more about you than a parent, sibling, or partner knows. And about 300 “likes” lets them know you better than your spouse. The result: marketers now have access to unprecedented insights into how to deliver their messaging most convincingly. Welcome to the brave new world of data-driven, psychographic segmentation. Understanding the psychology of the consumer was once an art. Now it’s pure science.

With the advent of social media, we have increasingly sequestered ourselves in media “bubbles,” virtual spaces in which we blissfully surround ourselves only with messaging with which we agree. And we spend a huge amount of time attending to the content of these “bubbles.” In a sense, we are willfully walling ourselves off from others by spending so much time in these cloistered virtual spaces. Some would say that we are virtually brainwashing ourselves. The technical term is confirmation bias; in other words, the bubble you live in confirms your personal biases. You have a specific ideological bent, and, based on everything you see, so does the rest of your “world.”

So, what does that mean to marketing? First of all, geodemographic segmentation isn’t as accurate as it used to be. Your next door neighbor could be vastly different from you in terms of politics, interests, and buying behaviors. We can’t know you by your zip code anymore. We can’t just group people together and talk to all of them at once. We are increasingly challenged to reach them individually. The much touted “personalized economy” is being expressed in its most demanding form. While you might think you are trying to reach an audience of, say, 150,000, you are in truth trying to carry on a dialogue with 150,000 individuals. Big difference.

So, what can you do? Tough question. The answer depends in part on your size and budget, and in part on your audience. Some companies are fortunate enough to be addressing a fairly psychographically homogenous audience. Others, not so much. In either case, the more you can do to (a) narrow your audience down to specific psychographic groups, (b) reach your audience members individually, and (c) craft a compelling and interruptive message, the better off you’ll be. If you have the resources to mine data, do it. Just know that the data, in and of itself, is useless unless you know how to analyze it. Most of all, be true to your brand. Work hard on a message that accurately expresses your single most important message to your audiences. You’ll never win the game kowtowing to people.

And remember, the upside of this crazy, interconnected world is that the people who most need what you have to offer will find you. All they have to do is go online.