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What demographic data really means

Spyro Kourtis | President/Chief Executive Officer
1.15.2008       Comments (0)
Here's a piece of news from a recent Wall Street Journal. In an article about television media data analysts, they report a brilliant insight:

One evolving theory: that advertisers should pay more attention to people's viewing patterns than to their demographics, such as whether they are a twentysomething or a male. Fans of the NBC Universal show "Heroes," for example, whether they are 18-year-old men or 54-year-old women, generally tend to watch the show the same way — often clicking through ads, she says. The same has been true so far for NBC's "The Biggest Loser." That's a shift from previous years, when TV networks and advertisers were focused on reaching coveted demographics like viewers aged 18 to 34.

Direct marketers have been saying for, I don't know, forever, that behavior is really all that counts and demographics don't matter much at all, except as an interesting side note. In the beginning of things like Nielsen ratings and Starch scores, advertisers cared about demographics because age and gender were all they really could know about their audience. And even that was an inferred generalization. Because purchase behavior couldn't be directly measured in their mediated world, they quantified what they could quantify, not what really mattered.

If you ask someone in the creative department of an advertising agency why they care so much about demographics, they'd probably say it gives them a better mental picture of who they're trying to reach. With that image in mind, they can create more relevant messaging. I think that's probably a legitimate use of the relatively squishy data.

But if you ask someone in media, I bet they'd say they're looking for viewers aged 18 to 34 because that's who buys the product. These media folks honestly believe they're going through a targeting exercise that will generate less advertising waste.

It's all about behavior, baby. And the general advertising world is only beginning to figure out what that means.