Demographics were essentially the first tool developed for eliminating advertising waste. That was decades ago, when advertisers discovered demographic correlations such as the notion that purchasers of consumer packaged goods tended to be female. Broadcast outlets began to guarantee their reach against demographic audiences using ratings, and broadcast media's audience-based model hasn't changed much since.
What has changed is the rest of the media business and its approach to targeting, particularly digital media. We can focus our media laser on behavioral, interest-based, lifestyle-based and other varying criteria, and the guarantees for our online buys are against whatever criteria we choose. In other words, if we contract for 400,000 impressions against beekeepers in the state of Oregon, and we get 350,000, we're owed 50,000 impressions against Oregon beekeepers or its cash equivalent.
No such luck with television. Asking for an audience guarantee that's more granular than age/gender demographics is usually a no-no. This week, I was thinking about how inefficient that is.
To break it down further, let's look at how poor demographics are at zeroing in on the right prospect. We tend to think of specific media entities as having specific audiences locked up, or at least performing very well against them.
For instance, we think of MTV as having the youth market sewed up. Would it surprise you that the latest comScore numbers (December 2007) show only 36.8 percent of MTV.com's audience falls into the 18 to 34 range? It surprised me.
Let's look at some other sites that are famous for their association with specific demos, shall we?
- ESPN.com is practically synonymous with the male demographic. But guess what? More than a quarter (26.4 percent) of the site's unique visitors are female.
- Think AARP.org is visited only by old fogeys? Think again. Less than half (46.4 percent) of the site's visitors fall into the 55+ category. And only 15 percent are 65+. (Before anyone brings it up in comments, yes, I'm aware of AARP's efforts to bring folks into the fold at a younger age.)
- iVillage.com is a site for women, right? Well, it is. But it happens to reach a lot of guys, too. The site is just over 56 percent female.
My point here is not to say any of these sites are deficient in some way. They're not. When you break apart the composition of just about any media vehicle, you'll find surprises. The point is to demonstrate how crummy age and gender demos are as a method for targeting advertising. In short, it matters little what your age and gender happen to be. It's more important to focus on your interests, lifestyles and behaviors if I want to get a relevant ad message out to you.
The ability to focus like a laser on the most qualified prospects for a product or service -- the "sweet spot" of the target audience -- has been a big selling point for digital media for more than a decade. While digital has consistently made strides to help advertisers get to the right people at the right time, broadcast media have failed to do the same. This has resulted in a rather frustrating double standard, where broadcast media still perform heavy-lifting chores on many integrated campaigns, while digital media supplement the effect of the broadcast.
Something's gotta give. Broadcast can't continue to stagnate with respect to its targetability, while digital media have resisted putting anything resembling an audience-based guarantee in place.
Maybe there's a compromise. There is value in an audience-based guarantee system for digital media. However, I don't think it should necessarily be built on demographics. Rather, guarantees could be based on ratings against behaviorally and contextually defined audiences.
In turn, it would be nice to see broadcast adopt more granular audiences as the basis for guaranteeing delivery. The demographic of 18-34 just doesn't cut it anymore. Broadcast needs to layer on the filtering criteria so that its delivery can more closely approximate what we're able to accomplish in digital. With the advent of digital TV, acquiring the data necessary to do this should be a much easier job than it might have been a decade ago.
I think we've demonstrated, though, that demographics are a crummy indicator of audience receptivity to a specific ad message. So why are we married to it when we evaluate media delivery?
Tom Hespos is the president of Underscore Marketing and blogs at Hespos.com. Read full bio.