Face it; men between the ages of 18 and 35 aren't what they used to be. Before digital, that classic demo used to be dependable. Media buyers could count on them to read men's magazines, watch sports, and -- like just about everyone else -- at least subscribe to a newspaper. Well, those days are long gone. And while men between the ages of 18 and 35 still exist, they tend to be a rather fragmented lot, with a grab bag of interests, needs, and affinities. Actually, men (or any other demographic, for that matter) were always a lot more complex than media plans might have indicated. What's really changed is our ability to delve deeper into those segments.
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As ad targeting technology improves, ad networks and exchanges are becoming increasingly important. There's an endless stream of stats on this, and you can search your favorite market intelligence source to find all kinds of predictions on how much of the digital advertising spend will be owned by either ad networks or exchanges. And if you must, I'm sure you can find all kinds of white papers, articles, and presentations explaining how this targeting technology works (or at least, how it works in theory, since a lot of what we're talking about exists inside a proprietary black box). But this article isn't about the targeting so much as it's about the targets and how our definition of audience is changing because of targeting technologies. With targeting playing an increasingly bigger role in our media buys today, it's worth asking if we still need the old demographics. Or, to put another way, does anyone care about men age 18-35 anymore?
How important is the traditional demo?
Traditional demos aren't exactly dying, but nobody looks at them in quite the same way.
"I wouldn't say traditional demographics are becoming less relevant; rather I would say their role is being diminished as a direct result of the increased role technology is playing," said Jeff Silverstein, managing partner at CL&S. "Think of it this way: Traditional demos are a data point by which we traditionally plan and buy media. Today there are simply many more data points to choose from."
There are also a lot more media outlets to choose from, and they're not all created equally, said Scott Shuford, president of FrontGate Media.
"Traditional demographics are just as important in digital media as they are in traditional media," Shuford said. "The additional ability to target more deeply into a direct email database or an online site enhances the options rather than replaces them. [But] there are still many outlets that are not technologically equipped to target much beyond the traditional demographics due to either cost or time commitments for the niche media."
But assuming that media outlets will eventually reach some level of parity in terms of serving targeted ads (although with so many small media players, it's possible that may never happen), the demographic markers we once relied on may only be the beginning of the conversation, not the end.
"Although new targeting technologies are allowing us to better hone in on our audience, the traditional demographics are still relevant when planning digital campaigns," said Olga Peddie, digital media director for Zimmerman Advertising. "They are normally a starting point, while the additional targeting is layered in to build the audience pool."
The first time I had an informational meeting to learn about ad networks, I got the sinking feeling that the lunatics had taken over the asylum. The CEO who was making the pitch seemed like a sane guy until he said something like, "It doesn't matter which site you see the ad on."
To be fair to this particular ad network, that conversation took place back in 2007. And while there were ad networks back then that stressed context, a lot of them didn't. In fact, a lot of them stressed just the opposite point: that advertisers could -- and should -- reach audiences independent of the media they were consuming. As someone who creates content for a living, that's always struck me as little bit odd, and frankly wrong. After all, nobody visits a website so they can be an aggregated eyeball, right? They come for the content, we hope. But for a time, the prevailing wisdom was that content didn't matter as much as people thought. Or, put another way, why buy an ad in the New York Times when you can reach that publication's readers all over the web -- for a lot less money?
Today, a lot has changed on the context front. Sure, some ad networks and exchanges still argue that context is irrelevant, but by-and-large we seem to be returning to an equilibrium point where the medium matters just as much as the audience consuming it. In a sense, that means context might just be another word for demographic.
"Context is important and will continue to become more important as technology advances," said Jim Spinello, SVP of marketing communications for revolution. "I think you still lead with what makes sense, [that is] target the message to those that will deliver lift and influence change. You want to recognize influencers and how they can have a ripple effect on the rest of your campaign."
While influencers can be found -- and aggregated -- across the farthest reaches of the web, there's something to be said for starting with the basics. Or, maybe it's the basics 2.0. Think of it from a seller's perspective. Twenty years ago, Sports Illustrated might have described its audience primarily in terms of gender, income, and age. Yes, the magazine was obviously about sports, but the buy was about reaching a certain number of men. Period. Today, if you look at SI's digital media kit (or the media kit for any sports site) you're going to see a lot more about passion and affinity. The pitch isn't about reaching X number of males at a certain age with an income range of $50,000-100,000, it's about leveraging a passionate community. Marketing to that community is still about the overall demographic, but we now speak about that demographic in contextual terms because the content they consume (and create) is what defines the tightly honed audience segments marketers now crave.