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We talk a lot in the content world about understanding our target audience, but I’ll admit that we don’t always do a good job of really explaining what that means. The phrase itself is almost too simple in a way, in that it seems self-explanatory so it’s easy to just keep on trucking assuming we understand what we’re talking about. I mean it’s the audience that you’re targeting, how hard is that, right? And to an extent, that’s absolutely true. The general concept is not one that’s especially complicated. What we gloss over when we take that simplicity for granted, though, is that simply knowing bare demographics is not enough. For all their traditional advertising significance, they just don’t tell us enough that’s useful for really targeting potential customers in a way that is meaningful to them. How are we supposed to craft content to elicit an emotional or intellectual response when we’re working with the target of “male 20-34” or “household with annual income $100k+?” Marketing departments all over the business world are using buyer personas to solve this problem, but even buyer personas can become nothing more than a collection of demographic data points if they’re not crafted around a deeper understanding of customers. What we need is to know what’s important to these actual, living, breathing human beings that we’re trying to sell to. We need to know what they care about. We need affinity data.

If you need an example of why marketers need to ditch the demographics and focus on affinity data, look no further than the average assortment of advertisements during a nationally televised baseball game. By recent estimates, women make up around 45 percent of baseball fans, and yet the major network games’ commercial breaks are still predominantly populated by Viagra ads and commercials for beer and trucks featuring dudely dudes doing man things. The advertisers saw “sports”, immediately set their demographic phasars to “males 21-54” and didn’t bother to think about the things that people, any people, making a concerted effort to watch a live sporting event probably care about or the things that will get their attention. I love beer, and there are two full size trucks sitting in my driveway, so why, when I watch a baseball game, does it seem like the commercials even for these products are ignoring me (and more importantly, almost half their audience by extension)?

Baseball is maybe the most egregious perpetrator of demographic laser focus because it has the most gender parity, but it’s true of all major sports. Women make up a significant portion of every major sport’s fan base, and yet here we are with the same bromercials time and again. Even the Bud Light “it’s only weird if it doesn’t work” campaign (which I admit I love and think is hilarious and that actually started out promisingly gender neutral) has now become overwhelmed with men in their mid 20s to early 30s as the campaign has continued. This was the perfect concept to show a huge variety of sports fans of all kinds of genders and ages and races and team affiliations, and it got whacked with the Hammer of Demographic Targeting and lost the focus on affinity that is actually at the core of what makes it a successful campaign. Sports fans relate to the concept of being so intent on your team winning that you start doing ridiculous things because maybe they’re secretly helping. It’s irrational and we know it but trust me, as a sports fan, I relate to it! So why do I not see anyone other than young adult men as the focus in these commercials? The demographics don’t matter. A twenty-something guy who is more interested in video games than sports doesn’t relate to those commercials. He doesn’t care. But a thirty-something woman who loves sports is going to get it. Until she’s quietly told that the commercial’s not for her.

Fundamentally, marketing to demographics is marketing to stereotypes. It assumes that if you’re a certain age or gender or race, you must be a certain way. The problem, as anyone who lives in the real world with real people can probably already identify, is that people don’t always fit these stereotypes. A statistical majority of a given demographic group may not even fit the stereotype. Not only are you not targeting all of the people you think you are accurately, but you could be inadvertently alienating people that should be part of your target audience by excluding them because they don’t fit the demographics that you’ve conflated with a given affinity group. What people have chosen to associate themselves with, whether it’s a sports team or a hobby or some particular belief structure, is far more significant to them than arbitrary demographic groups they belong to by virtue of genetics or date of birth. Somewhat ironically, the actual leagues behind the most popular sports in North America have done an increasingly good job of showing their fans to be a wide array of ages, races, and genders in their own commercials, focusing on the memories created and the togetherness and community of their fans. The affinity group. Too bad their sponsors can’t seem to figure the same thing out.

While acquiring and using raw affinity data is not yet as dead simple as it undoubtedly will become, Google will get there, using information about what people have searched for, what they’ve sent and received emails about, even places they’ve physically been with their Android smart phones in tow. This isn’t measuring shallow data, and it isn’t measuring trends that will come and go and change almost as rapidly as we can accumulate and analyze the data. This is about the things people honestly care about, the things they spend time thinking and researching and talking about. While this information may take awhile to put together and make use of, it’s the type of information that will change at a very slow rate, because it speaks to the core of what people care about and what their priorities are. Take a cue from Google and not from outdated advertisers and start thinking right now about whether your target audience descriptions or your buyer personas are built on demographic data that’s not adding anything to your understanding of who you’re talking to, or affinity data that helps you understand what is truly important to these people. And hey, maybe for once, we can be a bit ahead of the curve.