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Segmenting Out the Silliness in Segments

Rethinking how we segment for advertising in higher ed

Modern marketers are obsessed with youth. As practitioners left the Fredrick Taylors efficiency-fueled business culture of the 50s and transitioned into the dominate hip-injected, youth culture of the 60s, marketers — hoping to assume those same stylized markers of their audience — have continued this obsession with Millennials and Generation Z.

Perhaps it’s the combination of new marketing tools with audiences that have grown up using those same tools, but I believe our industry has over complicated how exactly we reach them. And while obsessing over an audience is important, our industry’s love affair with defining how different they are from previous generations has led to unnecessarily complex segments as well as personas that speak more towards a case study author’s ability to write fiction and develop an imagined consumer, who has somehow achieved the “absolute zenith of self-actualization,” according to Martin Weigel. It’s as if nowhere in human history have people wanted to be “entertained,” wowed “with something unexpected or personalized,” or “concerned with career outcomes.”

Little Strategic Meaning

“We defy and resent conventional labels that don’t fully capture who we really are. There is no ‘one size fits all’ in our world. Because we don’t just accept differences in others — we celebrate them.” — This is Gen Z.

Read through the many marketing and recruiting white papers and case studies produced by our industry and you will find that we routinely complicate segmentation — a belief reinforced by the overly-superfluous personas developed.

As Shann Biglione wrote in “Eat Your Greens,” the number one issue with segmentation and targeting is not that they aren’t relevant methods, but that they’re attached to outdated concepts…They too often rely on attitudes of psychographic profiles that have little strategic meaning for your brand.” Binet and Carter, in “How Not to Plan,” echoed Biglione’s thought: “be [skeptical] about cluster analyses dividing markets into neat, well-defined segments. Especially when the segmentation is attitudinal.”

In our effort to speak to more segments and develop personas that have little grasp on the realities of most students, we end up speaking to no one.

Mass Produced Meaning

“The Idealist: These optimists are visionary about the future and their potential. Be direct. But offset the facts with glimmers of your brand’s personality. Include only as much context and storytelling as necessary.” — 5 Segments of Gen Z and How to Engage Them

Similarly, we segment based on the notion that each segment somehow has a bounded set of beliefs and attitudes towards our brand. As the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute continues to show, brands within a category rarely own a specific set of attributes and most compete in a single unsegmented mass market. I don’t believe it’s too much of a stretch to think that our category follows similar themes found in consumer goods — within a given category FMCG brands rarely attract different kinds of users.

I routinely feel as if personas are written to rationalize a belief that we attract a very specific type of student or write into existence a type student we hope to recruit. Similarly, the more we find ways to splinter an audience, the more we go looking for differences.

Checks and Balances

“Gen Z has grown up in a world where their options are limitless but their time is not.” — Screen Time: Understanding Gen Z

In “Marketing Management and Strategy,” the late marketing professor Peter Doyle laid the foundation for segmentation. His five criteria checklist, in my mind, should keep many of us firmly grounded when it comes to developing our communication strategies. To be an actual segment, Doyle contends it must be:

· Effective: Are the needs within the segment similar while different from the needs outside of the segment?

· Identifiable: Can the segment be measured in isolation?

· Profitable: Is the segment large enough to achieve scale?

· Accessible: Can each audience be reached with your communications without overlap?

· Actionable: Are there resources to segment offer/message?

If we are honest with ourselves, how often would we get past accessible, or even identifiable? If we get out of the office, get out of the sanitized focus groups and have real conversations with real prospective students, I think our assessment of needs and attitudes would be distinctly different. And if we cannot get out and have real conversations, are there books, blogs or documentaries that grant us entry into the real — not asked to project future behavior in a survey — lives of our audience?

Instead of focusing on identifying distinct segments, we should focus on the distinct narrative that defines why people reach for the category in the first place. To echo Nick Kendall, we must capture “what makes people and their brands similar, not different; to find what unifies us, not what fragments us.”

Collective, Not Segmented

“The constant stimulation and access to all the world’s information at their fingertips has given them an eight-second attention span and has trained their brains to expect instant gratification.” — Engaging Gen Z Students and Learners

Distinct brands make selecting and buying as simple as possible. The more we bow to the allure of hyper-targeting and over segmenting, the less we capitalize on the collective meaning established by strong brands. In “Eat Your Greens,” Gareth Price posits that strong brands must be: simple, to make decision making easier; collective, in shared association and meaning; and tight, in their portfolio and positioning.

Instead of spending time conflating the importance of authenticity and ensuring your brand’s story is platform-optimized and unfolds in a certain way to reach a specific segment, we should be identifying ways discover unified truths about our audience as a whole, in one unsegmented mass, and the symbolic value of our brand. In a sense, we are pulling inward and reflecting collective meaning in one unifying message: simple and collective instead of segmented and complex.

Strategy @Up&Up

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Chris Huebner

Chris Huebner

Strategy @Up&Up

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