iStock_000027555953Small-resizedI’d like to challenge the conventional wisdom that gives too much credit to demographic segmentation as a way to define audiences and target them with products. I believe there’s a higher aim, which is meeting consumer needs.

As marketers, I think we should prefer to target by unmet need rather than by demographic. (This approach, by the way, ties in with the currently popular methodology of Challenger Selling, which argues for approaching customers with unique insights about how they can save or make money.) Social media, when filtered intelligently, can reveal unmet needs. Segment by these needs and you have your product requirements. When you’ve built your product, turn around and target customers directly by unmet need.

Here’s an example of each of those scenarios.

Identifying Unmet Needs for Product Requirements

Let’s take the iPhone. Here’s a summary of what people like and dislike about it. Clearly the charger needs some attention along with battery life. The graphs also show how the issues trended over time, which may be useful in evaluating priority.

demographic_segmentation1

Marketing to Individuals with Unmet Needs

Here’s an example of using social media to identify individuals and groups with unmet needs so you can market to them. A group of people who use a BlackBerry complain that it doesn’t have enough apps. The iPhone easily meets this customer need. Look at this poor BlackBerry user (below) who even made up a hashtag to commiserate with other users. Twitter now allows you to promote a tweet directly to a person like this. If you’re selling iPhones, your creative concepts and messages can appeal directly to the unmet need.

demographic_segmentation2

Unmet Needs Trump Demographics

Before social media made it possible to target by unmet need, demographics may have been the best-available way to segment and target audiences. But marketers weren’t looking at demographics for their own sake, they were looking at them in order to infer unmet need. That intermediate step is no longer necessary—social lets you look directly at unmet needs.

If you’re a marketer focused on demographic segmentation, you’ll want to classify prospects according to whether they’re members of Gen X vs. Gen Y because you assume their needs differ, which makes them targetable by different media. But if you assume this, you miss an opportunity to relate to them. For example, a friend of mine started receiving Black Enterprise magazine one day. Since he’s white and moved here from Germany, we can only imagine he received the magazine because he lives in San Leandro, where there may be a higher population of African Americans.

If marketers will challenge the conventional wisdom that demographics are needed for segmentation, they can bring about a positive change in our economy and society at large. As consumers, our needs will be better met, and as people, we’ll be addressed with a greater level of authenticity and care.

For tips on how to craft the right messages for specific audiences with unmet needs, download our paper that tells you how to Sharpen Campaign Messaging with Social Insights.