Danger of Demographics: How Cultural Stereotypes Can Affect Conversions

danger of demographics are making stereotypical assumptions

The danger of demographics and assumptions is something we don’t always seem to think about. Not consciously, anyway. Every time we go to the doctor’s office, are asked to take a survey, or register to win a car, we’re asked the same questions…..gender, age, race, ethnicity, education, income, marital status (I love that my pediatrician’s office has this on their questionnaire!), 

Social science calls those characteristics “demographics” – basically, the study of a population based on certain factors, like the ones mentioned above.  And demographics are widely used in all industries – they help determine economic policy, where to build schools and hospitals, what products are available in stores, and where politicians make their campaign stops.  

Now in marketing we talk a lot about the “ideal customer avatar,” our “target customer,” or our “buyer persona.”  Having a crystal clear picture of the perfect buyer helps us design our products, craft our marketing campaigns, and ensure that the decisions we make are done so with our ideal customer avatar, or ICA, in mind.

The problem is that many business owners base their ICA strictly on demographical factors, not taking into consideration the dangers of demographics and having a heavy reliance on them.  Anytime I speak with a potential client, one of my first questions is, “Who is your audience? Who is your ideal customer avatar?”  And 90% of the time, I get a response that goes something like this, “Our target customer is a single male, ages 35-45, with thinning hair who works 80 hours a week in the manufacturing industry.”    

Focusing on demographics only means making stereotypical assumptions.

At a high level, that information is good to have – it’s a lot easier to talk to that guy than to every guy, right?  But stop for a moment and think of the cultural stereotypes that accompany that demographic sketch.   

  • Single male – Well, single guys like to party, drink, go out with the guys, looking for a date but not a long-term relationship
  • Age 35-50 – If he’s single and in this age bracket, then he must be enjoying the single lifestyle and not interested in a relationship.  Or maybe he was married and that ended, and he’s really not interested in a relationship. 
  • Thinning hair – He must be miserable and desperately searching for a solution to regrow his hair.
  • Works 80 hours a week – He must have a good work ethic, must be ambitious, and he must really enjoy his job if he puts in that much time
  • Manufacturing industry – in general, you’re not going to become a millionaire working in manufacturing, but if he’s working 80 hours a week, he’s probably in management, not working an assembly line.  So he probably makes a decent income.

Now, are any of those assumptions true?  Who knows!  But by making them, we’re painting a very specific picture of our ICA that may or may not be accurate. 

And what happens if we invest a large chunk of our advertising budget into Facebook ads that target these demographics?  It’s entirely possible that your money will go right in Zuckerberg’s pocket without seeing any conversions in yours.  Why?  Because if you only understand your ICA superficially based on high-level demographics, your ad copy and creative (images or video) will miss the mark – and your ad won’t get any clicks.

How do we combat the danger of demographics?

So what’s the solution? How do we get to know our ideal customer avatar without relying only on demographics that can slide into the stereotypical if we’re not careful?

The answer?  Psychographics.

Psychographics is the study and classification of people according to their attitudes, aspirations, and other psychological criteria.  Now, to be fair, psychographics can be stereotypical, too. Not all stay-at-home moms feel disconnected from others or themselves.  Further more, not all working moms wish they could be home with their kids.  Not all single, 37 to 50-year-old balding men are in the market for a solution to their hair loss (case in point, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson!).  

But psychographics allow us to understand our ICA so we can serve them on a deeper level.  For the working mom who doesn’t want to stay home with her kids, what kind of pressure is she feeling from society for the choices she’s made?  Does she feel guilty that she loves to work?  Does she feel like she’s neglecting her family because she can’t manage a home-cooked meal every night?  

Psychographics Compliments Demographics

The key to psychographics is the same as the key to breaking down cultural barriers, reducing the danger of demographics, and destroying stereotypes – asking questions and being curious.  My high school English teacher used to say that when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me, and he was right (and we all thought he was sooooo coooool because he said “ass” in class). 

Asking questions and being curious keeps you from making assumptions. It helps you see the real people behind the stereotypes, to hear their stories, to understand their needs, and to connect with them on a deeper level.  

And all that allows us to serve that ideal customer avatar so much more effectively – and it keeps you from wasting money on ads that are missing the mark with their targeting, copy, and creative.

So take demographics with a grain of salt (to avoid the danger of demographics) and consider digging deeper into your customer’s or audience’s psychographics.  Stop making assumptions based on culture and start connecting individually to really understand their needs, fears, desires, and pain points.  Not only will this help you serve your customer better, but it will also help you increase your empathy for other people and your appreciation for other cultures.

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