Focus on Communities, not Demographics

Defining people by their communities vs. their demographics

Traditional marketing activities tend to focus on demographics, and this behavior can leak into organizations’ social media activities. You should ask yourself “who am I trying to reach?” However, defining consumers by mere demographics alone is a mistake. Why?

Why Demographics Fall Short

Demographics define people mostly by their biological and general characteristics—what are their ages, genders, races? Where do they live? Do they have children or not? Demographics grossly over-generalize consumers—even when the demographic is super specific. For example, I could narrow it down as much as I want:

Korean women ages 19-32, who have one child under 2 years old, who live in Boston, Massachusetts

I could add a few more demographics to really narrow it down. However, no matter how narrow the demographic is, the marketer setting those parameters is making a generalization. He or she would be assuming that all people who fit that demographic require the same ad or marketing outreach. What’s worse is that the marketing content usually attempts to connect to demography-based characteristics. 

Focusing on demographics seems lower-cost and lower-effort at the beginning, but it's not as effective as focusing on communities, including influence and relationships within those communities.

Focus on Communities

Marketing via community connections, based on network theory, can be effective for achieving business goals. Network theory is mathematical in nature. Networks are described as a set of nodes that are connected by ties. Two nodes that are tied are called a dyad. In the realm of social media marketing, each person is a node and the tie represents their relationship. It can be a strong or weak tie.

Defining a person by their communities instead of their demographics is the key to successful marketing. Let’s examine how communities differ from demographics when it comes to describing an individual.

  • Demographics describe nodes. Each consumer is a node, that consumer's general characteristics (e.g., gender, race, income level, age).
  • Communities define ties. A tie is a relationship between two consumers. A tie has strength and characteristics. For example, members of a local volunteer group form ties by working with each other and talking about their passion for the cause. Members of an online science fiction forum form ties with each other by discussing plots and characters and sharing information. The more they trust each other’s recommendations, the stronger those ties become.

Communities tend to have expected behaviors or beliefs, while demographics define people who may have no connection with each other at all—they just look like each other. If you are a marketer who wants to share a message and have it spread, it is much more likely to spread through a community than it is among people who simply look like each other.

An example of an ad that tries to reach consumers through their demographic characteristics is a recent ad I saw from Special K cereal. The commercial tries to connect with the enormously large demographic of “women” by using several general actions a woman might take throughout a day. The advertisement is linking itself to stereotypical characteristics and actions of women, then saying that women achieve these actions by eating.

Now take a totally different commercial by Android, “Friends Furever” (it’s a pun, not a typo). Android has identified a belief that ties people in the Android community together, and that belief is that people who are very different from each other can work together for a common goal. This belief is reflected in how Android products are used by its customers. By linking to a belief, Android can appeal to prospective customers who identify with that belief and would thus desire to join a community of consumers who share that belief.

In social media marketing, when a marketer says they want “virality” or “contagion,” she means that she wants the message to spread from person to person. This is how messages spread through a population and catch on. Given that goal, which of the following is more effective to help your content go viral—identifying demographics or identifying communities? 

  1. Identifying demographics, what “type” of person you want to reach
  2. Identifying networks of people who already share information with each other because they are tied together in some way

Communities exceed demographics in marketing effectiveness. If you can get your message to resonate with the beliefs a person has in common with their community, the more likely that person is able and willing to share your message with that community. If your message resonates with a person’s demographic attributes, that person may not feel a strong enough connection with the message to pass it on. 

If you want to learn more about how to leverage communities in your social media marketing, take a look at Part 2 of the Social Media Marketing Basics series