The February 2006 issue of Harvard Business Review includes an article by Daniel Yankelovich and David Meer – ‘Rediscovering Market Segmentation’- that I highly recommend to all social marketers and health communicators [Y&M; subscription required for full text access – check your local, well-stocked newsstand]. After calling upon companies for market segmentation strategies that went beyond simple demographics over 40 years ago (a call that many of us in social marketing have also made over the years as well), Y&M note:
Market segmentation has become narrowly focused on the needs of advertising, which it serves mainly by populating commercials with characters that viewers can identify with – the marketing equivalent of central casting…The idea was to broaden the use of segmentation so that it could inform not just advertising but also product innovation, pricing, choice of distribution channels, and the like.
Their central point is that market segmentation should be helping marketers figure out and decide what types of products and services they should be offering to various consumer groups or audience segments. In the social marketing vernacular, we would be talking about what types of behaviors (and products and services perhaps) we should be offering to various priority audiences and not who or what should be featured on our posters or PSAs (and those ‘rainbow’ characters are always a giveaway that that was EXACTLY what the segmentation discussion was about – central casting). The problem is that most segmentation work isn’t done with behavioral features in mind - the actual characteristics of what we are asking people to do. At best, much of this research simply focuses on explanatory variables (knowledge, attitudes and beliefs being primary ones of interest) that satisfy curiosity, but leave behavioral objectives fairly murky.
The authors add that Good segmentations identify the groups most worth pursuing – the underserved, the dissatisfied, and those likely to make a first-time purchase. Add words like high risk, disenfranchised and contemplators and they might as well be speaking to social marketers. As I read that last quote, I was reminded of an article Bill Novelli wrote several years ago in which he pointed out that many of the so-called ‘guerilla marketing’ techniques that were coming into vogue among the commercial marketers were strategies and tactics many of us in the social marketing world had been using for years. While there is a consistent call for social marketing’s need to adopt from the commercial sector, it is always interesting to stop and note that cross-fertilization is possible – whether consciously or not. [N.B.: What would happen if more commercial marketers were aware of social marketing theories and practices? Hint: The answer is not better corporate social responsibility programs.]
This is also a good place to stop and address the question that regular readers of this blog might have: what about audience insights? A good question that reflects a tendency of program designers to combine segmentation and audience research into the same step – what is often called ‘exploratory research.’ For example, a program planning group might choose to conduct focus groups with 12-16 year-old girls about physical activity knowledge, attitudes and behaviors, and then afterwards divide them into two segments of 12-14 year-olds and 15-16 year-olds based on some insight from the groups (e.g., girls in high school think about this issue a lot differently than girls in elementary school grades). What is left undone in this example is to understand what may appeal to and motivate each group of girls to be more physically active. A better approach might be to make segmentation decisions before sponsoring primary research activities by reviewing other research on the subject, or if they had the time and resources, a more thorough research effort first focused on key segmentation issues (see the next installment for six questions Y&M suggest we consider when planning segmentation studies). Then they could explore the subject with homogeneous groups and focus on insight as the objective of the focus group studies, not segmentation criteria. For those who want to learn more about approaches to audience research, a discussion of various methodologies is available at the Prevention Communication Research Database site.