Assumptions about digital usage make fools of us all

by Nigel Hollis | May 04, 2015

Never assume, they say, because it makes an ass out of you and me, and all too often it seems to me that marketers are making huge assumptions about their digital audience, in spite of all the data available to them. Too often that data is interpreted through the lens of the marketer’s own goals and beliefs, not those of the people whose behavior they are trying to influence.

Observing physical behavior can tell you a lot about a person: age, gender, and even likely occupation (or so I was trained in the dim and distant days of street intercept surveys). Observation can also tell you a lot about a shopper’s mindset: are they confident in their choice, just browsing, or killing time? Interpretation of observed physical behavior draws on millennia of social interaction that allows us to make judgements based on non-verbal characteristics.

Unfortunately, when it comes to digital behavior all our age-old ability to interpret who someone is and why they are acting the way they do is taken away. We see the behavior, but do not know who it is that is exhibiting that behavior never mind why. Take, for example, the use of device as a means to segment the digital audience. It is a convenient way to target an audience, but can lead to huge assumptions being made about who is doing what and why.

Gen X Digital Users

It is commonly assumed that “Gen X” are digital natives, happy to do everything on their smartphone. It is easy to assume, therefore, if you want to target a younger audience mobile advertising is a good choice. Now, it is true that, in general, device usage varies from generation to generation, but it is also true that device usage varies by task. Research conducted by Millward Brown Digital finds that Gen X still reach for their laptops depending on the product category being researched, the importance of the task, and the time available.

Quoted in the Admap article Joline McGoldrick, Research Director at Millward Brown Digital, states,

"What the data demonstrates is that even with our advanced knowledge of digital today, advertisers and marketers can't make assumptions about how various demographics and targets are using digital devices and mobile to access content.”

You will guess that I agree with Joline. The truth is that there are many of Gen X who are less digitally savvy than many boomers, and neither group can be assumed to use one device for every task. Do you agree with Joline and I or do you have another perspective? Please share your thoughts.


Leave a comment
  1. Bar Baric, May 27, 2015

    I test my audiences myself, and based on my own trials on each specific audience, and proper analysis of the result, decide how and where (device-wise) to market to them. It is a bit more difficult, and time consuming, but at the end of the day, perfects the effectiveness of the digital campaign.

    Stereotyping does work well for a lot of people a lot of times, however, that takes an element of luck, and in my own outfit, nothing is left to luck.

    Nice, concise piece.

  2. M A Khan, May 18, 2015
    One size never did fit all...and the more discerning advertisers can be ...the more they are able to segment markets...serve better product-offerring...diversify revenue streams and create lasting supporters of the product/service.
  3. Ken Balog, May 06, 2015
    Stereotyping of any group leads to massive mistakes within any company or organization. In today's world you need to understand how, when, where and via what interface (device, face-to-face, print, etc.) your individual customer wants to be engaged. Difficult? yea but the returns when you get it right will lead you to the top of your market.
  4. Adrian McKay, May 05, 2015
    Common last!

    Leave a comment