The power of marketers lies in understanding the context and culture of people and audiences, rather than relying on potentially harmful age and gender stereotypes, writes Maria Bain.

Despite the incredible strides being made across the world in marketing and advertising to eliminate discrimination, the temptation and opportunity to age and gender profile audiences means it’s still occurring. That’s why the Audience Intelligence team at iCrossing UK are on a mission to find more inclusive and performance-driven alternatives to outdated age and gender targeting media strategies.

It needs to stop. People simply aren’t defined by their gender or age anymore. It’s time to abolish targeting in this way, or at least preserve it for the situations in which it is beneficial to audiences.

As a digital marketing professional, I expect that I am more aware of online advertising, and in particular when specific tactics are being used to target me. I understand how targeting works, appreciate the opportunities and limitations digital channels provide, and I’m interested in what ads and content are served to me, but that doesn’t mean I approve of how it’s implemented.

Take Google, for example. Google knows that I’m a 25-34-year-old female, based on the personal information I’ve added to my Google Account, and personalises ads to me, along with its estimation of my interests based on the types of sites I frequent.

Cats, apparel, advertising and marketing are all fine, and I welcome advertising around any of these topics. However, nowhere on my Google account have I been tracked as being interested in babies, getting pregnant or wanting to start a family.

That’s a hop skip and leap that has been taken by fertility brands. They’ve assumed that because I am a 25-34-year-old woman that I WANT to start a family and NEED to be bombarded by patriarchal messaging as I watch the latest influencers spring capsule wardrobe on YouTube, featuring fertility tests.

I’m not saying I don’t want to start a family; I’m highlighting the fact that just because I sit within a demographic bracket does not mean I’m ready, at this moment in my life, to start thinking about starting a family.

But this isn’t really the issue – it is simply to make a point that marketers have the power and influence to put a stop to this out-dated and frankly archaic approach to audience targeting and profiling. It can be upsetting, alienating, and discriminative. And that’s just the perspective of a privileged white 30-year-old-female.

A need to reflect changes in culture

People are so much more than their gender and age, and they shouldn’t be segmented and defined by either. Their propensities to buy follow different paths that neither gender or age have much impact on anymore. The power of marketers lies in understanding the context and culture of people and audiences.

For example, you’re trying to sell pension consolidation to a 65+ user, but what about the 1.3 million people who are planning to retire early due to the pandemic? Or raising awareness of a new matt foundation launch but forgetting the 16% (and growing) of UK and US makeup users that are non-binary or male.   

If in 2022 we don’t start to reflect these changes in culture and moments of context then we’re going to fall behind and, more critically, have less impact. We’ll have less purpose to the people we’re spending increasingly large digital budgets on trying to reach and engage in their increasingly fragmented digital journeys.

Let’s take a real-life example, with a high street fashion brand we recently worked with. It believed that its most valuable customers have always been and were always going to be 50+ women. It didn’t believe that younger women would ever be interested in its products, as they weren’t “cool enough, or youthful enough”.

The first problem here is that they’re not building their customers of the future, they’re not getting their brand on the consideration sets of the next generation of customers. And by generation I’m not saying Gen Z or Gen X – I mean the new wave of customers who are wanting to buy from the brand, regardless of their actual generation.

The second problem with this thinking is that there are cool 50+ women who don’t want to dress a certain way to “fit what society deems appropriate to wear for their age”.

What was the response? We abolished age targeting across ALL paid social ads. We ran audience intelligence research which highlighted the affinity interest of the fashion brands customers. And we found that they loved The Great British Bake-Off, gardening, The Chelsea Flower Show, hobby craft and dog walks.

Over the very competitive Christmas period we ran paid social ads targeting ONLY these affinity interests. This approach to audience targeting and segmentation based on interests rather than demographics works, with 80% of revenue from new customers, a 281% year on-year increase in transactions and revenue from social media, a 198% increase in new site users, and 5,000 new social followers.

Build a more holistic view

There’s no need to rely on age or gender targeting if it’s not product, service or treatment area critical.

By using tools such as Captify and Global Web Index and overlaying this initial audience research with detailed search and social listening insights that observe unique audience behaviours, habits, interests and psychographic traits, you can build a holistic view on who your most valuable audiences are. This will help you to understand the culture and context in which your brand, product or service needs to find value and purpose.

We know that if you improve digital relevancy through advanced contextual targeting based on affinity and interests, you can deliver not just better results, but also a better, more authentic brand reputation and consumer response as whole.