Segmentations: when research collides with life

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Good segmentations are costly, complex and constantly refined undertakings: multi-disciplinary, multi-agency, multi-methodology. So they must be right.

But in many ways the lack of science or real laws in marketing tempts us to give segmentations more credibility than they sometimes deserve.


Good segmentations are costly, complex and constantly refined undertakings: multi-disciplinary, multi-agency, multi-methodology. So they must be right.

But in many ways the lack of science or real laws in marketing tempts us to give segmentations more credibility than they sometimes deserve. Or if not, to look at them from the wrong perspective, or from only one perspective.

As with most things, a little scepticism is always useful, and apparent discrepancies can sometimes point to revealing insight, yet the low-value validation or covering role so often assumed by research functions can mean that this insight is anything but welcome.

In short, if the respondent doesn’t toe the line drawn by the segmentation, it’s the wrong respondent.

Let’s say the data scientists tell us the digital footprint is appropriate (active and passive): she’s the right age, right career, right shampoo (and conditioner), right media, right gym, right iPhone, right skincare, right everything.

But the problem is, skinny or soy, she refuses to drink lattes; and we know that if the time period is long enough, her repertoire will include a soft drink that isn’t sugar free.

It’s not to say that groups’ overindexing against various category partitions is artificial or not useful information. But it can be challenging for the committed segmenter. Especially if a member of an identified group chooses not to behave exactly as she ought.

And this is what happens in real life, with people not segments, when research collides with life.

And someone must be to blame: the person or the segmentation.

It’s always easier and cheaper to blame the person – to take your eye off the ball and clatter the man.

It’s similar to the transition from classical physics to quantum mechanics.

On the classical scale familiar to marketers (consumer segmentations), things appear to trundle along in the direction they ought, in a manner with which we are all reasonably accustomed.

In a quantum world, where everything is micro and somewhat challenging, often paradoxical, always changing – measurement is hampered by uncertainty. Rather like real people. Something marketers seem somewhat detached from.

It’s not that sets are fuzzy round the edges: of course they are.

It’s much more fundamental than that.

Particles just misbehave in this quantum world, and all people (aka consumers) in research are particles.

Further to this, the more you segment, and the more you partition, the more you invite the uncertainty principle.

Uncertainty is a great thing because it can lead you to profitable discoveries; but it’s the last thing you need if that expensive segmentation is Company Gospel.

There have been some clever people in marketing.

None perhaps quite as celebrated for brains alone as Planck, Einstein or Dirac was.

But all of them far too smart to suggest the equivalent of a Schrödinger equation for human behaviour.

As marketers, it may be worth bearing the principles of quantum mechanics in mind when we encounter real people rather than macro conceptual groupings.

There is one part of quantum mechanics even I can understand and relate to:

We deal with nature as she is – absurd.