Thoughts on Audience Segmentation Via Clayton Christensen’s Theories

In the past, I’ve written about the line that exists between audience segmentation versus fragmentation. In it, I pondered whether our institution’s landscape of nearly 300 social media accounts constituted good segmentation or out-of-control fragmentation. Since that June 2011 post, I’ve been doing a deep dive into Clayton Christensen’s work. He discusses how well intentioned, smart people can wind up with erroneous conclusions and poor results through the use of traditional audience segmentation practices (i.e. demographics) when it comes to innovation. Why? Because it typically only leads to incremental advances, squeezing out a bit more success where small pockets of opportunity might still be found. To make leapfrog advances, however, requires a different approach. Christensen’s work deals with disruptive innovation, but I believe aspects of his work can readily be applied to marketing in the higher ed world. One of his main ideas goes something like this: it’s a customer’s circumstances that should drive your efforts, not the actual customers themselves. You should ask yourself the question “What job is the customer hiring this product/service to do for them?” rather than “How can we use the data we know about the customer to entice them to use this product/service.”

In higher ed, we ask the latter question based on the segments we all know well: prospects, students, alumni, donors, parents, faculty, etc. The problem with this approach is that it’s too far removed from what our audiences need to get done. We segment this way based on what we want them to do, not necessarily by what they need to do. The gap that exists between the two is where you’ll find ineffective marketing.

In alumni relations, for example, we work hard to get people to engage with the institution through events, social media, etc. What that approach misses, however, is the fact that many of our alums don’t want to engage with us. It’s nothing personal, they just don’t. Yet, we shower them with as much marketing and programming as we can only to find that the efforts end poorly. Additionally, some who do participate will only do so because there is a temporary alignment of goals: we offer free food at a sporting event and an alum, who planned to attend anyway, decides to “participate” in order to get the free food. We mark that down as engagement, but it isn’t- at least not in the way we intended.

Let’s now take a Christensen approach and ask “What job is a member of the university community trying to get done?” Search for a job is sure to be top of mind, but what else? How about work/life balance, support for entrepreneurial start-ups and better time management skill? Seen this way, we find that these jobs aren’t limited to what we label “alumni.” Alumni may indeed list finding a job a top priority, but so would many other traditional audience segments. We see this with any set of jobs needing to be done. Parents grapple with work/life balance, students start businesses and everyone could probably benefit from better time management. We find that our traditional methods of segmentation are too one dimensional and place people in buckets that may not reflect who those people really are. In turn, they won’t provide a good foundation for programming and marketing success. If we simplify a group like alumni that are, in reality, exceptionally diverse, we end up creating and promoting programming and marketing that are one size fits none. Everybody loses.

So why does higher ed lump people in marginally meaningful ways? It’s likely because that’s how our internal systems, organization and data are aligned. As students graduate, they are deleted from the student bucket and placed into the alumni bucket and, hopefully, handed off to the alumni relations group for further engagement. Unless your institution has a sophisticated CRM tool that actively tracks the right sorts of data, then you can’t segment based on anything more meaningful. Unless fundamental change occurs, higher ed will be unable to think about it’s audiences based on their needs rather than their superficial characteristics.

This is very similar to the user experience field which wants to be “customer focused” by addressing people’s needs and wants. Needs and wants are uncovered through research and then tested against as the experience being built is created. This same approach is analogous to what Christensen advocates. To be truly successful requires us to uncover our audiences’ needs and create programming and marketing that specifically addresses them. That will require us to avoid grouping people in our traditional ways.

If you’re interested in learning more about Christensen, here’s a great starter video that gives an overview of his theories. Highly recommended, of course.

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1 Comment

  1. GREAT post — couldn’t agree more with your position that needs need to be driving marketing, programming and prospecting efforts. Unfortunately (again to your point), most organizations have mistakenly come to believe that quantitative segmentation analysis needs to be based on demographic or transactional factors instead of attitudinal measures. In fact, I’ve seen very revealing and statistically viable insights based on attitudinal segmentation, augmented by demographic and transactional information to create a robust, effective and actionable segmentation strategy.

    Thanks for your clear, insightful and well-written post.

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