The simple purpose of market segmentation is to discover meaningful differences among a target audience. It categorizes and simplifies, giving designers, business strategists, retailers, manufacturers, etc. something they can wrap their heads around when doing their jobs. Segmentation is a character study in statistical form.
Unfortunately, many efforts at segmenting markets result in vague categories arbitrarily cut up into artificial statistical markers. You could spend a lifetime creating market segmentation studies, and there are those who do. But you will never hear a female consumer describe herself as “sassy, professional empty-nester.” No thirty-something male will refer to himself by the elements that make him a “tech-savvy professional.” And that self-definition is important because it points to the inherrant complexity of who we are – that unquantifiable rabble that is humanity. And yet that’s how many seemingly sophisticated segmentations pan out. The net result is marketers and business development teams coming to think of their consumers and users as numerically defined caricatures. They lack a cultural or an emotion understanding of who this person is.
Segmentation has devolved into one of marketing’s greatest distractions. Like the focus group, it is often a parody. In fact, the obsession with segmentation causes many companies to spend excessive time and money trying to find new customers when they can’t even adequately profile their best customers.
Instead of focusing on product attributes and on market size data, companies must learn what jobs customers want to perform and use this as their marketing guidepost. And when I say ”jobs” I mean more than simple tasks. I mean the roles they assume, the games they play and how different parts of their lives fit together as a whole.
Endless attitudinal statements, with scales for “agree” and “disagree” are constructed and by the very nature of the question structure have severe limits. Most conventional research consists of predetermined questions and parameters that force research subjects into narrow channels of response. And these are often as much a bias of the researcher (or the boss) as a reflection of the customer’s worldview. The very nature of posing a direct question immediately primes the respondent to seek the “right” answer. Because of this structure, marketers feel compelled to portion the market in some way or another. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be called segments. So, at the outset, market researchers are determined to find differences, and they do, even if they have to invent them.
In contrast, ethnographic research routinely reveals customers are more alike than different at the source of their behavior. And where the differences lie, they are far more profound and surprising than the answers segmentation will reveal. It uncovers how the entire human experience translates into the act of being a customer for a particular brand, product, or service. It moves beyond attributes. It provides a clear view of cultural and behavioral categories based on the social, cultural and psychological needs and barriers driving customer feelings and thoughts. And because it looks through the lens of a holistic system structure, it yields a more realistic understanding of the customer than traditional methods. It produces insights and understandings that can be more predictive of the possibilities of the future than demographic, attitudinal or psychographic data.