By Lucy Siegel | November 20, 2019

The ever-increasing complexity and sophistication of communications technology has expanded the capabilities of public relations and marketing professionals to persuade a target audience. One technology-based skill set that has been put to use fairly recently as a commercial communications tool is psychographics.

While the goal of each is market segmentation, psychographic research differs from demographic research in the type of data revealed. Demographic data provide stats on factual characteristics of a population or group of people, such as their ages, genders, education levels and incomes. Psychographic data go beyond these statistics to enable grouping of people by shared psychological characteristics, including subconscious and conscious beliefs and motives, personality traits, attitudes and values. The information is gathered from consumer behavior, internet activity and other sources, both public and private. Online surveys, Twitter comments, and Facebook “likes” and postings provide significant data on what individuals feel about specific issues.

Privacy Issues and Potential Dangers of Psychographic Research

If you are reading this and wondering how this type of information is gathered about you, take a look at a recent article in the New York Times. The reporter, Kashmir Hill, wrote about a proprietary scoring system that gathers thousands of different data points on individuals and uses them to create a secret score on each individual’s trustworthiness. Companies such as AirBnB pay for these scores. It turns out that the scores aren’t that much of a secret; you can request a copy of your own file and score. Kashmir did this and received a report almost 400 pages longthat included data on what food he’d ordered online for delivery, all the messages he had sent over the years, how many times he’d opened a particular financial services site, the IP addresses of his computer devices, and more. Keep in mind that this information was gathered on a particular individual and is not “Big Data” developed from anonomized data points.

The use of psychographic research as a tool for persuasion is at the heart of a current ethical and political whirlwind. Using psychographic data, political campaigns can target narrowly selected groups with specific messages that will resonate with that group. This can be helpful to marketers as well as political campaigns in reaching subgroups with more effective and more relevant messages.  But it can also be used in an insidious way to target people who are psychologically vulnerable, with fake news or an unscrupulous sales pitch. The research firm Cambridge Analytics, which shut down in 2018, admitted to having used this method, relying on data gathered from Facebook, to target certain types of voters to persuade them to vote for President Donald Trump. The firm did similar work to help candidates in more than 200 elections around the world.

Psychographic Research in Marketing and Public Relations

Professional communicators know that messaging directed at a particular audience is only effective if there is knowledge about the characteristics of that audience. That’s why marketers create very specific personas that represent their ideal sales targets. For example, to sell a luxury car, a marketer would naturally target an affluent audience. Traditional demographic research done by the marketer as well as sales statistics can further narrow that audience, for example, targeting wealthy middle-aged men who have professional or graduate degrees in selected geographic areas.

But having actual data about potential buyers’ attitudes and behaviors makes it much easier to direct the marketing messaging to the most receptive audience. For example, some people may buy luxury items because they feel they are investing in a high quality product that will last longer. Many luxury marketers would find it highly useful to be able to target such individuals. With psychographic as well as demographic data, marketers can communicate directly with people who are likely to value their marketing messages and avoid those who will just view their communications as unwanted advertising noise.

On the other hand, like unethical political use of psychographic research, marketers can also target people who are emotionally vulnerable to particular messaging. An example of this could be a luxury car brand that targets people who buy high-end products because they feel they have to prove their worth to the world through a visible show of wealth, whether or not they can afford to do so. Brand messages could be developed that feed on that insecurity. Not only would that messaging aim directly at certain people’s “pain points,” it would only be viewed by individuals with those pain points. Because it wouldn’t be seen by others, a big outcry criticizing the brand’s unethical communication techniques would be unlikely. Clearly, marketing and communications professionals must be vigilant about preventing unethical uses of what can be a powerful tool.

Psychographics is becoming a hot service for marketers and communications professionals. There are now companies that collect psychographic data and integrate it with demographics to help brands better understand who their target customers are, what they want and what they expect. A Google search for the term “psychographic research agencies” brings up 627,000 results. Here are a few examples:

·      Numerator is a company that calls itself “a marketing intelligence firm that brings together omnichannel marketing, merchandising and sales data.” Numerator uses research panels to collect psychographic data, delving into people’s buying behavior, preferences and attitudes, to determine why people buy or don’t buy.

·      Pinnacle Research Group is “a think tank of educated, intelligent, forward-thinking professionals (psychologists, sociologists, marketers) who combine psychological insight and theories with real-world experience to take your research efforts further.” Pinnacle claims that its “unique” approach “provides deeper exploration and understanding of motivations, behavior and perceptions.”

·      MRI Simmons has been well-known for many years for its advertising industry research services that help in media buying. In July 2017, Simmons launched a new service called “Predictive Consumer Insights.” The Simmons website says that this service “pinpoints the top psychographic drivers that predict ownership of a brand, and identifies the top prospective consumers for that brand. Marketers and brand teams can then profile this “likely owner” segment against over 60,000 data variables that exist in [Simmons’] National Consumer Study.”

Psychographic research is clearly an exciting new marketing tool. When used ethically and expertly, it can guide marketers to the very people who will welcome hearing from them, and potentially help build brand enthusiasm and loyalty.

Where to Learn More About Psychographic Research

In addition to browsing the websites of research companies such as those above, here are a few more neutral sources to learn more about the field of psychographic research:

·      A few months ago, marketing analytics company Hubspot published a blog post aimed at psychographic marketing neophytes: “How to Use Psychographics in Your Marketing: A Beginner’s Guide.” The post provides examples of how psychographic data can narrow down a target audience so that a brand is communicating with just the right people who will be receptive to learning about a product.

·      The Wordstream Blog also published a post about psychographic research. Journalist Dan Shewan provides a very comprehensive description in his post, “9 Mind-Bending Ways to Use Psychographics in Your Marketing.”

·      The Harvard Business Review published an article in 2016 by Alexandra Samuel entitled, “PsychographicsAre Just as Important for Marketers as Demographics.”  She explains why psychographic data has become more relevant and important: “The internet has changed the relative importance of demographics and psychographicsto marketers in three key ways: by making psychographicsmore actionable, by making psychographic differences more important, and by making psychographic insight easier to access.”