Saturday, 2 July 2011

Some tips on geodemographics for Shelter...


Back in the days before the PC became ubiquitous, in a time when direct marketing was direct marketing, a new science arrived. It was called geodemographics and we (by which I mean planners in direct marketing agencies) were smitten, deeply smitten. This was the Eldorado of targeted marketing, the Shangri la of response advertising, the holy grail of direct mail. And we played with it – we created mailing lists by ‘profiling’ the electoral register, we segmented and targeted the big agglomerations of address data on the files of big finance and retail businesses and we linked the base geodemographics, the idea that ‘birds of a feather flock together’, to other information collected about customers.

And we learned a couple of important lessons really quickly (mostly through the principle of ‘test and learn’ that direct marketers, uniquely among the marketing breeds, apply to all their work):

  1. Geodemographics, for all its wonderfulness is a pretty blunt targeting tool – yes it improves on the random selection from the population but only very slightly. Only where the profile indicated that a given place, typically a postcode area, was at least five times more likely to contain people with a given behaviour did we consider it worthy of selection. And that was for a door drop not for expensive direct mail – for that we needed ten times at least.
  2.  For some products and services there simply wasn’t much evidence – beyond confirming existing income-based differences – of a significant variation from par to mean that the ACORN, MOSAIC or Superprofiles analysis. Too often I tore open with rising excitement the envelope containing the profile for a client only to see a flat profile of mostly academic value. To make things work for the client we turned back to old fashioned techniques – using known responders, previous customers and incentivised two-stage campaigns to get new buyers.

So I smile when I see the latest super clever system – using ACORN, MOSAIC or some other geodemographic profiling system as a tool for marketing, communications or even ‘activism’. And the smile is a little wan since these approaches are misleading (to say the least) and of little real value. Here’s an example from housing charity, Shelter:

The Shelter Housing Insights for Communities resource is a must-have for anyone involved in community consultation on housing development. Built using ACORN and extensive bespoke national surveys on housing attitudes, this resource is a unique insight into the housing views and aspirations of local communities; providing advice on cost-effective and targeted consultation.

Using this system you can pop in a postcode and it will tell you whether the local folk are (or maybe aren’t) NIMBYs or BANANAs. Or at least you can at the “ward level” – a level that, in Bradford, is about as much use for getting any understanding as the proverbial chocolate fireguard. I can get a postcode assessment – mine is 3I33 (comfortably off settled suburbia, middle income couples) – but have to track back into Shelter's national assessment to make any sense at all of the information.

And then we learn the bleedin’ obvious – people who live in poor housing especially in cities are supportive of new housing development whereas folk living in suburbia (and especially the wealthier bits of that suburbia) are more likely to oppose housing development. Well knock me over with a feather, that’s some insight!

Here in Cullingworth – which is shaded a deep red for ‘we don’t like housing development’ – the truth is more nuanced and won’t be helped by the patronising ‘communications planning’ that Shelter propose.  What we don’t want – and will die in a ditch to stop – is the sort of massive development that will change the entire nature of the place. But the development of a few houses here or there we can live with – yes we want sensitivity, we don’t like fine old houses being knocked down to make way for ‘ticky-tacky’ houses and we’d like the developer to pay attention to traffic issues and road safety.

Yet Shelter – armed with their geodemographics and an opinion survey – want to cast us as unbending NIMBYs. Not only are they wrong, they are misleading developers and undermining the real efforts of councils, planners and local communities to meet housing needs without destroying the nature of a place. Plus of course – as we found out 20 years ago – geodemographics, even supplemented with other data, is a pretty blunt instrument for marketing. A lesson Shelter (who probably didn’t talk to any direct marketers in creating their whizzo system) still needs to learn.


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