Marketers are oh-so-familiar with the ever popular “” – a consumer segment a brand seeks to reach with its message. Typically, targets are defined by demographic factors: men 25-34, homeowners ages 45+, baby boomers with a household income of $50,000 or more… you know what I mean.

 But findings from a recent study suggest it might make sense to throw traditional demographic descriptions of target audiences out the window. According to the study, Americans’ media habits, attitudes and behavior are most greatly affected by their stage in life, rather than demographic or economic factors.

Back in the 1970s, defining targets based on probably made more sense. After all, people were more likely to follow similar life paths: get married, have 2.5 children, live happily ever after. But today, many people are waiting until later in life to have children. Single mothers are more common, and so is divorce. It would be naïve of us as marketers to think everyone within a certain age range is alike.

Gerry Philpott, CEO of survey co-sponsor E-Poll , provided this example: “A 45-year-old with a child in pre-school will have different entertainment and purchasing needs than a 45-year-old whose teenager has just left for college.”

The study broke consumers into eight major groups: Teens, College Students, Recent Grads, Single No Kids, New Nesters, Established Families, Married No Kids and Empty Nesters. As an example, let’s compare New Nesters (NNs) and Married No Kids (MNKs). By the numbers, these two groups look very similar:

  New Nesters Married No Kids
Median Age 37 38
Median Income $65K $70K
Percent Married 85% 100%
Employed Full Time 60% 62%


But their behavior and attitudes are quite different. Sixty-nine percent of NNs rate the value of family relationships as “very important,” compared to only 56 percent of MNKs. NNs value television more than other groups, and place the highest value on devices like DVRs and DVD players, which they use to locate family-appropriate content and screen out unwanted material.

MNKs, on the other hand, are more engaged with friends and activities outside the home, ranking higher than NNs on activities such as travel, exercise, and spending time with friends. They enjoy more leisure time and have more time for reading and listening to music.

Though they report similar levels of social networking, NNs use it primarily to stay in touch with family and friends, whereas MNKs say their primary use for social networking sites is maintaining or expanding their professional network.

“Despite similar demographics, these life stages clearly have very different attitudes and motivations, and it would be a mistake to communicate with them in the same way,” concludes Philpott.

So the next time you’re asked to create a marketing campaign to reach “Gen X males,” ask for life stage context instead. Today’s reality is that demographic definitions just won’t cut it.

The study I refer to in this post is titled “Life Stage: Its Impact on the Future of Traditional and Emerging Media.” It was conducted by The Hallmark Channel, E-Poll Market Research and the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California.

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