Identity Crisis: What Does Joe Average Want?

Who are you? Media are dying to know -- and pay -- for the answers.A Texas-based firm profiled the "average" Richmonder; a Northern Virginia company can guess where you live based on certain characteristics.Today's advertising buyers and sellers are looking for more than mere demographics. They're looking for narrowly-focused, detailed information on how you relate to their product and how their product relates to you.Experts say it's not enough to know information about the average Joe, sketched recently in The Media Audit, produced by International Demographics, Inc.Based on that company's August-September telephone survey, details are provided on typical residents in one of more than 100 markets. In Richmond, Virginia, for example, the average adult downs 7.7 soft drinks in a week, takes 4.1 domestic flights in a year, uses AT&T to make a long distance call and thinks a sunny financial future lies within the next six months.It's one thing to know about the average consumer, says one marketing researcher, but advertisers really want to know the profiles of people living in a limited area.Arlington-based Claritas Inc. can help with that, said Dr. David J. Urban, associate professor of marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University's business school.He explained that the company has developed a list of 62 unique neighborhoods, which it can assign to various geographic regions based on what an advertiser needs to know."They assume that birds of a feather flock together," Urban said. "People that live in close proximity to each other tend to share some characteristics."Some examples: "Blueblood Estates," neighborhoods contain older, elite, super wealthy, empty nest households, where you might find heirs to old money. Large concentrations of this group can be found in New York and Washington, D.C."Young Influentials" neighborhoods contain people who are single, upwardly mobile, and white collar. And other neighborhoods are called "Shotguns and Pickups," "Scrub Pine Flats" and at the bottom, "Hard Scrabble."But the socio-economic status of the neighborhood is not the issue, Urban said. They're all consumers that fit different profiles. In general, he said, "The whole idea of targeting people has gone beyond simple demographics now."North Carolina-based management consultant Joyce L. Gioia agrees. She says demographics help advertisers and businesses market smarter, but the key is in the specifics."One very important aspect of looking at whether to use demographics or not is to look at how "gross" the data is," said Gioia, a former faculty member of Fordham University's marketing department. "Is it down to a block group, a carrier route or merely a zip code?"In some cases, she said, even knowing the characteristics in those areas isn't specific enough.An Arkansas company says it provides a database with information on almost every U.S. household. The Acxiom Corporation's IBConsumerSM InfoBase compiles data from several research sources, according to a spokeswoman.And the company takes the information a step further. Acxiom customers can make use of a computer model that identifies affluent households and predicts likely investors.That's the kind of detail Gioia likes to see. "When I work with demographic information," she said, "I prefer to go down to the individual household level. That leaves much less margin for error."

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