Bad Thing! Or Why Segmentation by Consumer Attitudes May Be Dangerous
For years, B-to-B and B-to-C marketers have relied on attitudinal segmentation research to help them group their current customer base, and potential customers as well, for communication, promotion, marketing and experience initiatives. The thesis has been that, by asking a small, but meaningful, set of attitudinal questions, they would be able to develop an index, algorithm or framework equation that ranked these consumers by propensity to buy, both near-term and long-term.
These frameworks—they're arithmetic, so we can't call them "models"—typically include questions regarding the importance of elements like value for money, acting with the consumer's interests in mind, credit and payment terms, having knowledgeable employees, offering products which will meet the consumer's needs, and the like. From these questions, basic segment categorization can be determined; and, once these three, four or five segments are established, we've often seen marketers go on to build assumptive plans and conduct further, more detailed, research around them.
The goal of these approaches is to produce attitudinal segments, which the questions can predict with high accuracy, often in the 80 percent or 90 percent range. This creates what economists would call a "post hoc ergo propter hoc" situation, Latin for "after this; therefore, because of this." It is a logical fallacy, essentially saying that A occurred (the responses to the attitudinal questions); and then B occurred (the cuts, or segments, of consumers). Thus, A caused B. Once the B, or segment creation, stage has been established, further fallacies, such as creating reliable marketing, operational and experiential strategies around these supposed propensities, can be built. It's a classic situation, where correlation is thought to be the same as causation. As your economics or stat professors may have told you, correlation and causation are far from being identical concepts.
As a consultant and analyst, I've seen this result of this application of research and analytics play out on a firsthand basis on multiple occasions. Here's a recent one. A client in the retail office products market had been using an attitudinally derived element importance question framework for small business market segmentation purposes. The segment assumptions went unquestioned until followup qualitative research was conducted to better shape and target their planned marketing and operational initiatives. Importance of certain products and reliable service were identified in the research as key areas of focus and opportunity for the office products retailer; but, in the qualitative research, power of both focus areas appeared, anecdotally, to be consistent across all segments. And, even though implied supplier roles were suggested to build purchases, this was much more "leap of faith"-based on the established quantitative research segment personas than actual qualitative research findings.
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