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    Why higher education needs to rethink traditional demographics and start marketing to tribes

    Hyper-digialisation has led to the emergence modern tribes. Instead of age, geography and gender these new groups are united by a common mindset.
    Last updated:
    December 3, 2021

    Higher education marketers, we’re curious: how do you segment your audience? We’re assuming that location, field of study and lifecycle stage (i.e. candidate, student and alumni) play a big part. But perhaps you’re also one of the increasing number of marketers who, drawing on the wealth of data out there today, are layering attitudinal and behavioural insights on top of traditional demographic data create more nuanced audience personas.

    In an article for Forbes titled "Stop Marketing To Millennials Or Gen-Z And Start Marketing To Tribes", Kian Bakhtiari argues that “the world is no longer a global village, but a theatre of disparate tribes.” What does this mean, exactly, and what does it have to do with segmentation?

    Hyper-digialisation over the past few years has led to the emergence of what Bakhtiari calls "modern tribes". Instead of age, geographical location and gender (i.e. the traditional go-to segments for marketers), these new groups are united by a common mindset. Things like the Brexit divide and the popularity of Extinction Rebellion are symptomatic this new "tribal" landscape. 

    "Unlike the punks, hippies and goths of yesteryear, these new tribal allegiances are invisible. Modern tribes live inside echo chambers on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Twitch and Discord."

    In order to reach this new and emerging generation of consumers, or in our case, learners, marketers must look beyond the old, simplistic demographic tropes and focus on understanding the motivations and mindsets of different groups. This approach is a necessary one for institutions that want to stay relevant and in today's competitive climate.

    Segmenting by age alone doesn't make sense


    "Young people are not a monolithic marketing segment. To treat them as such says more about the prevalence of lazy marketing than it does about the audience in question," writes Bakhtiari. 

    While certain social, economic and political circumstances lead to shared experiences and commonalities between age groups, more diversity exists within them than similarities. In other words, age is only a small part of someone's identity. To illustrate this, Bakhtiari points out that Donald Trump and Barack Obama are both Baby Boomers and Malala Yousafzai and Kylie Jenner both fall into the Gen Z bracket, but in many ways they couldn't be further apart. 

    It's also important to take the media's arbitrary and often contradictory labels with a heavy helping of salt. "Millennials are lazy"; "Millennials work 24/7"; "Gen Zs are individualistic"; "Gen Zs value community" - etc. 

    Segmenting students according to motivations and mindsets


    The concept of segmenting students in this way isn't a new one. A 2014 national study by The Parthenon Group involving 3,200 US students and applicants provides a sound basis for a modern approach in how we can view the diversified student market.

    Using their findings, TPG were able to segment students into the following six key categories based on motivations and mindsets:

    1. Aspiring Academics (Achieving)

    2. Coming of Age (Transitioning)

    3. Career Starter (Thinking Practically)

    4. Career Accelerators (Advancing)

    5. Industry Switchers (Changing career)

    6. Academic Wanderers (Seeking Degree)

    By assigning more nuanced profiles to students in this way, Parthenon believe that universities can develop more sophisticated recruitment strategies and even rethink their course content and structure to fit the needs of their students.

    "Using these six segments to gain a deeper understanding of their students allows colleges to do a better job recruiting students and shepherding them towards success after graduation. Flexible offerings become only one component of the student’s needs, and students fitting a particular demographic profile can have dramatically different preferences and desires for their college experience and post-college plans." - The Differentiated University.

    Big brands (successfully) segmenting by interests and behaviours


    Rather than making programming decisions based on demographics, Netflix divides its subscriber base into what they call "taste communities": groups that gravitate towards the same shows. Netflix realised that demographic determiners such as age and location aren't a good indicator of the types of shows people want to watch. 

    French food giant, Danone, also thinks in terms of tribes when creating marketing campaigns. Elaine Rodrigo, the company's chief strategy and insights officer, told the IIeX Conference: "It's a combination of the data and the human...but in this case, starting with data - a data-driven approach to actually understanding you people."

    Danone's UK water brand, Volvic, pinpointed 16 tribes. Using these, the team created 16 short-form bumper ads on YouTube, each communicating "your own personal volcano". The campaign was successful, giving the brand a 40% lift in ad recall.

    "According to our analysis, companies that apply the principles of behavioural economics outperform their peers by 85% in sales growth and more than 25% in gross margin." - Gallup


    Where next?


    2020 is the perfect time to start marketing to tribes if you aren't already. If you don't have access to nuanced data and insights, however, it's not an easy task. Investing in a modern higher education CRM platform like FULL FABRIC will give you the tools you need to gather useful insights and create a hyper-personalised application journey for every individual. Feel free to request a demo to see how it works. 


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    Kate Tattersfield

    Kate Tattersfield is a former teacher turned content creator at FULL FABRIC, specialising in writing for the education sector.

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