NBC News abandons demographics for an even lamer metric

This week, NBC News Digital is abandoning a half-century-old form of audience measurement for a new one.

But what good is it to advertisers?

They’re replacing demographics – the definition of audiences by age, marital status, income, home address, etc. – with a new, behaviorally based metric. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that new, behavioral metric defines only viewers’ behavior with respect to only one behavior – following the news. While such information may be very helpful for the folks who plan the NBC News Digital content and programming, it’s virtually useless to any brand thinking of advertising with them.

Who, What, Where

Demographics is an obsolescent and crude form of audience measurement.

It got its first major use in 1960, when Nielsen used demographic data to show that the then-lagging ABC television network reached more young, urban and affluent households – advertisers’ prime targets.

From there, it spread to the rest of Nielsen’s rating systems, and then to advertising agencies’ media planning and buying practices.


But being widely used didn’t make demographics all that satisfactory.

For example, two families living next door to each other, with the same number of kids and the same annual income, could be very different households – if, for example, the main income earner in one was a master electrician and the other a CPA. The same demographics wouldn’t account for a whole slew of different brand preferences and purchase criteria, among other things, in the marketplace.

While demographics could tell advertisers about the who, what and where, it was totally mute on the question of why consumers made purchase decisions.

That’s why, in the 1970s, psychographics came along.

The 1978 VALS (Values, Attitudes, Lifestyles) study was a breakthrough attempt to answer the “why.” It divided American consumers into different groups – Survivors, Maintainers, Belongers, Emulators and Achievers.

Merrill Lynch was one of the first advertisers to successfully take advantage of this redefinition.

Their television advertising up to that point had featured a herd of bulls charging straight at the camera and the slogan, “Merrill Lynch is bullish on America.” This, psychographics exerts pointed out, was a Belonger strategy, talking to middle American and, worst of all, middle income consumers, who valued being part of the American middle class.

Merrill Lynch was after higher-income consumers, with more discretionary income to invest in stocks, bonds and mutual funds. The people, according to VALS, were Achievers, who earned more, were better educated and had a far more individualistic, nonconformist, elitist outlook – sometimes to the extent of opting for something specifically because the Belongers’ middle America didn’t. The advertising went from a herd of bulls to one lone bull (in one commercial walking his way through a china shop), and the slogan became “A Breed Apart.”


The mailing-list industry and computer technology made it possible to take audience definition a step farther – from psychographics to behavior.

Things that consumers did in the marketplace – everything from hobbies and interests to favorite sports to ethnicity and magazine subscriptions – could be clues to qualified prospects.

The Internet made it possible to identify consumers by behavioral preferences. So did mailing list databases and the proliferation on cable television channels. The former offer dozens upon dozens of behavioral criteria to choose from, while 200+ basic cable channels let advertisers target frequent business travelers, people interested in home improvement or cooking, military and ex-military personnel, and so on.

Behavioral targeting can be as simple as sending solar-array mailings to lists of homeowners known to have an interest in birdwatching (my company did this for a client and got nearly eight times the average response rate) or running commercials for an arena football team on sports and football-rerun cable channels (we did this, too, and increased season ticket sales by 60%).

But – and it’s a big one – the behavioral criteria have to be related to to buying the product being advertised. NBC News’ aren’t.

Talking to themselves

After intensive work with in-house and third-party researchers, NBC News developed four behavioral “personas” among their viewers.

So far, so good.

According to NBC News Digital vice-president Kyoo Kim, the personas matter to advertisers “because focusing on behavior vs. demographics gives our customers better insights into the tendencies of our viewers.”

That’s not so good, because the only tendencies they give insights into involve how the audience gets its news.

NBC’s four personas include:

  • “Always On:” Consumers who are constantly connected to news feeds across multiple devices throughout their waking day.
  • “Reporters:” A slightly smaller segment of “digital natives” who grew up consuming news via online and mobile media, and who have manifested the behaviors of news disseminators, taking pride in their ability to break important news to their friends via their own social media postings.
  • “Skimmers:” Consumers who are not passionately connected to news.
  • “Veterans:” Consumers who primarily rely on traditional media as a trusted source for news.

This may be helpful for advertisers who are news media themselves, like, say, the Wall Street Journal trying to sell more subscriptions.

It might even be of use to advertisers wanting to take advantage of a new, misleading tactic that NBC News Digital is developing as a result of the behavioral research – “new ‘native formats’ that blur the line between editorial and brand content that will make advertising messages more seamless and far less distinguishable from NBC News’ actual news feeds.”

Kim says his company’s new personas make sense because they’re based on actual behaviors and not arbitrary attributes that may or may not relate to the reason a consumer was experiencing media or brands.

But what could be more arbitrary than basing them on consumers’ behavior only when using your news medium?