Sunday, April 03, 2005

Verizon's Micro-Targeting Miss

Micro-targeting starts with the idea that birds of a feather flock together, but recognizes that often it’s a small flock. The savvy marketer seeks to get inside the confines of a zip code to understand patterns of ethnic or social dispersion. But finding a micro-target is much more of an art than a science, since the available data runs out quickly. Good news for privacy advocates and bad news for marketers and government spy agencies.

New York, the immigrant Mecca offers a particularly good example. For instance, everybody knows that the Upper West Side of Manhattan, zip codes 10023-10025 and parts of southern 10027 represent a concentration of Jews that rivals Jerusalem or Tel Aviv in both numbers and in the nuances of practice and orthodoxy.

Similarly you can find ethnic outposts through New York City. Arabs live in Brooklyn Heights concentrated around the axis of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street. Greeks live in Astoria. Poles concentrate in Greenpoint, Irish in Hell’s Kitchen and Bay Ridge and Italians live in Bensonhurst, Caroll Gardens and “Little Italy.” Koreans have colonized Flushing in the way the Chinese took root in the Lower East Side, a century before them.

The Russians turned Brighton Beach into “Little Odessa” twenty years ago and there are still German enclaves in Yorkville and in Upper Manhattan, gay enclaves in Chelsea and even a Swedish community in Bay Ridge in view of the Verrazanno Bridge. Spanish speakers … Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Guatemalans, Peruvians, etc. each have multi-block enclaves dispersed in several boroughs. Many of these communities are so strong and have such close ties to their homelands that Latin American politicians routinely campaign in New York City neighborhoods.

In the old days, a native of any of these countries could live in these communities and not really need to speak English. They could find people who lived, acted, dressed, believed and thought the way they did. And they could find familiar foods, spices, clothes and customs. To some extent this is still true, though things are changing rapidly. Ideally a marketer seeking to penetrate these discrete markets can find media to zero-in on these audiences and communicate pointed messages (often in a foreign language) that will provoke awareness, recognition and response.

But even this isn’t as easy as it seems because translating this understanding into media that will provide effective credible reach is a bitch. Several factors complicate the process, first is Americanization. Classic ethnic names no longer are predictors of ethnicity. Not all names ending in a vowel are Italians or Portuguese. You can long longer assume all names ending in “es” or “ez” are Spanish or that names ending in “ski” are Polish or “ian” are Armenian. And not every Cohen is a Jew.

Generational differences in language preference and media use make the marketers’ task even more difficult. An immigrant grandparent still speaks and reads only Russian gets news and information from Russian language newspapers, TV and radio. An adult child speaks Spanglish at work and prefers Spanish at home defaulting to TV Novellas every night on Telemundo or Univision for entertainment and Noticias 1 for news. Yet a grandchild, often living in the same home, is fully bilingual generally preferring English media but carefully reading Latina magazine at the nail salon.

Geography, language, education, country of origin, generation are the starting variables which then must be mixed with attitudes, sensibilities, income, peer influences, birth order and media use patterns to begin an effective media planning process. You can not crunch numbers to get the answer. You need a specialist who can mix science with art to understand and truly capture the micro-target you want to reach.

The misses generally outnumber the hits. And even so-called multicultural agencies often don’t have the breadth of knowledge and insight to do the job right. In some cases the mistakes are simultaneously funny and maddening.

Verizon’s current “Call Home” outdoor campaign is a great example. Some marketing nimrod put ads on bus shelters throughout the Upper West Side touting low cost calls to Warsaw. The copy suggests that a plate of pirogies is cheaper than a call home. Who knows how this message got matched to this geography.

But the reality is this is a perfect micro-targeting mismatch. The people who see these messages are those who fled Poland, were in concentration camps on Polish soil or are their children and grandchildren. The people walking bye and standing in these shelters have, at best, an ambivalence and, at worst, an enmity toward Poland and Poles. They are no more likely to phone Warsaw than they are likely to eat pirogies, a food they associate with historic anti-Semitism, oppression by neighbors and extermination.

In this case, micro-targeting was intended to resonate with and motivate an ethnic population on its home turf. This campaign will have the exact opposite effect yielding a very warm and fuzzy feeling about Verizon, the growing insensitive colossus.


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