As qualitative researchers, let’s take a fresh look at our tools and techniques and see how we can leverage our skills and offerings to better advantage our clients and ourselves. One area that has gained favor intermittently over the past few decades is psychographics, which is underused in our research practices. Given the tremendous range of products, services, and media alternatives available to us and our clients, psychographics can benefit us now more than ever.
As a psychologist and researcher, I’m fascinated by how psychographics addresses perceptions, decision processes, and motivations that determine behaviors critical to our clients’ interests. We have multiple ways we can leverage a psychographic approach, whether dealing with groups, one-on-one interactions, or even in ethnographic evaluations. With that in mind, let’s take a brief look back at the development of psychographics, with an eye toward how we can use it today.
A Brief History of Psychographics
After World War II, researchers began looking for new and more comprehensive ways to describe the diversity of consumer behaviors. Demographics, while certainly valuable, could not tell marketers all they needed to know to most effectively position and sell their products. The post-war faith in scientific technique led some researchers to attempt to use quantitative measurements of clinical psychology to understand consumer buying patterns.
A classic study by Koponen, published in the Journal of Advertising Research way back in the ‘60s, addressed personality characteristics and purchasing behaviors. It was repeated in various formats by others, all attempting to closely correlate consumer behaviors with scores on standard personality inventories. The results of these studies, however, were found to be of little value by marketers.
There were also motivational researchers like Ernest Dichter (known as the father of motivational research) who applied the principles of psychology to explain consumer behavior, without the more quantitative confines. Their qualitative analyses relied on constructs like the subconscious mind to explain actions. While methodologically it was more interpretive, motivational research provided useful insights that were of greater value to marketers.
For example, in a classic early study done for the Chrysler Corporation, Dichter concluded that a man (his target customer of that era) might be attracted to, and fantasize, about convertibles that symbolize a wild and more promiscuous lifestyle. Ultimately, however, he would buy a sedan, which represented the stability of his work and family lifestyle. As a result, Dichter recommended that convertibles be placed in the front of the car dealers’ showroom windows and emphasized in advertisements to bring him in the door, even though he’d most likely purchase a sedan.
So with these types of approaches being explored in the 1960s, a blend of objective personality inventories and in-depth consumer descriptions of motivational research began to take shape. This became known as lifestyle, AOI (Activities, Opinions, Interests) or psychographic research—the latter term put forth by Emanuel Demby, a market researcher and champion of the procedures and their applications to marketing and consumer behavior.
Jumping ahead to the 1970s, researchers at the Stanford Research Institute developed the Values Attitudes and Lifestyles (VALS) psychographic methodology. While criticized for some shortcomings, it was embraced by leading marketers, and within the next decade called “one of the top ten market research breakthroughs of the 1980s” by Ad Age magazine. Thus, further recognition of these important factors was acknowledged and proven helpful when applied.
There are numerous variations on the exact definition of psychographics, but they all share one very clear viewpoint—they take us beyond the information provided by demographics alone. Essentially, psychographics is the study of both lifestyle and personality traits. Lifestyle refers to the patterns of how people live, spend their money, and use their time. Personality is influenced and informed by an individual’s set of socially learned values and attitudes toward specific objects and situations that are guided by these values.
Demographic research may tell the marketer about the consumer who is a 35-year-old woman earning $70,000 per year living in an urban area, whereas psychographics adds critical dimensions to that description and further explains decisions and choices they make—whether in voting, buying a car, selecting health insurance, and so on. It adds information about values, lifestyles, attitudes, and personality traits that can sway a broad spectrum of behaviors—behaviors that are essential to our own understanding as researchers and critical to recommendations we offer our clients. Essentially, psychographics tells us why the 35-year-old woman mentioned above would never buy a BMW but her demographically identical neighbor would only buy a BMW.
Many Psychographic Models
A simple Google search will turn up a variety of psychographic approaches, systems, and services. Each offers variations that enhance understanding of our audiences. Past analyses have shown that various psychographic approaches tend to have common underlying dimensions (e.g., sociability dimensions, leadership dimensions). Thus, the important point is to select a system or framework that works best as a basis for expanding your depth of understanding and interpretation for your clients.
An Example of a Psychographic System
As an example, I developed and validated a psychographic framework called SegMed, which enhances my understanding and interpretation of research results. This system identifies stable decision-
making personality types, applicable across a broad range of products and industries. Whether you use this system, your own system, or an alternative framework, awareness of a psychological or psychographic structure will help you delve deeper, understand more, and round out understanding the behaviors of your subjects, while providing enhanced value.
The SegMed System identifies three key dimensions of decision-related personality. These dimensions are analytical, emotional, and assertiveness/control. The analytics scale indicates where one is on the scale of analyzing (Thinking) before taking action (Doing). The emotional scale reflects the tendency to decide more based on facts (Objective) as opposed to feelings (Subjective). The assertiveness/control scale indicates the degree to which a person will take a leading role (Leader) or be more likely to trail along after others pave the way (Follower). Accordingly, we have the following dimensions:
- Doer vs. Thinker (analytic scale)
- Objective vs. Subjective (emotional scale)
- Leader vs. Follower (assertiveness/control scale)
Each of us can be characterized along a continuum on these dimensions and the combination of where we fall on them determines our psychographic decision styles and other related personality characteristics. Each psychographic segment responds differently to offerings, products, and advertising appeals. Once we identify where an individual leans on each dimension, we can classify our subjects into one of eight categories, each having an assigned label that characterizes them. So, one who leans toward being “Objective,” “Thinker,” and “Leader” is termed a “Scientist” type. The different psychographic types identified by this method are:
Objective, Thinker, Leader = Scientist
Objective, Thinker, Follower = Conventional
Subjective, Thinker, Leader = Socially Conscious
Subjective, Thinker, Follower = Prim & Proper
Objective, Doer, Leader = Striver
Objective, Doer, Follower = Traditionalist
Subjective, Doer, Leader = Fun-Lover
Subjective, Doer, Follower = Regular Guys
Each variation gives us a different picture of our subjects/customers, as briefly described below.
Characterizing respondents helps us understand and explain their choices, motivations, and behaviors. Notably, it helps determine what appeals (messaging, brand image, advertising, visuals) and what can best capture their attention and will influence them. Taken further, these characterizations can give us a better sense of what’s most important overall to each separate audience.
SegMed was developed and tested within the pharmaceutical industry and has since proven useful across industries. The idea behind these psychographic classifications is that demographics, whether of physicians (internists, cardiologists, etc.) or others do not tell a complete story. We need to delve deeper and examine the personalities of our subjects as they relate to decisions. By understanding customers better, we can have more influence with them and better convey the advantages of offerings.
For example, some studies make assumptions based on demographics; however, the assumption that all cardiologists are scientific types interested exclusively in numbers, science, and hard facts does not account sufficiently for variations in personality types within the cardiologist demographic. In developing and validating this psychographic framework, we see that all of our identified psychographic segments occur within each physician specialty. However, their distribution varies within those demographic specialties. So while cardiologists typically have a higher percentage of scientists than among general practitioners, each specialty does contain all eight identifiable and distinct personality types. Figure 2 demonstrates this difference for two specialties.
The bottom line is that by understanding their audience type, marketers can tailor their communications for maximum impact. For example, advertising targeted to Scientist type cardiologists should accentuate numbers, chemical explanations, and technical study findings. Conversely, promotions targeting Socially Conscious type cardiologists would emphasize the more feeling-based, soft evidence. These individuals would get more examples and imagery showing what successful treatment looks like in their patients’ lives. Carrying this a step further, we can train sales representatives to identify their different types of customers and alter their approaches for better one-on-one communications.
This more individualized approach to communicating is most relevant today, given the technical advantages of being able to customize and deliver highly targeted communications via marketing vehicles such as email, Facebook Advertising, Google Ads, YouTube, as well as more traditional media.
How We Can Use Psychographics to Mine the Psyche
There are ways we can all use psychographics for a deeper dive into understanding and leveraging the psyche of our study participants.
- Enhance our interviewing
Recognizing the mindsets of our focus group or IDI participants can help improve our discussion guides and interview questions. With some practice or using a brief survey, we can identify psychographic types with reasonable certainty, and frame our questions from that perspective.
Within my own psychographic framework, I ask about subjects’ leadership habits, quickness to take action in typical situations, and preferences about making gut (feeling-based) decisions. I use these few questions to quickly categorize my respondents and adjust questions to leverage this framework.
For example, questions to the Thinkers, who are typically hesitant to act and tend to analyze deeply before acting, can probe on the best ways to convince them about internalizing product attributes and what they would need specifically to move them into action. Leader types can be asked about what would trigger them to share more information about our products or services.
- Enhance group and individual interactions
Having a clear picture of our participants aids us in promoting more engaging, deeper, and more meaningful interactions, both in groups and in individual interviews. Having a psychographic picture of each participant in mind, we can encourage deeper, more meaningful interactions between individuals.
For example, by the nature of group behavior, we often have leaders who dominate our discussions, some followers, and others who take on different roles. We often try to put participants on equal footing to gain their insights and control them. However, by identifying participants’ basic psychographic characteristics, we can leverage them to our advantage and observe their reactions, which gives us more clues as to how to influence our audiences.
For instance, say that we have a small group with a clear Striver who is dominating the conversation. The Striver is a clear, objective decision-maker, who will be quick to initiate action, and lead others. Often we find them strongly opinionated and overbearing in a group and we will tend to stifle their behaviors in order to balance out their views. However, if we know we also have follower and subjective types present, we can discover how strong leaders like Strivers might influence our prospective consumers. We could be better served to encourage interaction and pose questions that will give insights into how the Striver motivates the reluctant followers. By focusing on the arguments, language, information, tone, and emotions our Striver uses to move the other segments, we get an idea on how to position messaging in future advertising, social media, and sales efforts for maximum impact.
In contrast, if we recognize a Prim & Proper in our group, we might test prospective messaging through questions about things that are socially and ethically desirable, which could get them to start their process of movement toward adopting our clients’ product or service.
- Improve analysis
We can use a psychographic framework to understand and interpret group interactions and interviews. Having the luxury of recording our sessions, reviewing them with an ear toward understanding psychographic types gives us deeper insights. Understanding psychographics can help us better analyze and interpret study findings by looking at interactions through the deeper prism of the psychographic mindset and underlying needs and motivations. For example, watch the interplay of respondents in groups to recognize potential for appealing to Good Old Boys/Gals, Conventionals, Traditionalists, etc., and the flow of information that can determine more in-depth recommendations. It is interesting to observe the degree to which emotional appeals can have more impact on subjects in the feeling-based segments vs. those in the fact-based segments. Without splitting the sample via psychographics, the overall significant insights may be lost in analysis.
- Provide more value/make better recommendations
Putting psychographics to work enhances our understanding of our clients’ challenges and helps us demonstrate, explain, derive deeper insights, and make better recommendations. The different segments often point in two directions: balancing communications across segments by using approaches to appeal to the broadest selection of an audience, or taking a multi-pronged approach tailoring communications to each segment separately.
Often the segmentation points to multi-pronged campaigns. While multi-pronged campaigns can be tricky and expensive, we may recommend them to best appeal to different audiences.
One example of a multi-pronged approach that may seem puzzling on the surface is GEICO Insurance Company’s multiple ad approaches, since their agency explains that “Once upon a time an ad was about a company’s unique selling position. But people can now accept more complex brands.” Accordingly, we might speculate that the complexity is related to different target audiences and their psychographic makeup. We’ve observed that their different ad campaigns can target our different SegMed psychographic segments specifically:
The GEICO Gecko (campaign 1): This simply cuts across all our segments to attain attention and gain awareness.
The Caveman (campaign 2): “It’s so easy, a caveman can do it.” This appeal would resonate with our Thinker segments—those that may have “analysis paralysis” and are typically reluctant to take decisive action.
The Rhetorical Question (campaign 3): “Could switching to GEICO save you 15% or more on car insurance?” Following up with a rhetorical question: “Does Charlie Daniels play a mean fiddle?” This approach might best cover our subjective segments—Fun Lovers and Regular Guys—as it leverages fun, feeling good, not being too analytical, and suggesting taking action, as it’s so obvious how could you not switch to them? This simplistic, feel-good appeal would be expected to have less weight with some other segments such as Strivers or Scientists.
- Recruit specific psychographic types to assure deeper insights
When we can target the types of customers we want to interview, whether one-on-one or in groups, we can specifically recruit for them. Using my own SegMed system, I use ten questions that reliably categorize subjects and which I use for recruiting. Questions are simple choices such as: “Are you more interested in factual areas, such as history and science or in artistic areas such as art, music, and literature?” and “When you’re in a group of people, do you more often take charge of plans and decisions or do you go along with the crowd?” The combination of answers reliably identifies psychographic types.
While this approach adds extra questions to our screeners, recruiting for specific psychographic types can be beneficial. For example, one car company recently wanted to test its ad concepts with Millennials who they hoped would buy their fun line of low-priced, high-tech cars. We could have recruited randomly and accepted a convenience sample of participants fitting the demographics, but we chose to recruit the subjective, more feeling-based decision-makers—our Fun-Lovers and Regular Guys/Gals. Since these types are also the groups who take faster action (Doers) than the others, they are ideal target customers. We included some Followers in the groups and identified some Prim & Propers, recognizing that they may be less inclined to be early adopters but could give us insights into the types of peer influence that would persuade them.
By adding questions to elicit reactions and discussion (specific to these psychographic classifications), we added depth to understanding the features and communications that resonated and uncovered ways to turn them into effective influencers.
Note that while psychographics provides a way to understand segments of the audience, it does not suggest necessarily eliminating segments. Accordingly, even though our clients may want to appeal primarily to the Subjective audience with a fun product, we can recruit Objective decision-makers as well to understand their needs.
- Add to the descriptive overall profiles of customer segments
Extra psychographic/lifestyle descriptors can help us provide clients with more robust ideas for their understanding and planning. For example, Uber links descriptors of Mainstreamer to their UberX service, Aspirer and Succeeder to their Uber Premium service and Struggler to their Uber Access service to help develop their marketing plans. When describing their target customers, they fold these into their broader demographic descriptions of their customers.
- Enhance your business/service offerings
Add a psychographic component as an additional feature of your business offerings. This can be any psychographic/lifestyle system that offers depth to better understand your clients’ target customers. Your own system can be simple or complex if it adds value and depth to understanding. You can use it anywhere from categorizing and profiling customer types to building databases of psychographically-identified customers who can be individually targeted.
Psychographic approaches have been around a long time. Take advantage of them to help mine the psyche of participants in your studies. There are many psychographic/personality classification systems that can be adapted and integrated into your practice. These include Myers-Briggs types, DISC (often used in leadership development and human resources), VALS (the original lifestyle assessment), and others. Free assessments are available online for evaluation; they can be licensed or adapted to your purposes, such as 16 Personalities, Crystal (DISC), PersonalityPerfect, and more. Choose a system, or an expert in using a system, that is compatible with your practice. There will be a learning curve, but applying your chosen psychographic framework regularly will become easier and you’ll be able to assess your subjects quickly.
Recognizing and integrating psychographic thinking into our research via our interviewing techniques, recruiting, interpretation, and recommendations can provide more depth and more value for our clients and for ourselves.