In business, knowing your customer is the cardinal rule. But that's harder than it sounds when society is made up of a kaleidoscopic mix of people with eclectic needs and wants - people who all have different pressures on their purse strings.
In the recession, businesses are being forced to focus their marketing efforts and tap into markets with the greatest buying power. With the right insights, the parent and child markets can still prove very lucrative.
The question is, how do brands push the right buttons to entice a parent or child to part with their cash in these straitened times?
Hence the reason for my recent presentation at a Haymarket event dedicated to appealing to kids and selling to parents.
Social media can be part of the answer. Social media continues to grow at an extraordinary rate. A billion tweets are posted very three days.
As of the end of 2011 there were over 180 million blogs, at which point the people who had been counting stopped.
Mumsnet now receives 30,000 new posts every day. For those with a background in research, all the opinions contained within that social media content is a marketer's dream.
Having said that, social media research is still in its early stages of development and some brands are still grappling with how social media can be harnessed to deliver real and meaningful insights.
One issue is that it can be very difficult to identify demographics in social media. However, this makes it all the more important to build a contextual and content based understanding of the audience under the microscope.
For instance, we can build profiles of the typical parent versus teen social media user, based on the content they typically produce.
This allows the researcher to include or exclude content that appears to have been generated by different segments.
Fun v flattery
In the main, teenagers use Twitter differently to adults, and have contrasting motivations. Teens use social media to share amusing anecdotes and stories, whereas adults use social media to project aspirational images of themselves.
The key for brands is to understand how this information is selected and edited, so that they can provide fuel for conversations.
This can be achieved by providing teenagers with fun things to talk about or supporting parents by helping them to create success stories they can share as advice with their peers.
Another difference is that teens are likely to tweet more frequently and engage in unrestrained reporting of their everyday experiences, driven in part by the desire to boost their tweet total.
In contrast, parents are generally more considered in what they tweet, based on the image they want to present to the world.
They tend to be more intent on building followers, and will use other communications platforms to engage in genuine conversations.
Appealing to teens
In a practical sense, this means making everyday encounters entertaining for kids. So the launch of a new quirky toy in a cereal box might be more successful in generating online word of mouth mentions than major product launches or ad campaigns.
It's like that old story about the box always being more popular than the present at Christmas; simple, eye-catching ideas cut through. It’s all about giving teens short stories to recount.
Selling to parents
In order to appeal to parents, brands need to feed them with content that will support the sometimes inadvertent curation of an image.
For example, if we look at social media discussions around cooking from scratch, we find that there is a marked tendency for those tweeting to tell the world about their endeavours and wear their achievements as a badge of honour.
Likewise, on mums' forums such as Mumsnet, we have noticed that many posts can be categorised as sharing advice or responding to questions with success stories.
Brands that tap into the desire to help others and also to present an aspirational image stand the best chance of being valued.
Customise your marketing
By implication, businesses need to find a way to appeal to these groups differently, based on their diverse interests and behaviours.
Given the proliferation of channels, it is now possible to reach out to different groups with distinct communications. However, this is not to advocate that brands should behave differently with different segments.
There is an important distinction between being multi-faceted and two-faced. In all instances, particularly on social media, brands must hold true to their core purpose and beliefs. Indeed, any contradictions will be severely criticised on social media.
Returning to the cardinal rule, it’s essential for brands to meet people on their terms. In the past, marketers often had to second-guess the issues that mattered to their customers.
Today, we have the richest and most comprehensive source of customer insight at our fingertips.
The challenge is to tame the beast in order to identify, extract and filter brand insights from the ever-growing mass of social opinion. This can be achieved through a mixture of sophisticated monitoring technology and expert researchers.
After all, it would be a waste to allow opinions, perceptions, and needs expressed spontaneously in real time, and on the record, to lay dormant in data, when this data can be mined to uncover previously unrevealed insights.