BuzzFeed Thinks Marketers Will Find More Success With Psychographics Than Demographics

'We've taken away the beauty of being human'

Instead of targeting specific ages or gender, BuzzFeed suggests creating content around specific beliefs or interests. Getty Images
Headshot of Sami Main

BuzzFeed sees the rise of the individual as a new trend that should drive marketing because more and more millennials are striving to be recognized for more than whatever consumer category they happen to fall into.

Edwin Wong, BuzzFeed’s vp and head of insights and analytics, led a team that surveyed 1,000 people aged 18 to 49, studied millions of BuzzFeed content consumers and spent time with 17 millennials in five markets. What his team found is that most millennials and BuzzFeed readers consider sharing a piece of content as though they’re sharing a piece of themselves.

Because the content they choose to share is meaningful, people have become more picky with what they share. For content creators and advertisers, this means focusing more on using a unique tone of voice in order to connect with an audience. That, according to Wong, is how companies can continue to scale their audiences and revenue.

“You can’t quite create scale for scale’s sake,” he said, “because it won’t net you any sales. We’ve been so driven by tech stacks and programmatic promises for the last decade that we’ve lost the ability to say what’s really at the heart of some brands.”

“We’ve taken away the beauty of being human,” said Wong.

Wong’s study also showed that 80 percent of members of Gen Y/Z believe at least one traditional demographic, such as gender, sexuality or race, falls on a spectrum. Additionally, a majority of BuzzFeed’s readers don’t believe in a gender norm.

To Wong, a fringe audience used to be a small portion of media consumers. As time went on, people have put more of an emphasis on fringe interests which now makes that category of consumer more of a majority than before. Marketplaces like Amazon, Wong says, have been able to reach a broad base by making niche products and culture easily attainable.

“If people don’t see themselves in the current world of marketing, they’ll start marketing to themselves,” said Wong. “If our readers see people from other ‘demographics’ feeling validated, it means a lot to them to see someone get it right.”

This animated chart shows how fringe and niche audiences have grown to become the majority of audiences.
BuzzFeed, Edwin Wong

This study also hinges on the notion of the “power of one.” By focusing on a specific, niche group or type of person, other readers can recognize and empathize with the broad idea of validation.

Much of what Wong is now telling BuzzFeed, a publisher this reporter used to work for, is to recognize cultural relevance, redefine what “normal” can be for readers and to reimagine what social identities are. Writers and video producers on BuzzFeed’s editorial and creative teams have started to use Wong’s research as they approach creating future pieces of content.

“At the heart of what we do is wanting people to see something we create and say: ‘Oh, that’s me!'” said Wong.

“People are more complicated, and way cooler, than just a ‘snowflake,'” he said. “Traditional marketing wants to see demographic groups, but there’s a way to understand the ethos of a generation.”

According to research compiled by BuzzFeed, most of Gen Y/Z considers major traditional demographics to be a part of a spectrum.

Wong wants to see publishers and creators reach scale but with relevance.

“Society has been moving past us as marketers, as we’re only just now starting to talk about multicultural marketing,” he said. “New women and men are emerging as we speak.”

“It’s a natural trend in media to start broad and grow more niche,” said John Randall, vp of digital for CRAFT, a media agency. “Once you reach a critical mass of general content, like in newspapers or TV, then the consumers will start to demand specific, niche content.”

To Randall, both marketers and content creators have been segmenting audiences into demographics for some time, and that shouldn’t be discounted, but the behavioral- and interest-based targeting methods are incredibly successful. Why? People appreciate being individuals.

By creating content that embraces the individual, as opposed to trying to fit people into certain boxes, Wong is confident that publishers and advertisers will be able to reach audiences in a more effective way than before.

“You could become a ‘lighthouse brand’ by being more forward and upfront with unique points-of-view,” said Wong.


@samimain Sami Main is social editor for Adweek, where she posts Adweek content onto social platforms and looks for creative ways to communicate what's new.