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The power of Valuegraphics: A discussion with David Allison

David Allison is a marketing professional who believes we need to ditch demographics and embrace Valuegraphics instead to understand the people we are trying to reach and build the strategies that will resonate with them. CSAE talked with David about his perspective.

Q: In your career as a marketing and communications professional, what was your “aha moment” that inspired your shift toward Valuegraphics?

A: I love being asked this question because it is such a great story. I had just finished a two-year run of speaking engagements on my previous book, all about baby boomers downsizing, and how to help the housing industry build better homes for more people. And then I was in a coffee shop one day reading a New York Times article about millennials (insert eye roll here). This particular story was all about millennial hobbies (because apparently, they are all the same). But what struck me is that the majority of the so-called millennial hobbies were the exact same ones the baby boomers in my study had talked about. Light bulb moment! I had just sold my company and was looking for a new book to write, and I just found it. Our first 40,000 surveys proved my hunch — that we are really all the same age now (which is also the title of my book) so we kept going. We now have a half-million surveys that prove demographics are a terrible way to understand a target audience for anything, anywhere in the world. And not just age, but any demographic labels: income, gender, education, marital status… none of these things tell you anything about the audience except the thing they tell you — how old they are, for example. You cannot tell me anything about a stadium full of 42-year-olds except that they are 42.

Q: How do Valuegraphics lend themselves particularly well to the association sector?

A: I know I am using a broad brush here, but as I understand it, there is a trend in the association sector of declining membership, and increasing membership churn. This is a clear signal to me that what members of associations want and what they BELIEVE they are receiving are not in alignment. There are values that need to be discovered and triggered to influence a change in behavior. During my keynote, I will provide that information from our dataset. With this info, associations can change policies, procedures, programming, messaging: address the blockages that are causing the problems based on data, not guesswork and intuition. Most importantly, for any sector, using Valuegraphics can improve the effectiveness of every dollar and hour you spend trying to influence anyone by as much as 8X. That means a $100 budget will behave like an $800 budget. We have the stats to back this up.

Across 100,000 surveys from the USA, this graph shows how often three popular demographic segments agree with each other on 410 different values, wants, needs and expectations. All demographic clusters: gender, age, income, marital status, etc., have a similar score. 

Q: You are vocal about turning away from relying on demographics and psychographics. Are there any redeeming characteristics to these two metrics?

A: Absolutely. This is a message that I’m not doing a great job of conveying. We need all three: demographics, psychographics and Valuegraphics (which, by the way, I always capitalize because it is a proper noun). Here’s how they work together. Demographics are the best way to describe a group of people. Let’s make one up: women aged 25-34 with an income of $75,000 a year who have an undergraduate degree in business and are in the early stages of their career. They are on their second or third job, own a condo, and drink a lot of coffee. This is a description of a group of people that includes some demographics and psychographics. But none of this info can tell you how they will behave tomorrow. How can we get them to stop drinking coffee and start drinking tea? What would it take to get them to join the local gym? Can we get them to join a professional association and be actively involved within the association? It would be a guess, but with Valuegraphics the answers will be based on incredibly accurate data.

Q: Can you reflect a little on how you handle marketers who are still loyal to demographics?

A: Well, there are at least three key points that help convince the skeptical.

The accuracy of this dataset is more rigorous than you’d need for a PhD from Harvard. And the sheer volume of the data is about six or seven times more data than you’d need for that same PhD. It’s overkill data, because I know I am challenging some very long-held beliefs.

There is no such thing as millennials, for example. Let me explain that one: across all our surveys and the 410 metrics we’ve measured, millennials only agree with each other seven per cent more than they agree with every other human alive today. That means 93 cents of every dollar you spend is wasted if you are using what we think we know about millennials to make a decision about anything from HR to recruitment to marketing and messaging. Boomers agree five per cent more with each other than anyone else. Generation X scores three per cent agreement. Now, remember our data is accurate +/- 3.5 per cent of the time. So those numbers could be as low as 3.5 per cent, 1.5 per cent and – 0.5 per cent respectively. This is not an accurate way to understand who we are talking to.

By comparison, profiles built with Valuegraphics show alignment around the same values of anywhere from 76 per cent to 89 per cent. That’s a huge difference. As much as (conservatively speaking) 800 per cent more effective use of every dollar, or a factor of 8.

Secondly, there is also a large and growing body of case studies. We have profiled small organizations and enormous global corporations in a dozen different industry sectors now.

Thirdly, I ask people to imagine a room full of 40-year-old men who are all accountants, married and earn the same amount of money. Next, I ask whoever is listening to tell me how those men are going to vote in the next election, or what they want to buy at the grocery store. Or what music they like. Or what brand of clothes they buy. It seems absurd to guess at this stuff right? But that’s what we do when we rely on demographics.

Across the same dataset, this chart shows three sample Valuegraphic segments, and how often they agree on the same 410 metrics. 

Q: Many associations are one-person shops. Do you have any advice — or practical “hacks” — for those running them to better understand and explore Valuegraphics amidst the many tasks and responsibilities they have to juggle?

A: This always sounds like a sales pitch for my book so I always start by being fully transparent: I make about $4 on a book. So it’s not how I support myself at all. But the answer to your question is: buy my book We Are All the Same Age Now: Valuegraphics, The End of Demographic Stereotypes. Here’s why. For $15 or whatever it is on Amazon (it varies for some reason from country to country), you get a crash course in Valuegraphics but you also get a do-it-yourself Valuegraphics starter kit. There’s a 10-question quiz you can send to your members by email. There’s a scoring system to add up the responses. And once you do that, it will point you to an entire chapter in the book that is devoted to explaining which one of the Top Ten Valuegraphics Archetypes — the ten biggest, most-aligned groups in our dataset —  is best represented within your membership. That chapter is packed with great insights you can start to use right away. There is a disclaimer here though! The Top Ten Valuegraphics Archetypes are just that — the top ten. There are hundreds of thousands of Valuegraphics profiles in the dataset. So, while this free DIY version gets you pointed in the right direction, it’s not the most accurate data for your particular organization. I like to say it’s like playing the piano with your fists — at least you are playing the piano even if it’s not very elegant or accurate. The real profiling methodology that produces precise and accurate reports is very complex, and for that, you need to work with us.

Q: As with collecting any kind of consumer behaviour data, collecting Valuegraphics data must come with its fair share of ethical implications. Can you comment on the collection of Valuegraphics data?

A: We do not collect any data without it being voluntarily given to us, with full disclosure on how it is being used. Plus, we anonymize the data, so we cannot go back to the people who respond to a survey and try to sell them anything. Those are, in brief, the two big ethics concerns when it comes to data. There are companies out there collecting or buying data and using it without full disclosure and transparency, and in the most egregious ethics cases there are companies secretly collecting data and then using it to sell you stuff.

Q: In your experience as someone who has collected Valuegraphics data, do you feel that there is a difference in comfort levels for individuals in sharing information related to values as opposed to their demographic and psychographic data?

A: We have a way of asking questions that people really enjoy. And again, they know exactly what the data is being used for. Our methodology includes a series of ten different surveys about ten different themes: one of them, for example, is about health, fitness, sports, recreation and well-being. We had many people who would finish one survey and volunteer to do another one. And another one. They had fun!

Q: What game-changing metric, in your opinion, will come to replace Valuegraphics in the future?

A: Well, that’s a cool question! I don’t know, but I hope it’s Valuegraphics 2.0! Here’s what I do know. Valuegraphics is, when you boil it all down, the very first time we’ve been able to influence the behavior of large groups of people using science instead of gut instinct. That’s a powerful, powerful thing. We take money for doing this work from commercial organizations so they can increase their effectiveness by eight times. But our real mission is to give the data away for free to global humanitarian organizations so they can increase the impact of their efforts by eight times too. It’s a Robin Hood strategy: money from capitalism goes to boost the results we get around climate change, world hunger, ocean plastics, etc. So whatever comes along in the future, if it can do a better job of making the world a better place, I will toss Valuegraphics aside and volunteer my time with them.

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