Why you should never underestimate your audience.
This post is one of those instances where a narrative from my colleague, Spike Stevens, strikes such a cord that I am compelled to publish it on his behalf. And, it's interesting when being wrong turns out alright. Enjoy.
Intuition, assumptions, and never underestimating a demographic by Spike Stevens
We convince ourselves that our gut instincts are often right. We form them by observing what’s happening around us and synthesizing both overt and subtle cues into an opinion that we metaphysically label “intuition”. Intuition can be helpful—and even prescient on occasion—but it’s usually an over-weighted coefficient in the internal formula we’ve all created to help us navigate important decisions.
Where we get into trouble is when we fail to remain objectively curious, relying solely on what we think is true instead of going on a fact-finding mission and digging deep to find data that either supports or erodes our gut-level theses. The latter was recently the case on a large client initiative when we received assumption-shattering data related to mobile app adoption among a couple of key age demographics critical to the success of the project. Fortunately this was one of those rare instances when we didn’t mind being wrong.
We had launched brand new native mobile applications for iOS and Android devices as part of an installation of LighthousePE, our proprietary location-driven mobile engagement software platform. End users’ mobile devices are the lynchpins of the entire ecosystem, acting as both location-gathering devices and a direct communication channel to each customer. LighthousePE can’t fully deliver on its vast capabilities without at least moderate app adoption by our client’s patrons, so we had a vested interest in driving app installations (understatement of the year, anyone?).
Our primary concern was the age range of our client’s primary demographic, the core of which are men and women 58-70 years old. Our initial—and ongoing—intuition was that patrons in that age group would be difficult to convince that it was worthwhile to download and use this new mobile app. We created modest projections based on what we saw as a very steep behavioral hill to climb.
Long story short: we were astoundingly wrong.
App downloads were strong from the moment our client’s initial user acquisition marketing hit. Even crazier: the client’s UA push was limited to a venerable tri-fold direct mail newsletter! Our initial reaction was that the novelty of our client’s first-ever app was the catalyst behind the strong opening, but the install base continued to climb, doubling month-over-month. It quickly became clear that brand affinity was extraordinarily strong; the hard work our client had done over the years in building a loyal customer base was paying off in the form of an install base that mimicked the near-mythological hockey stick growth curve.
We were happy. And perplexed. What other factors were at play with these age demos that smashed our preconceptions? The first insight we uncovered came courtesy of a recent Pew Research survey, which asked a simple question of several different age cohorts: “If you had to describe your mobile phone as either ‘distracting’ or ‘connecting’ which would you choose?” In a complete reversal from our gut instincts (sensing a theme?), 82% of the respondents in the 50-64 age group said their phone was “connecting” while only 18% said it was “distracting." Even more surprising, those numbers were identical within the 65+ cohort!
“Wow,” you say, “but I’ll bet the kids love their phones even more.”
Over twice as many respondents (37%) in the 18-29 age group said they felt their phones were “distracting,” with 63% saying they were “connecting.” It’s clear that the older generation has not only embraced mobile technology; they actually have a stronger affinity for it than people half their age. Taking a step back to analyze this revealed the primary undercurrent driving behavior: smartphone usage among those in the older cohorts is weighted heavily toward leisure use (versus work/professional use). Phone owners in the upper age brackets are less likely to receive stressful or distracting work-oriented communications through their phones, which positively influences how they feel about the device and the technology that enables it.
The other megatrend at work is the adoption rate of smartphones in the 50+ cohorts, which greatly exceed the rates evidenced in younger groups. The dynamisms behind this are easily explainable: smartphone adoption has reached near-saturation (over 90%) with younger users, whereas it’s only at 72% with the 50-64 cohort and all the way down at 42% among those 65 and older. There’s a lot more room for adoption among older users, so that’s where the dramatic growth is occurring.
Why does this matter? Because smartphones and their attendant magic are still new and wondrous to older users. This newness—and the excitement of exploring a smartphone’s capabilities—easily overcame the traditional heavy lift of convincing cynical phone owners to download yet another app. Our client rode these tidal forces to unexpected success.
This is a great cautionary tale of the nasty traps that can be sprung when intuition and assumptive thinking are relied upon without adding a quantitative counterbalance to the mix. You may end up lucky (and pleasantly surprised, as we were), but the twin setbacks of failed strategy and wasted resources loom for those who bet the farm on preconceptions alone.