Targeting Event Attendees on Values, Not Demographics

Skift Take

David Allison, founder of The Valuegraphics Project, believes that demographics are an outdated marketing tool. In his view, the path forward lies in understanding people’s values, and it could even be the secret to bringing back in-person attendees.

One of the most talked-about sessions at our Future of the Event Industry summit was David Allison’s presentation on the future of event marketing. Allison is the founder of The Valuegraphics Project, a new approach to market segmentation that aims to revolutionize the way we think about our target audiences. As he explains in his forthcoming book The Death of Demographics: Valuegraphic Marketing for a Values-Driven World, Allison believes that a value-based approach to marketing will soon overtake more traditional tactics that rely heavily on demographics.

To understand this value-driven method in greater detail, we sat down with David Allison for an exclusive interview.


Why Event Marketers Need to Understand Attendee Values

Angela Tupper: What are valuegraphics and how do they compare with demographics and psychographics?

David Allison: The best way to think about valuegraphics, demographics, and psychographics is as a set. They are interdependent. If you really want to understand the people that you’re creating conferences and events for, you need to know all three things about your attendees.

Demographics are a description of what people are: male, female, rich, poor, adolescent, middle-aged. What we’ve been doing wrong with demographic labels, however, is assuming that since people fit into a series of buckets, that they’re all the same as each other — and they’re not. All we know with demographics is what they are not who they are.

Psychographics are a great way for us to understand how those groups have behaved so far. It tells us whether they’ve come to your event this year or last year, and whether they loved it or hated it. All that information comes from the same exact place: the past. So I always say demographics describe and psychographics record, but neither one helps you understand how to influence behaviors tomorrow. How do we get people to come to more events or to be a sponsor?

Valuegraphics are about how people make their decisions. If you know the values of your demographically defined and psychographically mapped group of people, you know what they care about and how they make decisions. In essence, you know what to say to them and how to design an event in order to be as appealing as you can possibly be.

AT: Why is it so important to understand people’s values?

DA: There are two reasons. One is that if you only look at demographics and psychographics, you have an incomplete picture. The other reason is that if we continue relying on demographics as a way to understand our target audiences, we’re perpetuating the stereotypes that go along with demographics. If we think about the world in male versus female, then that forces us to make some stereotypical assumptions about all men and all women. The same goes for age and all the other demographic labels that we just talked about. The stereotypes that demographics reinforce are the root cause of ageism, sexism, racism, and homophobia.

AT: How do you figure out what these values are?

DA: The short answer is that we ask. From responses gathered across the world, we’ve built an enormous database, and this is our verification method and our tool. Now, when we talk to a specific group of people, we ask them a few questions. But really we’re trying to learn enough about what makes them tick so we can find lookalike groups in the global database. We have three quarters of a million surveys in there now. And for the first time, we’ve mapped all 56 core human values that drive all human behaviors and decisions everywhere on earth. It’s a global inventory of how people make decisions.

AT:  Is there a place that people can go to see these 56 values?

DA: If they go to, there’s a list of all 56 values ranked in order from most important to least important in the global context. For an individual country, the ranking will be different. For people in the dental industry going to a conference in Vegas next week, it’ll be different as well. But those 56 values combine and recombine in ways that we can track through valuegraphics. You can think of those 56 values as being like the keys on a piano. You can play all kinds of different songs and different styles.

You can also compare it to the human genome project. Biologically, we’re made up of all these component parts in the genome. It allows us to understand how a human comes together as a piece of hardware, but values are the software that drives us.

AT: What was the process like for narrowing down these 56 values?

DA: For the benchmark dataset, we used a series of 10 different thematic questionnaires that went out to people all over the world. We had a team of translators working in 152 different languages to make this happen. We then used the dominant social media in various parts of the world as a way to ask people if they’d be willing to tell us a few things about themselves. If enough people said that their entire lives are driven by a particular value, we would add it to the list.

A great example of this is environmentalism. Before we collected the global data set and were just dealing with the United States and Canada, environmentalism didn’t show up as important enough to be considered a value. It was a behavior that a lot of people were showing, but it wasn’t driving all their decisions. Once we did the whole global data set, the numbers around environmentalism shifted: It went from being just an important behavior to becoming a core value. Overall, 16 values had to be added when we expanded to a global scope.

AT: Can you give me some examples of the type of questions you ask?

DA: For the benchmark data set, those questions were never direct. In fact, they were always secondary questions because if you ask a room full of people, “Is family important to you?” — everyone is going to say yes.

So if we saw on your Facebook page that you’re a big hockey fan, you’d see a little notice pop up from us that said, “Hey, we’re trying to understand what makes hockey fans tick. Would you mind answering a couple questions?” If you’re really a hockey fan, you will want to take that survey. Then we’ll ask you questions like, “If your team is kicked out of the series after the second game, would you start rooting for another team?”; “Do you watch games on television or live?”; “Is your family with you?”; “Do you bring clients?” You’re having a great time telling us about how hockey plays out in your life, but what you’re really telling us about is loyalty and family and friendships and your attitudes towards work. When we ask 750,000 people those kinds of questions, we get this incredibly complex matrix.

AT: How can event professionals harness the power of valuegraphics when designing their event marketing campaigns?

DA: We have three questions that they can ask through a survey or however else they might collect this information. Another way is to hire my company, but that costs a lot of money and it’s not for everybody. There’s also a lot of guidance in my book, which includes a quiz of 10 questions that lead to 10 of the biggest archetypes.

The free option is to use the three questions I’m about to share. Question number one is, Why do you go to work every day? Question number two is, Why would you give away half of your lottery winnings? And question number three is, “You get to write a letter to yourself from 10 years ago — what would you say to yourself and why would you say those things?” If you ask your target group those three questions, you’ll start to see what their values are.

AT: Have you done any studies related to the event industry specifically?

DA: We actually did a very specific study about attendees who are reluctant to come back to in-person events. Of all the people who are reluctant to come back, about half of them are a group that we call the “being coy.” I’m firmly convinced that the path to profitability for the event and conference industry is to get this coy group back sooner rather than later.

One of their number one drivers was family. So you have to figure out a way to frame the decision of returning to events in terms of benefits for their family. “You need to come back because it will help you advance your career, stay on top of your industry, and make sure your network is maintained.” All of those things will eventually make sure that your family is well looked after. You don’t want to say, “This is about your family.”

Number two, they are very, very risk averse. When I run into a group of people for whom values manifest as risk aversion, I’m mindful that they don’t want any surprises. So over-explain everything.

Then the third most important thing to them is the pursuit of a longer, healthier life. That’s where it comes in handy to have all the wellness initiatives that many conference and event planners are focused on right now. Nancy Snowden at MPI has been thinking about how we can embed health and wellness into the way we approach education and networking at events.

All of these values should influence the way you communicate and connect with your audience, as well as how you design the event itself.

AT: How can understanding values help event professionals create enhanced experiences?

DA: We’ve also done a study on event attendees overall, not just those who are reluctant to return to in-person events. We’ve also done a study on people who prefer digital over live and are not coming back. And we’ve done a study on people who like hybrid. So we have all kinds of other data sets. We also did one that compared meeting planners to the people that they’re planning events for. Let me give you one little tidbit from that one: Meeting planners place a lot more importance on the value of experiences than attendees do.

Here’s what that says to me: Meeting planners need to realize that the C2 approach to events is not necessarily what the attendees are looking for. They want to feel like they know what’s going on. “Why is this room that I’m having dinner in entirely black? I can’t see what I’m eating.” That unconventional stuff doesn’t always play well with the attendees. It’s a danger for event planners to think that a cool kooky fun experience is exactly what we need to do.

AT: Do you have any final thoughts that you want to share?

DA: The demographic way of looking at target audiences is not only causing all kinds of problems, but is also inaccurate. For example, people often try marketing to a whole generation, but they’re not a cohesive group. How do you market to Gen Z? That’s like saying, “How do I market to people who have right feet?” All that Gen Z has in common is age.

Another favorite group that people like to talk about is Millennials. Looking at 750,000 people around the world, Millennials only agree on their values 15 percent of the time. That means 85 percent of marketing targeted at them will miss the mark. Instead of thinking in terms of generations, think of how people funnel into groups with shared values. “This is a group of personal growth junkies who love adventures.” If you talk to them with that in mind, you’re going to be so much more effective. We are not our demographics. I’m not my age. I’m not my gender. None of those things matter to who I am.