My journey with segmentation began when I first joined the mmr-group.  Much of the research we did was obviously looking for patterns and trends in the data – helping make decisions by understanding consensus and preference.    But at the same time, I was also shown that we need to beware of averages.  Our Chairman David Thomson taught us to ‘never trust means’ and this very first lesson was sage advice and has stood me in good stead since moving into the healthcare business at HRW.

I recently enjoyed Todd Rose’s* TED talk on the topic of ‘The End of Average’ too.  He highlights a particularly interesting case study when he discussed the US Air Force’s exploration into their cockpit design in the 1950’s after some performance issues.  After examining the pilot performance, the flight instructor performance and the overall manufacture quality of the plane, they started looking at the way it was designed overall – a design for the dimensions of the ‘average pilot’.  The important finding here is that after exploring the dimensions of their 4,063 pilots, not a single airman fitted within the average range on all ten dimensions studied.  Crucially, this highlights that the cockpit was designed well for no-one.

David had found exactly this issue after studying his PhD – where individual differences and individual preferences were being overlooked and masked.  The need for a better model to assess meaningful differences in the data and the development of our proprietary segmentation technique was the inception of MMR Research Worldwide.  He worked on developing intrinsic segmentations to add meaning to the differences found – to ensure that our clients don’t develop products and communications which are ‘designed well for no-one’.  And that, as they say, is history.

As our approaches have evolved, so has our thinking around segmentation.  Both in terms of what makes it successful and adds value but also crucially how we bring it to life and make it commercially valuable for our clients.

I spoke to a selection of bright minds from HRW and across the mmr-group business to explore what makes a successful segmentation today.  What was clear was that success came down to four things:

  1. Simplicity from complexity

Segmentations are of course highly data driven and we use a range of behavioural, attitudinal, and demographic factors.   We benefit from having in house statistical and analytical teams because, as well as using our proprietary techniques, they have a number of tools which are analyst driven so we can better pressure test the segmentations and tweak what we put in to make it more relevant and really understand what each segment owns.  This allows us to dig deeper and have confidence in providing long lasting, reproduceable segmentations.  So, whilst we may run up to 30 solutions (it has been known!) to ensure we’ve got the ‘right’ one for our client teams – the key is to provide a solution which conversely cuts through this complexity and provides a clearly defined and meaningful 3 or 4 segment solution for example, rather than something which is less focused and provides more segments which can be harder to identify, target and communicate to.

Chloe McGurk, one of our statisticians, also wisely suggests “don’t throw everything at it to start with”.  There is a refining process focussed on identifying key differentiators within the market and this stage helps to make the outputs much more relevant and digestible.  The process of refining really should start at the very beginning and will ultimately provide cleaner and more actionable outputs.

And this carries all the way through to the delivery.  The art of segmentation is in the ability to refine the wealth of data and make the output journalistic – telling a story for the client.   The journalist / analyst dichotomy is always helpful in disseminating insights but especially so here where a handful of critical characteristics can make a segment identifiable and relatable ‘at a glance’ and this clean and consolidated approach is what has impact at workshop presentations.

Using a simplified narrative also really helps the wider teams relate and digest.  I’ve seen this done creatively in workshops; using well known characters, logos, even having an illustrator paint murals to provide clear pictures of each segment.  Ultimately, it’s about cutting out the noise and providing a shorthand for who each persona is and why that’s important for brand strategy.

  1. Take the team on the journey

One of the biggest issues with segmentations is that they can be hard to action and are more easily left on the shelf.  Collaboration is really important here.  What I’ve seen work well is iterative client meetings, deciding between 1-2 workable options and allowing the team to be involved with and feed into the best solutions.  One of HRW’s Analytics Directors, Nicola Vyas, is a strong proponent of this approach:

“Segmentations often don’t work in an organisation even if they are brilliant – unless you take your client on that journey.  Great implementation starts with collaboration at the beginning, otherwise you’re on the back foot”

Of all pieces of research, segmentations benefit least from a ‘big reveal’ ending.  At the beginning of the process it’s valuable to consider input from a range of end users and stakeholders – MSLs and KAMs as well as creative agencies involved in the development of communications strategies targeted at the priority segments.  Nick Honey from Together Agency (a creative communications agency within our group) advocates being involved at the beginning to enable tighter collaboration on the final messaging and tactics for each segment.   Communications strategies with key segments are often a critical output of a project so involving this team early can help develop initial ideas around resonant imagery and also in refining the call to action.

The point being, an iterative process is the ideal, ensuring the evolving personas are visible to the client team at key points throughout.  The risk otherwise is that the end result may have diverged from expectations and would not have benefitted from the collaborative thinking process

  1. Bring the segments to life

One part of the process which I think is most enjoyable is seeing the segments being brought to life with the wider team.  I think it is incredibly valuable to see and hear the segments in their own words to allow the whole project team the time and space to get to know them in a more dynamic way.    As often as possible, video outputs should be used to make the segments more real, more personal and ensure they live on for the team who are working on engaging them over the coming months and years.

Engaging video summaries of the overall segmentation as well as video snapshots or talking heads to bring life to each segment live on much more vividly and powerfully within client teams and are quick to refer back to and share more widely.  Our Behavioural Science team SHIFT also work to overlay linguistically oriented outputs to add extra depth – such as identifying what language frames important conversations and what customers might be likely to say in objection, so these can be addressed in communications.  Quote books can also help to understand what the patient or customers sound like and so they become easier to identify in terms of needs and therefore to develop more bespoke and resonant messaging.

I think the key is to leave a very clear impression of what the segments are really like and if this can be done using video and audio to draw attention to the important nuances then this is much more likely to engage the whole team and live on in the business.

  1. Focus on the commercial value

Understanding the attitudinal and behavioural differences in a market is enlightening, seeing it brought to life with video and linguistic analysis makes it tangible, but understanding how to activate customers for our client’s businesses is the ultimate goal.

The first question to ensure commercial impact should always be – “what are you going to use this for?”.  Understanding what is important to each client and how it will be used globally and locally is important because it differs, and it makes a big difference to hear all the needs of the marketing and insights teams.

Ultimately it needs to provide clear guidance and enable the team to develop an action plan as a result.  Often this will take the form of how to develop persuasive communications and educate the sales team to assess individuals in uncovering attitudes and behaviours and then tailor messaging to their needs.  But the exercise and communications must catalyse change in behaviour amongst the core target groups.

Emma Neville, one of our Behavioural Science specialists at HRW works on understanding the biases and principles of behaviour change, which adds real richness to segmentations.  Her focus is on answering:

“how does knowing this about the segment help to change behaviour and improve outcomes?”

For each segment there is a focus on which biases and language tell us something more about what their motivations and barriers are – and provides valuable clues on how to activate and address them.  When presented with clear and simple segment defining factors, allied with a real example of this segment ‘in action’ the overlay of an activation plan from a behavioural science point of view is the last piece of the puzzle.  This can take the form of more practical elements such as what guidance certain customers need to assess and switch treatments, through to whether personas are more motivated to focus on smaller scale achievable moments with patients or how to empower segments through the use of peer successes.  All of these nudges help to guide and tailor the next steps to best activate the people who are most important to the business.

Another great example of there being strength in numbers.  Not only focusing on these four critical success factors but crucially the collaboration with the wider client teams, communications agencies and also across disciplines from statistics, analytics, multi-media production and through to behavioural science. This gives segmentations more power to impact business success and deliver results which are much better than average.

*Todd Rose is the President of the Centre for Individual Opportunity, Director of the Mind, Brain and Education programme at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of ‘The End of Average’.


Words by Esme Barrow-Williams


Thank you to all of the contributors from across the mmr Group:

  • David Thomson – Chairman, mmr group
  • Ben Fathers – Managing Director, Ideal Insight
  • Chloe McGurk – Statistical Consultant, mmr research worldwide
  • Emma Neville – Senior Behavioural Scientist at HRW
  • Ian Horrit – SVP, Huxly Global
  • Jaz Gill – Analytics Director, HRW
  • Nick Honey – Partner, Together Agency
  • Nicola Vyas – Analytics Director, HRW
  • Simon Harris – Research Director, mmr research worldwide
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