Counters in groups

Inside Red Brick: Making a success of segmentation

In Inside Red Brick, Research by Jen Steadman


With over a decade’s experience in market research at Red Brick, we’ve accumulated a huge amount of expertise – and we want to share it here with you. First up is our Research Director, Ben Cooke, sharing his thoughts on the importance of segmentation and how to do it effectively.

Few words get used in our office as much as ‘segmentation’ – it’s one of the most popular types of research that we carry out for clients.

Simply put, segmentation is a tool for enabling organisations to better understand their market and/or audience. We categorise the market/audience into groups, known as ‘segments’ on the basis of shared characteristics, and profile these segments to understand them. This facilitates more effective communication and engagement between the client and each segment.

It’s hugely common for large organisations to do this, and highly beneficial.

However, it takes on even greater importance for higher education. A private company can choose not to target segments of the market (or indeed, choose to allow themselves to be ignored by them), and therefore exclude them from its planning, but a university must not dismiss or exclude any student segments from its strategy. Tailoring approaches to different segments improves engagement and participation across all groups; this includes typically disengaged groups of students, whose participation can then drive improvements in their own student experience.

Given how effective segmentation can be, it’s unsurprising how popular it is – but we know that it can be deceptively tricky to do well. So these are the key things to consider in your own segmentations.

Research segmentation process

An art, as well as a science

Pure data is only the foundation of a segment. Segments are about people: their motivations, their barriers, and their attitudes. It takes the artistry of a skilled researcher to bring the segment to life, flesh it out into a recognisable type of person, and make it a helpful resource for the client.

A popular way to do this is to portray segments as ‘personas’. This might be a case study-style focus on one participant who embodies all the key traits of the segment, or it may be a fictional composite to create one ‘persona’. These can then be used to create a story scenario to demonstrate how one segment would respond to a form of targeting or a particular message.

(That said, it’s important not to get too fixated on the ‘perfect’ example of a segment, as segments will encompass a breadth of different personalities. Personas shouldn’t become restrictive.)

Clarity of communication is a must

Part of the art of segmentation is making sure the segments are clear. A huge amount of work goes into translating the data into a concise and coherent description that’s distinct, memorable and easy to understand.

The robustness and accuracy of the segments are critical, but it is equally important to emphasise those traits that define and distinguish each one to aid understanding and to anchor each segment in our clients’ minds.

Men high-fiving in a meeting

The client’s staff are vital to a project’s success

In my experience, the most crucial element to a successful segmentation project is staff buy-in: making sure the client’s staff know what the project is aiming to achieve, helping them to understand the results, and inspiring them to effectively implement the findings.

The segment profiles we deliver facilitate a step change in clients’ understanding of their audience, helping them to better visualise the diversity of audiences they are working with – within what may previously have been perceived as a single, complex group.

While this is valuable in and of itself, the true potential of segmentation is unlocked when it’s recognised as a tool rather than a finished product, and when it’s applied to service design and experimentation with communications. The more they’re used, the more powerful they are; you build on and refine your understanding of your segments, and learn more about how to use them effectively.

Knowing this, we engage with the staff upfront. We hold initial consultations with them to ensure our segments will be useful and valuable, and workshops to explain how it works and include them in the process of designing the study. After the results are shared with them, we hold further workshops to discuss the results and how they can be applied to the work that they do.

When a client is bold and experiments with their segmentation from the word go, we’ve seen great things. Loughborough University and Students’ Union worked together with the results of our ‘Tribes’ segmentation study and reframed their communications strategy around the ‘tribes’ (identified student segments). It’s fully embedded in their planning, right from the time a student enrols, and is subject to ongoing review using ‘the Golden Question’. As a result, the success of their outcomes increased sevenfold, as did the open rate of emails. [Read the case study here.]

Man staring at plans

Knowing the limits of segmentation is a help, not a hindrance

As with anything, you have to be aware of the limitations of segmentation. There’s a trade-off between accuracy and usability: at its most perfectly accurate, every single person has their own segment – but that’s obviously impossible to work with, so you have to find the balance between robust nuance and a useable number of segments. A ‘useable number’ will depend on an organisation’s capabilities; generally we’ll develop five or six segments, but can be workable.

Similarly, you’ll need to keep in mind that segmentation is a top-line tool for better understanding and reaching your market as a whole, rather than a tool for understanding individuals. A person is complex, may possess characteristics of multiple segments or diverge from some aspects of their segment, so it’s better to treat them as an individual.

But as long as you recognise what segmentation is and are realistic about how you plan to use it, you can make the most of its capabilities. And there’s so much that you can do with a successful segmentation – just ask Loughborough.

Follow Ben for more professional insights on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Part of the new Inside Red Brick content series.

Inside Red Brick