Editor’s note: Michelle Castle is chief innovation officer, and Casey Willard is chief analytics offer, Alter Agents, a full-service marketing research consultancy.  

Segmentation research is a powerful tool. It provides a deep understanding of and empathy for real people, identifies those with the greatest potential value and uncovers opportunities to shape the business. It guides strategy and tactics for targeting, messaging, media planning and product and feature development. It engages cross-functional teams and inspires them to action. 

Despite the importance of segmentation research in identifying aggregate unmet needs and building target strategies, researchers often hide behind less loaded terms such as “typologies” or “personas” instead of “segments” when discussing the approach. They aim to disassociate from past negative segmentation experiences and convince themselves that this time will be different.

Segmentation research without a clear purpose, a thoughtful design and stakeholders committed to the process fails to inform decision-making. Too often, segmentation research becomes either oversimplified or unnecessarily complex – a major investment of resources that yields cleverly alliterated names and not much else. Despite a great deal of time and effort by all those involved, the results are not truly relevant nor useful to the strategists, marketers and developers who need to put it to work. While it’s easy to blame the methodology or mechanics of segmentation research for its failure, the fault typically falls to the process itself. 

But “segmentation” doesn’t have to be a dirty word.

In our collective experience of conducting over 100 segmentation studies over the past 20 years, we’ve identified some key principles that have been consistently applied across the most successful studies with the longest-lasting impact. Common challenges surrounding segmentation research –...