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Data, data everywhere, but demographics remain extremely elusive

But don’t social networks track everything?

It’s not secret that social media users generate a great deal of data. Big data. Take a tweet, for example. Each time one 140-character message is sent out, dozens of pieces of metadata are connected with it.

Even with so much data being generated and collected, it’s still difficult to find reliable and complete demographic information for even the biggest social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

There are a few common reasons for this:

  • Privacy. Consistently a topic of conversation among Facebook users, privacy often prevents researchers from learning a great deal about demographics. Unless your profile is open to the public, it’s unlikely you can be found and analyzed, so to speak. When you like a company’s page or otherwise give them permission to access your data, this changes, but it’s unlikely you have given this permission to every brand or company who may wish to target you.
  • Incomplete self-reporting. When data is accessible, it’s often incomplete. Think about your own social profiles. Have you filled out every single piece of information you can? Is it all accurate and up-to-date? Maybe you’ve moved but have yet to change your current location on Facebook and Twitter. Maybe you choose to leave it blank, or maybe you choose something generic like “USA” or “Illinois.”
  • Inconsistent, unconnected data. If I were on Twitter and Facebook, it would likely be helpful for companies to know this about me and be able to form a more complete picture of me. However, unless I use the same name on both accounts or otherwise connect them, it may be hard to compare the two accounts. It’s common for folks to use one social network for business and another for pleasure, and they may want to keep these worlds separate. This makes it tricky for those of us trying to understand who they are.

Don’t let me convince you that demographic research is useless online. There is still plenty of information and value to be gleaned from the data that is available.

Resources and techniques for demographic studies

I wanted to share my favorite resources and techniques with you, but the biggest thing you can do is to get creative. Think about your own social network usage and what information you share. Consider what your own profiles might tell marketers, and then seek out the same information from your consumers.

  • Facebook Insights. This is a no-brainer. While it will only give you the bare basics (age, gender and reported location), it gives you information for anyone who likes your page. Of course, you have to remember that this will only include information consumers have volunteered in their profiles (thus some are “unknown” gender), but it will usually give you a pretty good look at who connects with you.
  • Facebook Ad Builder. While the tool was built to help brand pages create ads to grow their fan base, there’s another way these tools can be used. You can learn more about your fans by using the ad-building tool to segment your audience. You can slice and dice your fans by age, location, gender and interest. Using the interest search you can either look at broad categories of interests like sports or cooking, or at specific interests like the Chicago Bears or French cuisine. It takes some time and manual guess work, but it’s easy to learn a great deal more about what who your Facebook fans are based on what else they’re interested in.
  • Twitter Analytics. Twitter’s analytics tool is not as robust or familiar as Facebook’s, but it still provides basic information about followers: age, gender, location and broad interests. Using filters, you can drill down into segments to learn more about them. For example, if you select all women, the remaining metrics will adjust to reflect only your female followers, so you can understand if the women who follow you are of a different age or have different interests than the men.
  • Manual Searches. While tools like Facebook Insights can give you hard numbers on who connects to your page, qualitative research can tell you who is mostly likely to interact on your page. Read through the last month of posts, note the folks who comment or like the most, and then look at their profiles to see who they are and to see if you can’t guess which demographics may interact with you more. Similarly, watching who tends to retweet your content or reply to you on Twitter can help you build a better understanding of which followers are more likely to interact and how to encourage the rest of your followers to speak up. Also, consider really re-reading through Facebook posts and tweets to see if your fans aren’t volunteering more information through their words. Do they mention their kids a lot? Do they talk about sports more frequently? Try to find patterns in what they talk about and what gets them most excited.
  • Paid Tools and Research. When you need a more detailed or full picture of your fans, consider using paid services like Nielsen or other survey methods to dig into what makes your fans tick and who they really are. There is a great deal of information you can find for free, but sometimes paid services will help you find some extra nuggets that you would miss otherwise.

There are more ways to dive into demographics, but this is a good place to start. The myth that social networks track everything and know everything about users is not exactly false, it just isn’t readily available to marketers, so get creative in how you reach your target demographic!

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Written By

Rebecca is a passionate UNC graduate, and a biochemist-turned-communications professional, she spends her days as a senior social media analyst at Digitas in Chicago, specialized social media monitoring and measurement best practices. She is continually excited to explore additional facets of digital measurement like traditional Web analytics, search metrics and integrated data models.


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