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Lifting weights and looking for copycats: when it's not useful to profile your customers

Sometimes businesses profile existing customers, and then target consumers in the market that possess similar profiles. But this sort of "copycat" targeting can, under certain circumstances, lead to sub-optimal strategic decisions. To really take your business to the next level, profile consumers in the overall market, otherwise you won't be sure if the customers you have are the ones that are most promising for your business.

Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

Sometimes I people-watch at the gym. I can’t help it. I’m not creepy about it; I just glance around. I’m not the only one who does it; I know this because as I’m watching people, they’re watching each other, and me.

I’ve noticed that a lot of people at the gym don’t sweat. They don’t seem to work very hard. They’ll do some reps, then walk in circles and chat for several minutes. One woman has gotten so skilled at the elliptical that she casually uses it hands-free while texting.

But they still look great! They look slim, toned, and muscular – but if they had to save someone’s life by pulling them out of a burning building and carrying them several yards away to safety, they couldn’t do it.

Meanwhile, one woman I see at the gym works super hard – panting and sweating and grimacing – but doesn’t look like she’s lifted a weight in her life. Looking fit does not always mean being fit. The relationship between working out and looking good isn’t definite (and it isn’t absolute). Some people have enviable abs simply due to genetics.

As I was doing sit-ups the other day, it occurred to me that a few businesses I’ve worked with rely on “copycats” to grow their customer base. They profile current users and then go out into the market to find people who are a lot like them. It’s not an uncommon method of target consumer profiling, and it’s a solid idea. But it might lead to sub-optimal decision-making if this technique isn’t used under the right circumstances and for the right reasons.

Looks can be deceiving, and a consumer in the market who looks like most of your current customers may not automatically be most likely to take your business to the next level.

If you’re inclined to profile your target B2B or B2C consumer by examining who’s already walked through your metaphorical door, then be sure you ask yourself these questions:

1. What’s your market penetration? If you’re a new company, or a company with a small market share, then it’s pretty likely that your consumers comprise only a small section of the overall market. Which means you can’t be totally sure if your current fans are representative of the larger population. When you’re dealing with this sort of selection bias, you have to be careful. First of all, you may have saturated the market segment that your current customers belong to (there may not be many like them left out there), and without a survey of the overall market, you can’t know for sure. But even if there are others, it might be that the folks who already buy from you are just early adopters, which doesn’t mean they’re most valuable over the long haul. Again, unless you investigate the actual market – rather than just look inside your walls – you won’t know for sure. Now, if you're Amazon, then by all means profile your users; chances are they're pretty much everyone in your market anyway.

2. What are you using consumer profiling for? If your purpose is to understand where you fit in the market at large, then analyzing just your current consumers may not be the best idea. For example, brand-building is all about figuring out where you fit in the overall market. If you only profile your current consumers, you’ll never know if your brand should really be drawing in new consumers who’ve never heard of you before. And only a full market segmentation can serve up your ideal consumer target: if you’re the manufacturer of a fitness machine, you can’t segment the market by only doing research on people who use fitness machines. For all you know, the people most likely to fork out money for a fitness machine are people who don’t use one yet, but you won’t know unless you go out into your entire market and find out.

3. Do you plan on understanding why? It’s one thing to know the profile of your customers, and another to know why your particular customers are choosing you. If most people flowing through your retail clothing website are women in their 30s, you might decide to focus your marketing to women in their 30s, but you could be missing something if you don’t dig further. Maybe your men’s line has the most promise, but men haven’t heard of you yet. If that’s the “why,” then a marketing campaign can fix that. Unless you do the research, you won’t know.

Copycats are just that: not the real thing. Sometimes they come close enough to where it counts, but other times they can throw you way off. Before you start looking for consumers that walk and talk like your current customers, make sure you’re thoughtful about it. Otherwise your strategic decisions could lead you down the wrong road.


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