A bit like finding a husband? Success factors for implementing segmentation analysis in social research studies

Written by: Alexandra Cronberg


Segmentation analysis is gaining popularity in social research. While it has long been used in market research, this analytical approach can also add value in social research contexts. Specifically, it can help providing an understanding of different needs and motivations among sub-groups in a target population. Consequently it can help donors and agencies tailoring their programmes and interventions and thus increasing the likelihood of success.

There is much to be said about adopting segmentation as an analytical tool into social research. Yet it is also important to recognise the differences between social and market segmentations. This helps to both apply the tool appropriately and to set the right expectations early on. In this light, the blog post here will talk about the main differences between market and social segmentations, and what to bear in mind to ensure segmentation studies are successful in social research.

Now, you might wonder where that husband comes into the picture? Well, bear with me for a moment, but you can think of each segmentation solution as a potential partner. It will all become clear.

Hands holding seeds 2

Examples of segmentation studies

At Kantar Public we have conducted a number of segmentation studies over the last couple of years, including the following projects:

  • Segmentation of the adult population in India, which is one of the countries where open defecation is a major concern. The segmentation explored and helped gain an understanding of people’s toilet acquisition behaviour, drivers, and barriers. The segments identified were Regressives, Conservatives, Prospectives, and Progressives.
  • Farmer segmentation in Tanzania and Mali to understand which African farmers are open to new behaviours. The segments identified were Contented dependents, Competent optimists, Independents, Frustrated escapists, Traditionalists, Trapped.
  • Segmentation of young women and girls at risk of HIV in Kenya and South Africa. This study aimed at understanding risk factors that increase young women’s vulnerability to HIV infection based on behavioural, attitudinal, and demographic variables. The analysis led to segments such as teenage girls just starting to explore sex and relationships; young women in traditional marriages; girls with boyfriends who always use condoms (except when they don’t); and girls with steady boyfriends and sugar daddies on the side.

These projects give a flavour of what social segmentation solutions may look like. The studies have helped our clients to better target their interventions based on the specific needs and drivers of each segment, hence illustrating the value of applying segmentation analysis in a development context.

What is meant by ‘segmentation’ and what should it look like?

Before we move on to the differences and success factors, let’s agree on what is meant by ‘segmentation’. The word segmentation is sometimes used to simply denote splitting a population into sub-categories and presenting analysis by variables such as gender or age group. While this is indeed one type of segmentation, ‘segmentation analysis’ generally refers to sophisticated statistical techniques to segment people based on carefully designed questions and topic areas, and on patterns in the data that are unknown prior to the analysis. Segmentation can be based on a wide range of factors such as socio-demographics, beliefs, attitudes, behaviour, needs, and individual emotional traits. It is this type of segmentation we are concerned with here.

The aim of segmentation analysis is to have segments that are as distinct as possible from each other, while the people within each segment should be as similar as possible. The segments should also be easily identifiable in the population from a practical point of view. Furthermore, a successful segmentation should offer insights, some ‘ah ha!’ experience, and be intuitive enough to strike a chord with the client and stakeholders. If not, the segments are unlikely to gain traction.[1]

How do market and social segmentations differ?

Moving on to the differences between market and social segmentation studies, there are two main differences which I will talk about here.

Firstly, the outcome variables – that is, the factors on which the segmentation is based on – may be less clearly defined in social segmentations than in market ones. While market segmentations generally focus on segmenting the target population on the basis of a single outcome variable and a single behaviour – purchase of a product – social segmentation studies tend to be more complex than that. Social ones often (a) look at multifaceted and socially sensitive behaviours and (b) often try to explain multiple behaviours which each is affected by a different set of drivers and barriers.

As mentioned above, one of the benefits of using segmentation analysis in development is that programmes and interventions can be tailored according to the specific needs and behaviours of the target population. The key outcome variables for a programme may indeed be dependent on the findings from the segmentation analysis. This means that outcome variables may not actually be known or clearly defined at the beginning of a project.

In the context of young women at risk of HIV, there is a multitude of behaviours that lead to increased vulnerability. Risky behaviour may stem from lack of willingness to go out of one’s way to get a condom, lack of confidence to insist on condom use, or the keeping of multiple and/or concurrent boyfriends, to mention but a few. These behaviours, in turn, may be related to opportunities and socio-economic factors. There may also be physical barriers, such as inaccessibility to places providing free condoms, or lack of money to buy them. These factors can all feed into the segments, which subsequently reflect a variety of risk factors and population profiles. The intervention could focus on any one, or more, of these risk factors and drivers.

With complex segmentation studies such as the one of young women at risk of HIV, the analysis is often an iterative exercise where solutions are scrutinised and re-scrutinised as part of the process. In fact, you could say it is a bit like finding a partner or spouse with whom you want to settle down: you might need to meet a few potential partners before you even fully realise what it is you are seeking. Now, some researchers estimated the ideal number of partners to date before settling down is as high as 12![2]

Turning the attention back to segmentation, the multitude of outcome variables and the often complex associations between behaviours, attitudes, and needs further mean that segments produced in social segmentations are unlikely to be as neat as standard market segments.

As for your potential long-term partner, no segmentation solution is perfect. It is thus a matter of deciding what the most important traits are, and focusing on those. Although we may dream of extremely well-differentiated segments, each consisting of highly homogenous groups, we are unlikely to observe such a pattern for the full range of relevant variables. For example, among our young women, social norms and touch points turned out to be less differentiating than behaviour to protect oneself against HIV and also experience of abuse.

On this note, it is worth highlighting the importance of including a sufficient number of behavioural variables in the segmentation. While behavioural variables may not necessarily be more differentiating than attitudinal ones, they tend to have more practical value for identifying the target groups in the population at large. It is therefore important to ensure a sufficient range of relevant behavioural variables are covered.

Success factors

Having talked about segmentation analysis in broad terms, and the main differences between market and social segmentations, we can summarise the learnings for successful social segmentations as follows:

  1. Define as clearly as possible the element(s) (behaviours, attitudes etc.) on which you want the segments to vary, while acknowledging the complexities in social segmentations. Identifying the right segmentation variables is critical for successful segmentations. However, lack of a single outcome variables, and multifaceted relationships between behavioural, attitudinal and demographic variables mean segmentation analysis may involve an iterative process of finding the most suitable solution. It also means that segments may not be as clearly defined as standard market segments.
  2. Make sure the segments are easily identifiable in the population and, if necessary, tilt the balance towards behavioural factors. As for any segmentation, whether in market or social research, it is important that segments are identifiable in the population at large. How will the target groups be reached in practice? Behavioural variables tend to be more useful for this purpose, but this is dependent on the nature of the intervention.
  3. Allow time and resources to find the optimal segmentation solution. Two or three iterations are unlikely to be enough, so it is important to allow sufficient time for analysis. Finding the right segmentation solution is indeed a bit like finding a spouse. None is perfect, and it is only after meeting a few potential partners that one better knows what to settle for.
  4. Align expectations early on since the resulting segments are unlikely to be as neat as standard market segments. In light of the points above, it is important to acknowledge the differences between market and social segmentations, and the expected outputs. Have, and set, the right expectations from the start and segmentation solution will invariably become a smoother exercise.

Social segmentations have immense potential to add value and insight to programme designs, in particular to better understand the needs and drivers across different sub-groups in the target population. Bear in mind the points above, and you will maximise the chances of finding a set of segments that will succeed in making you happy. Perhaps not forever after, but at least until your next programme.


[1] I won’t go into the technical details of segmentation here, but it is worth noting that there are several different statistical methods of conducting segmentation analysis. One common analytical approach is Latent Class Analysis (LCA), which for example was used for the HIV related-project. The segmentation analysis is typically used to produces outputs for several different segmentation solutions such as solutions for 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 segments. When deciding which solution to use, we normally look at the segments based on the segmenting variables and also by cross-tabulating the segments against other variables in the questionnaire. Pen portraits can then be produced of the different segments and to help decide which solution is the most useful ones.

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02hl73h