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Trojan Today Classic: “The Psychographics of Dentistry” by Scott McDonald

Originally published 2004

The greatest enemy of success in the business of dentistry is ignorance, not stupidity.

Ignorance is the lack of facts. It is necessary, therefore, to be diligent in finding all the available, relevant information in order to base our choices and actions upon firm ground. Data is now available to dentists to make key decisions about their practices. This is the same information that once was the sole domain of governments, large industries, and their allies. Practitioners can rely on more than instinct. They should ask, “What facts are most important to success in dentistry?” 

The answer to this question is basic: it is the knowledge of people. Dentistry is a people business.

  • Where can you find your best customers and patients?
  • What will these people buy?
  • Where will they buy it?
  • What do they want?
  • What do they need?

The questions are endless.

Behavioral scientists tell us that the first thing a person notices in a total stranger is gender. The reason is because we do not treat or speak with men and women in the same way. Men and women think and reason based upon different criteria. Some of these criteria are social; some are biological. But the fact remains that we need to know a person’s gender before engaging him or her in conversation, sales, or persuasion.

Gender, therefore, is a basic demographic statistic we use to make decisions and assumptions about other people. Other factors include age, income, and employment. You know that people make decisions based upon different criteria. It matters whether they’re old or young, rich or poor, blue collar or white collar. Most experts believe that a person’s cultural background is also an important indicator of future behavior to a given stimulus. This matters more than race.

By combining demographics, we can begin to make certain overall assumptions about the wants and needs, purchases, and decision making of various segments of the public. For example, a 20-year-old poor, Hispanic woman with two small children will tend to see the world (including dentistry) much differently than a wealthy 54-year-old, Japanese-American male with four grown children.

To an extent, this has allowed professionals to make informed decisions about where to put a practice, where to advertise, and what services to promote when they take the trouble to examine local demographics.

The big problem is that those who depend on these demographics still rely on old assumptions of how demographics will affect behavior. Unless you look at demographics often, it is difficult to make effective use of them in making decisions.

Psychographics is a field of its own.

Before we explore the application of psychographics for dentistry, we should look at how the idea got started. General Mills had introduced an instant cake mix in the early 1950s. To make a cake, one had only to add water. It was easy. It was inexpensive. It was delicious. But it didn’t sell. Along came Ernst Dichter, an out-of-work Austrian immigrant and disciple of the psychologist Carl Jung. Dichter suggested that, in fact, people often make decisions for unconscious reasons. In this particular case, he asked a group of homemakers why they made cake. “It is a gift to our families,” they said. He never asked them why they didn’t buy the product.

Dichter proposed that they felt they were “cheating” their families by not exerting more effort with their cake making. He suggested the designers of the product require an egg and a little milk. While it did not really help the quality of the final product, the change had the desired result. Sales increased dramatically. Thus was born “psychographics,” a mix of demographics and psychology.

Unfortunately, demographers and marketers could not use such a broad brush to describe how people lived. They took a step forward and a step backward. Several companies, including Equifax, Urban Decision Systems, CACI, and Claritas went back to the information contained in the U.S. Census. Data was organized on a very small geographic unit called a “census tract.”

These companies then tried to track spending patterns of the households in these tracts while examining the demographics of the residents. What they developed was a “geodemographic cluster group.” Each company then applied its own algorithms to describe these groups by their demographics, purchase decisions, viewing and reading habits, recreational activities, and life priorities.

What came of all the data crunching was a system to examine up to fifty lifestyle groups across the United States. By tying information to census tracts and zip codes, they could identify which lifestyles could be found in any geographic area. Now, with over twenty years of refinement, systems such as ACORN™ and MicroVison™ are available. Dentists can use them to identify who is “out there.”

Appropriate use of these products can help a professional identify where to put the practice, how to market services, and how to better serve the community. Ultimately, doctors become most cost-efficient in their efforts.

Reports usually cost between $95-$150 (2004 data) for the raw data for radii of 10 miles or less. This information does not include analysis. The analysis will usually cost about $500 (which includes the data) and should be done by someone who understands the implications of the data for your professional practice.

Remember, without research, you only think you know why people do what they do. There is much more than meets the eye when it comes to how people make decisions. Everyone is in the business of people. Employers, salesmen, and marketing professionals, as well as health care providers, are in the business of reading the wants and needs of other people. They must influence others to accept recommendations, buy products and services, pay bills, and, sometimes, just show up. Give yourself the competitive edge by getting the information you need to find your patients.



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