Sometimes, when we  talk about segmentation, we can get caught up in thinking about it as merely categorization—we’re deciding what labels to put on people into and who belongs where. This is like thinking of segmentation as a kind of filing system.

But it’s important to remember that respondents, the people we’re trying to reach and convert, want to be segmented as well. They just frame it in a very different way: What do I want? Out of many choices, what appeals the most? This is like thinking of segmentation as your favorite ice cream.

Segmentation-as-categorization suffers from the flaw that we as marketers can invent segments that mean something to us—e.g., repeat visitor, Mac users, West coast geo, a Google or Yahoo traffic source, etc.—that don’t necessarily align with what a customer actually desires.

Sometimes that sort of abstract analysis bears fruit. Maybe knowing that you sell to more Mac users than PC users gives you some insight you can leverage to your advantage. But more often than not, I think that kind of segmentation misses the real opportunity: to segment people based on what they really want.

“What they really want” is not superficial either. Very often, you’re trying to not only uncover the immediate need, but to get some insight into the longer term relationship—to learn how you can tailor the experience this customer will have with your company moving forward in ways that will maximize their delight.

That is the customer-centric goal of segmentation.

So when thinking about segmentation, stop to ask yourself: are you filing someone in a back-room category (that they won’t even necessarily know or care about), or are you asking them how you can serve them best?

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image of Scott Brinker

Scott Brinker is co-founder and CTO of ion interactive, a provider of landing-page management software and conversion-optimization services. He also writes a blog on marketing technology called Chief Marketing Technologist.

Twitter: @chiefmartec.