Times have changed. My uncle is in his seventies, uses Facebook more than I do and is working as an extra in films and television commercials. My mother has retired and was discussing her modem with me last week. My other-half's son communicates in some kind of complex code through instant messenger status updates. A dinner conversation between four can extend to thousands through the medium of a social network. Your online presence and privacy (even if you've never used the internet) tends to depend heavily on the privacy stance and sharing tendencies of those around you.
Just ten years ago, things were different. The internet was thought of as a young person's playground and a risk-taker's casino (or fool's paradise, depending on your attitude towards starting a DotCom). The way in which people used the internet was also different. Visits were perceived as (and often were) a linear path through a set of pages until abandonment or conversion. Building an online brand was more corporate than personal and communication was much more of a one-way conversation. Figuring out how to bend the internet to a company's will and gaining exposure was far more important than the individual personalities of internet users.
Now, however, folks on the internet are a lot more assured in their expectations from online experiences. Internet users are not just campaign clicks and conversions and bounces, they are real people with personalities that they have built for public view. Their behaviour is much more individual (though often quite scattered). Less people believe that an individual search engine is "The Internet" – they set up profiles on Facebook, on Twitter, on Yahoo!, on Google, on Foursquare. They may have slightly different pictures and profiles across each. They share news, updates, links, photos, tips and personal (sometimes very personal) information.
Attribution is becoming a much more difficult craft with the advent of varying devices and sharing tools so it is ever more important to treat users as an interactive audience rather than as numbers. It’s also worth remembering that audiences that you are missing from your site visits may find you on Twitter or any other means you have of interacting with them.
Below, you can see a few simple examples of ways in which an audience can begin to be identified.
Use this information to rethink ad targeting, site design, "voice" etc.
Use this information to learn more about your qualified visitors and what makes them tick.
Use what you learn on both sides to move towards success.
It is also vital to take into account that your audience needs to work with the various tools so that the information you are trying to learn from is accurate. There are awkward people out there (ok, me) who don't always supply demographic information like age and gender (or don’t supply the correct information) when signing up for services. Numbers are numbers, but people are people and it behooves anyone dipping into this kind of analysis to remember that people are not as predictable as numbers.