Blog post

The Problem With Personas

By Chris Ross | February 03, 2017 | 3 Comments

Marketing ManagementMarketing Leadershipmarketing

There they are, staring back at you from a PowerPoint deck…shallow, clichéd, painfully obvious customer personas. Maybe it’s Paige the busy soccer Mom. Henry the young urban professional, or Caroline the busy senior executive, but none of them are providing you much insight or value.

Lightweight personas are often more stereotype than persona, and can end up providing marginal marketing value and even worse consume an embarrassingly large amount of resource to create. Are personas a waste of time and money? Absolutely not! Personas are not the problem, bad personas are the problem.

Personas done well, can be foundational to customer experience design, content strategy, marketing technology decisions, personalization strategy and an array of other marketing programs and practices. Being customer-centric requires a deep understanding of core buyer types, and well-designed personas can provide that critical foundation. Given their huge potential, how is it marketers still so often end up with weak, one-dimensional personas?

Too wide or too narrow – The definition of a persona is key to its potential. Too wide a definition can blend together too many unrelated characteristics leading to very homogeneous, “generic” personas. Definitions that are too narrow may limit the size of the relevant audience. Crafting the right definition of a persona is very much a subjective process, but worth spending the time to get right.

Lack of emotion – Emotion plays a huge role in our activity and actions. Personas that fail to explore emotional dynamics provide a very flat view of consumers and lack the depth that can potentially form more interesting and engaging messaging and content. Emotions are not static, they shift and evolve depending on where a consumer may be in their journey and the urgency or implication of their decision. Savvy marketers recognize a richer, holistic view of emotion renders higher quality personas.

Lack of context – Context is king. It’s important to recognize emotion in the context of experience, but also look at how data or hard information is part of consumer context. It is very critical to understand how context informs and effects key customer milestones in the buy, own, advocate journey.

Designed for connection – Effective personas are designed to be connected to subsequent marketing initiatives. They seek to find answers to questions that will inform marketing programs and other activities. Begin with the end in mind, have a clear purpose or objective for what you can do with the output of any given persona project.

Don’t knock personas. Done well, they can be an incredibly powerful and effective marketing tool. Whatever you do, avoid the clichés and go a little deeper to build personas that you can really put to work. Read more about How Marketing Leaders Make Personas Actionable (Subscription Required)

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  • Chris,

    You’re absolutely right that there are many lightweight personas that aren’t accounting for emotions or context. However, I believe the root cause for this shortcoming is that many are works of fiction, or as you state stereotypes. You have to first have an actionable and statistically-robust Customer Segmentation. Then the persona is based in facts and is the eloquent personification of bringing the data to life so that anyone can understand it.

    • Agreed, persona ≠ stereotype. Love that distinction, going to use it from now on.

      From reading this, I feel that persona is cyclical to, not directly proportional with the journey they are on, where mapping, it would seem, is always evolving with regard to not just journey, but personal growth, trends, and evolution. My head is spinning.

  • The best products are built (and sold) on a vivid, actionable, testable view of the customer. Personas are a way to get that view. A personas is a humanised view of your customer, designed to drive better more testable decisions within your team.

    Personas can be very useful, because they allow us to apply stereotypical characteristics to imaginary consumers. Once we define these characteristics, we can focus our words and images to directly appeal to our imaginary audience.

    You have explained the subject well in your post.