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Ideas Strategy2021-12-15

Strategy roundtable: Are personas an outdated marketing construct?

Jon Gittings

Around The Table with Strategy is a conversation on topics close to the hearts of our clients, work and industry.

This week we ask, “are personas an outdated marketing construct?” 

Jon Gittings: From my point of view, personas are not “outdated,” but like the funnel, people may disparage personas because it makes them look modern and provocative. Just because these constructs are old, they don’t lack value. They still play a role.

Of course personas aren’t to be confused with segments, which we describe as  breaking up the market into like-minded audience cohorts, usually based on product variables. Personas by comparison are emotional and behavioral 'fictions' that help you get inside the mind of the customer. A persona is an act of mental stimulation and creative thinking. It's not the thing you target - that’s the segment. 

Chike Ume: Agreed. Personas should be used as tools to provide easy empathy, but are often mistaken with segments to provide easy answers. There’s a need to parse the usage between creative and media needs. Media needs should create harder, more attributable personas based on the media metrics we can directly measure and the data sources we can utilize; whereas creative needs should create more personable attributes that let us develop empathy against audiences we are usually never a part of. Because advertising people aren't real people.

Chris Emond: The personas I've seen lately feel lazy and uninformed.They tend to serve more of a purpose as a creative tool, but it feels like we default more and more to lists of attributes and "behaviors" to identify our best marketing opportunities.

Harley Garner: Do  we agree that personas can be a (relatively) quick way to highlight nuances within audience segments that often feel very monolithic, i.e., “Gen Z are ‘Gamers’?”

Alex Maikowski: I think we should do away with traditional generations and use digital subcultures as the new demographics. In August, Ana Andjelic dropped a newsletter on Taste communities becoming the new unit of marketing. Before that, in May, TikTok made that argument to convince advertisers to spend more ad dollars on the platform. And in early in 2020, Harley and I wrote a piece about the fragmentation of mass-reach moments into niche interest groups, which live digitally and have bigger scale than the traditional high-reach TV tentpoles. 

All of this rolls up to an opportunity for us to elevate beyond personas. Focusing less on the individual and more on the social dimensions that drive the communities they belong to. As Ana A. says, we need to "think about brands in the plural." By shifting towards niche, passionate groups as the basis for product relevance mapping, we open up avenues for brands to become part of a shared conversation and identity. 

Zoë Brooks: We come up with new names for things all the time - even though they’re fundamentally the same thing. The name “persona” will change, but the meaning behind it and the way we work with it will not. Though to Alex's point, the issue with personas is when they are too limiting, unimaginative or formulaic, and become almost a parody of themselves. 

Hilary Maloney: Yes, or too static! I think behaviors and interests are far more dynamic than we like to think. 

Maria Van Buskirk: If anything, segments are an outdated marketing construct, not personas. They help size the TAM, but static segments are exactly that: they're static. A more contemporary approach to audience targeting is rooted in dynamic signals, based on real time behaviors. 

Hilary Maloney: The possibility that classic segmentation could be causing you to miss potential buyers feels like a more urgent problem to solve than say, “what's Mary's zodiac sign?”

Chris Emond: I agree that some behaviors are dynamic, but getting people to change their behaviors or routines towards products they use or things they do every day, is quite difficult, which would point to them being less fluid. If I were to segment based on eating behaviors, I’m probably not doing it at the level of Asian cuisine vs. Italian. It makes more sense to think about the behavior of adventurous eaters vs. more conservative ones. Someone can ultimately shift from one segment to another, but that segmentation approach would be a bit more sturdy than one based on the way people viewed certain foods. 

Jineen Carcamo: Back to the role of personas -  you can target a pizza lover with media, but you wouldn't understand what to say to them to make them want to try a new product, without understanding why they enjoy eating it or their relationship to the category.