The Problem with Personas in Digital Marketing
Personas are a marketing concept that has been around for decades. The idea of using personas probably originated from the hallowed Ogilvy agency, and has since gathered many fans in marketing circles.
In recent years personas have also become a popular approach in digital marketing. Early mentions of using personas in online marketing go back as far as 2007, and in recent times have increased exponentially as more internet marketers explore the possibilities and blog about it.
There are many professed uses of personas, from application to UX-design to keyword-level personalisation. And there are as many vocal advocates of personas as there are use cases.
But there’s a problem with personas. And that problem is that defining personas is mostly guesswork.
Once you have a persona it’s easy and fun to imagine how this fictitious person would use your website, search for your products, or engage with your service. But the persona itself is the product of guesses.
At best, personas are extrapolations of a modicum of demographical data – from consumer surveys, social media analytics, or general market research. At worst, they’re purely wishful thinking lacking any foundation in reality at all.
Even the more data-driven personas are derived from idealistic notions of what a potential customer looks like. They often end up as cardboard clichés, two-dimensional characterisations that – at most – reflect only a tiny proportion of actual users.
I can see the value of using personas in scenarios where decisions have to be made on the direction of a certain marketing message where there’s no data to rely on.
But in digital marketing, I believe personas are a waste of time. There’s a much more effective way of achieving results without resorting to guesswork, hopeful extrapolations, and wishful thinking. That way is, of course, through testing.
Data-Driven Decision Making
On the internet we have the luxury that we can present random selections of users with different versions of our sites. We can do A/B split-testing or multivariate testing to determine exactly which design, what content, which call to action, works best.
We don’t need to invent fictional personas to try and decide on a specific type of marketing message. We can simply create multiple messages and test which one yields the greatest rewards.
We don’t need to think of theoretical keyword scenarios to personalise landing pages based on what we believe a user might like to see. We can simply extract the keyword from the referral string and chuck it in the landing page, and split-test the remaining (not provided) traffic.
There’s quite simply no need for us to rely on the horrendously flawed personas methodology, because we have much more effective methods at our fingertips. Instead of guesswork, we can use actual data.
And yes, the tests themselves need to get input from somewhere, to inform what to test and what a variation should look like. But this too doesn’t need personas. It just needs data from existing sources (again, social media analytics like Facebook Insights come in useful here), and a healthy dose of creativity and a ‘let’s try this’ mentality.
I genuinely can’t think of any online scenario where personas are more useful than data-driven insights. I’d love to be proven wrong, though.
I’m keen to hear what you think. Do you believe there are cases where the use of personas online is preferable to testing? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.