Why is marketing still using user personas?

User personas — sometimes called “marketing personas” — are ways that companies attempt to define the customers they’re chasing. This is all an incredibly fraught deal on any number of levels, and if I don’t constrain myself somewhat, I’ll likely go off on a rant about it. (It would not be the first time.)

I guess the easiest way to begin is to say this: I think marketing, as most people construe it, is a total joke. I’ve worked in marketing departments and I’ve freelanced for different marketing departments, and it’s usually a gigantic train wreck on any number of levels. Marketers tend to over-focus on “campaigns,” typically in an effort to seem busy and important, as opposed to thinking about real ROI and value that would help the sales side do their job. You’ve also got a ton of new technology available to marketing teams, and while some are good at using it, many totally flop here. Don’t even get me started on email: it’s supposedly the gold standard of marketing in the digital age — it beats the social algorithm, baby! Directly to the inbox! — but most email marketing reads like a used car salesman is trying to get you in bed.

The whole thing’s a mess. And in a way, it shouldn’t be that surprising. The ROI of standard marketing has long been hard to prove beyond “Hey, our product was on TV, so I bet a bunch of people know and value our brand now!” (Whenever I heard that in office jobs, I wanted to plunge my head into an industrial fan.) Marketing has been chasing the shrine of big numbers for generations. That’s why, even now, most middle managers in marketing are reporting up the chain on impressions. “67,000 people saw this, boss! Facebook says so!” The boss could barely care. He/she is protecting his/her neck at the senior level and desperately trying to hang on until retirement. CMOs have no idea about digital; they’re just trying to cling to whatever revenue models will satiate their boss.

OK, ’twas a rant.

Now let’s tackle some user personas.

User Personas: What are they?

Here’s a visual example:

Basically, you attempt to define a customer or, well, “user” of your product/service with user personas. Typically a bunch of people get in a room — let’s say someone from marketing, some executive, a guy from Product, maybe someone in UX — and they bat around ideas about who this person is and what problem (buzzword is “pain point”) they need solved. Then these outlines are created, probably part of a larger campaign. In reality, these outlines could be created about 45 minutes after the main meeting/brainstorming is over, but typically it tends up taking six weeks. At some point in the process, someone will say “Oh, I have to get that to design.” I’ve never really understood any of it, honestly.

Now we know what user personas are. Let’s move on.

User Personas: What are the issues?

The first issue is that they’re usually pretty generic. It’s something like “Product Manager Paul wants to keep his costs down!” No shit. Everyone wants to keep their costs down. I think if you Google “capitalism,” that might be the first hit: “A system where you try to keep your costs down.” So putting that in user personas is kind of a joke.

The second issue is that they often get cutesy. You see above where I said “Product Manager Paul?” I’ve done user personas with 12 different teams in my life. (Not a huge sample size, but not terribly small either.) In all 12 examples, the user personas had to be alliterative. People love it. I have no idea why, honestly. Maybe it makes it more fun?

The third issue is the biggest one. User personas are essentially completely outdated at this point. Why? Ah-ha, Big Data!

User personas and Big Data

Big Data is a pretty fraught concept to me — heck, even Dubner of Freakonomics is pushing back on it now! — but it’s supposed to be the forthcoming business revolution of the moment. Never mind that we hire too many “data scientists” and not enough “people who can explain the data to executives,” but eh.

With Big Data, though, and with advanced financial modeling, you come to this place:

Prior to the last couple of years, the technological infrastructure, the data … and skill sets in the market were just broadly not available to a lot of companies to understand individual behavior.… The idea of a persona or an average customer was the typical way that marketers would think about their customer base. But now with advancements in technology, with modeling, with more available [data and] skill sets, they are able to understand and predict future behavior at more granular levels, and it’s a dramatic shift that’s happening. It started in a lot of e-commerce businesses but now is spreading to bricks-and-mortar more traditional industries as well.

That’s a former hedge fund guy talking to Wharton about a new venture of his, whereby companies can more easily determine “lifetime customer value.”

If you read the quote, he’s basically saying “user personas are useless in the modern age, because we have actual transaction information that can inform how we think about people and the decisions they will make.”

In short, data and information killed user personas.

But won’t marketers still cling to user personas?

Of course. Change is hard, and we often do things the way we’ve always done them until something absolutely forces us to do them differently. That’s how the game works, and that’s unabashedly how work “works.” People go to meetings because that’s what we do. People hop on conference calls with no agenda or context because that’s how things are done. Acting without thinking is a hallmark of a lot of work, and user personas fit into that too.

Basically, it works like this:

  • “Hey, we have tons of information on our customers, people who left the funnel, and even more. Should we use it?”
  • “No time for this tomfoolery, Ben! We have a 10:30am stand-up on user personas!”

You see how dumb that conversation is? In the time since I began typing this post, I bet that exact convo has happened 156 times in America.

What else you got on user personas?

My name is Ted Bauer. Here’s more about how I make money and stuff.