Why online personas yield more insight than demographics can
Online behavior has become far more important to our understanding and measurement of user preferences and identities than behavior in the real world ever was or could be. Long ago, we passed the point of always-on user activity, and as a result, the personas we’ve created for ourselves online have gradually become more representative of our beliefs and behaviors than our IRL personas. Thus, it is imperative to look beyond traditional demographics when we create and test new products. Personas that are described simply as “millennial moms” or “tech bros” aren’t that useful because we can no longer rely on age, gender, or location to define who our users are or what problems they face. It’s time that both product designers and marketers acknowledge this shift.
Not convinced that ignoring online preferences will have real-life consequences? Let’s take a look at the continuing saga of #Gamergate for some sobering proof.
#Gamergate was an online movement started in 2014 that attacked women developers, game critics, and game media under the guise of “ethics in journalism,” but it was, in fact, a movement lead by users who were angry about the increasing diversity of representation and thought in the video game industry. Much has been written about how #Gamergate presaged the current political climate in the United States. Using their trusty 20–20 hindsight, journalists and pundits have noted that this outpouring of vitriol and prejudice should’ve warned us that America was roiling with hatred just below the surface. And yet, fewer folks have linked #Gamergate directly to the 2016 election results. So allow me:
Over the past 15 years, online communities like 4chan, 8chan, Reddit, and other sites that allow user anonymity have become increasingly radical and unstable. Once upon a time, they housed diverse conversations, but by 2016, many threads were dominated by alt-right, anti-immigrant, and men’s rights rhetoric. #Gamergate was born in these threads. And it was birthed by mostly white, mostly young, mostly male-identifying people who’d become increasingly frustrated by the global cultural movement toward equity and inclusion.
Because tech-savvy people tend to vote Democrat and because 4chan looked a lot more like a punk rock hall than a conservative social group, assumptions were made. Pollsters figured these men would back Hillary Clinton’s candidacy based solely on history and outdated information, and they totally ignored their new online personas and radicalized views. (This was despite the fact that some of them, including commentator Mike Cernovich, graduated from #Gamergate activities to online attacks on Clinton herself.) It would be an exaggeration to say that courting Gamergate-minded voters would’ve changed the election results, but it would be equally foolish to say that online choices, voices, and personas have no bearing on real-world activities. For instance, as we now know, #Gamergate served as an entry point for alt-right celebrities and leaders to recruit these individuals into the larger alt-right sphere and to experiment with the methods on how to structure their own false reality information war.
Freedom of expression is priceless
Let’s switch gears rather drastically and talk about Fortnite. This phenomenally popular multiplayer online game is free. It costs nothing to download, nothing to install, nothing to play. You can’t pay to win, and you can’t pay to become better than other players. And yet a $2.5 billion industry has sprung up around Fortnite.
Two-thirds of that money go towards cosmetic items, upgrades, and skins. Essentially, players pay to make their avatars look cooler or more impressive. This may sound like a case of “Kids play online games, and kids spend their money on dumb junk.” But 63% of Fortnite players are actually aged 18 to 24 years and another 35% range from 25 to 44 years old. It’s not just kids playing this game. It’s everyone. And it’s giving its creators mountains of cold, hard cash.
A more robust explanation for Fortnite’s profitability is rooted in identity and self-expression. When people spend multiple hours per day on a platform or in a shared online space — interacting with their friends or people that they want to impress — they’re going to look for ways to express themselves. And that’s exactly what Fortnite’s paid upgrades give them: an outlet for aesthetic choice, a way to show others who they are outside of just their demographics, a means of expressing what they love and value and seek out in other people.
This urge spills over into other shared online spaces outside of the gaming community. VRchat, a program that’s loaded onto most of the major virtual reality systems, allows users to walk around in digital spaces and talk to other people. Naturally, participants need to create avatars to do so, and VRchat users have gotten very creative with their avatars. Some pull characters from pop culture, others draw on their own imaginations, and many opt for representations of themselves that are wildly different from their IRL personas. As is the case in Fortnite, participants often have no idea who their fellow chatroom wanderers truly are; the avatar is the only representation available. This leads to some inadvertent role-playing. After all, if someone looks just like Tina from “Bob’s Burgers,” your instincts will tell you to treat her like Tina. (Meaning: like the friend-fiction-writing feminist icon she truly is.)
This indicates that people are willing to invest significant time, money, thought, and creativity into building online representations of themselves simply to be expressive. They do it to show who they are, what they believe and value, and how they truly identify. This compiles a raw, honest, illuminating cache of consumer information that can help product designers and marketers reach new audiences and solve unexpected problems. The online world is where people go to express their desires — including hidden and challenging ones — in spaces that feel unrestricted and free of judgment. They’re telling us who they really are and what they really want, if we’re willing to listen.
As the platforms that people use become more sophisticated, so will the online personas that inhabit them. And companies who pay attention to these shifts will be positioned to leverage this new form of insight to surge ahead of their competitors.
Can we flip the voice-of-consumer script?
Consumers are spending more and more time crafting online personas in virtual spaces every year. Friendships, professional relationships, and romances are moving into the online realm as well. People curate their profiles for dating and social apps, workplaces use Zoom or Webex to enable remote meetings, and users gather in virtual spaces like Discord to connect with others who share their interests. Some relationships now only exist in the virtual world, and users are looking for ways to stand out from the pack. Avatars and online personas allow people to define and differentiate themselves, often in ways that feel impossible in the real world.
Even if you can’t afford Gucci handbags on your current salary, your online persona can have a closet full of designer duds. Even if you feel trapped in a female body, your online persona could present as male. Even if you’re a mild-mannered bureaucrat by day, your online persona could become a radical pot-stirrer by night. In many ways, the selves we build online are manifestations of our deepest desires. They’re the versions of ourselves we wish we could become or aspects of our integrated identities that have no other outlets for expression.
But what does that mean for businesses? How do we begin to understand and group people who are similar online, but disparate in the real world? How do we cater to them, market to them, uncover their needs and pain points, and create products they want? Ordinarily, product developers would identify a target market and survey individuals from that group. But targeting online personas is a bit trickier.
However, one key assumption simplifies the matter. If we believe that people who spend lots of time online will build personas that represent their wishes and desires, and if we believe that avatars express hidden truths about individuals, who they are IRL hardly matters at all to this process. We can speak with and gather data about the personas, run online experiments, and then market our products in the real world knowing they’ll strike a chord with consumers. Imagine consumer research that takes place not in a stuffy focus group room but in the Fortnite universe with a roundtable of pop culture figures at the table.
Even if that leap feels too huge right now, the nature of the online world will force change in voice-of-consumer research and compel corporations to rethink innovation. Since our online lives don’t always correspond to our IRL lives, companies working with online products must find new ways to define and target their target personas. We need to understand that now and get ahead of the curve, or we’ll be left behind in the virtual dust.
We also need to acknowledge that the ways people behave online are indicative of strong—if masked—beliefs and feelings. Of the many dire lessons learned from #Gamergate, this one stands out. Scammers aside, very few people go online to lie or misrepresent themselves. They’re far more likely to log onto 4chan to say in writing the things they’re too afraid to say out loud. Which means that in some ways our online personas are our ids, our hidden selves, distilled versions of our identities. And we as a society ignore them at our own peril.