Why marketing personas are bad and what you should use instead

Marketing personas have been a mainstay of audience targeting for years. But that's the problem; they're starting to feel kind of old-fashioned and out of touch with how people actually buy goods. Let's take a look.

Marketing or buyer personas have been a popular way to target audiences for years. Companies use personas to synthesize market research and customer data to build semi-fiction representations of the type of people who need the product.

​​Often they have cute little names, like Marketing Marcus or Accounting Anna. Essentially, they’re a way to personify the different segments that make up your target audience. The idea is that once you have these personas, you can adjust your messaging and content to speak to each persona.

Now, in theory, that’s cool. But in practice, personas counter many things we know about buyer intent and personality. Worst of all, as marketing becomes more sophisticated and personalized toward each individual, personas have started to feel a bit old-fashioned.

The problems with personas

There are a lot of reasons why marketing teams should stop using personas. Many are to do with the fact that even when companies develop them, they don’t use them very well; others are to do with the inherent limitations of the form.

So, let’s look at a few reasons why they don’t work.

#1. Marketing personas are reductive

Now, yes, we get it. Marketing personas are reductive by design. If you have data on 1000 people, you can’t account for all their quirks and intricacies. At best, you can sift through the data and find some commonalities.

But this runs counter to a broader shift towards more dynamic and personalized marketing. Business intelligence tools like AI can analyze vast customer data for insights and patterns. We don’t have to be as reductive in our customer data analysis.

#2. They’re rooted in stereotypes

Stereotypes can be pretty offensive, but they don’t just come from anywhere. As much as we might dislike them, they can do a roughly accurate job of describing the rough cultural commonalities between large groups of people.

However, we all know that targeting someone based on limited criteria can quickly get absurd if you’re missing some critical information. In the real world, we’d never assume that our Spanish neighbor loves bullfighting or that our Danish friend is probably out drinking somewhere on a weekday morning.

And yet, marketing teams essentially make this mistake with personas all the time.

#3. Personality is complex

Personality is complex. While it’s somewhat fixed, research shows that personality tests have a lot of variation daily. The other thing to consider is that implying personality characteristics based on demographic, gender, and occupation is a challenge.

For example, let’s say you’re on a dating site, and your match is a 35-year-old accountant. At best, you can imply that they’re educated, have some money, and are at least somewhat analytical.

But predicting who they are and what they do in their spare time would be pretty impossible. Saying that you think you’d be a good match for them would be frankly insane until you had more information.

Also, personality characteristics are just one of the factors that affect behavior. There are many other things to consider, like motivations, physical and biological drives, and environmental influence.

#4. They’re blind to context and intent

One of the worst things about personas is that they aren’t very aware of intent and context.

Imagine these situations: 

You: A family restaurant

Target: Moms with above-average income on vacation

Missing context: Her husband is minding the kids that night, and she’s meeting a friend for a grown-up dinner.

Result: Your family-focused ad is irrelevant to her

Here’s another one.

You: A luxury clothes retailer

Target: Men aged between 25-34 who like luxury fashion

Missing context: They’ve just decided to buy a house with their partner, and they need to scrape together everything they can for a downpayment

Result: They might click the ad, but they’re not buying for now.

One more.

You: Accounting software

Target: CTO at a large firm

Missing context: The firm has recently signed a two-year agreement with an accountancy software vendor

Result: You can hammer them with ads, but they’re highly unlikely to move.

Alternatives to buyer personas

While personas can help marketing teams visualize their target audience, they’re missing out on the bigger picture. Here are some alternative ways to look at the problem.

User intent

One of the most obvious things to think about is intent. Buyer personas include a lot of information, some irrelevant when selling products.

However, customer intent is always relevant. If you’re driving your car, you can try and get in the mind of the other drivers and predict where they’ll turn off based on what car they drive, their clothes, or how they look. Or you can wait for them to indicate.

Selling products is similar. When it comes to signals, searching keywords or performing specific actions will always be more meaningful than someone aligning with a set of demographics.

Use psychographics, not demographics

Demographics are things like:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Education
  • Income
  • Job Title

Psychographics are stuff like:

  • Interests
  • Lifestyle
  • Values
  • Attitudes and opinions
  • Personality

Meta, Google, and Bing have great options for psychographic targeting. If you’re not using them already, you really should.

Psychographics are much better for predicting behavior and interest.

Triggers – Pain Points – Action – Objectives

This system is a simple way of understanding why people buy your product.

Here’s a simple one. 

Trigger: When I go running

Pain points: My mouth gets dry

Action: I buy a bottle of water

Objective: So I can continue with my goals of getting fit

Now obviously, all carbon-based lifeforms drink water. It’s not only runners who you want to target if you sell water. But you now have a segment with a clear emotional (get/stay fit) reason to use your product, which can inform your marketing.

Here’s another one.

Trigger: When I’ve got an interview

Pain points: I don’t always feel confident

Action: So I’m going to a new suit

Objective: So I can progress my career

And here’s another one. 

Trigger: When I do digital marketing

Pain points: The results are poor

Action: So I’m going to get ad optimization

Objective: So I can grow my business.

When you use objectives and pain points this way, you can start to discover people’s paths to buying products.

Final thoughts

Personas have their uses. But they aren’t the best way to understand what drives human behavior.

Instead, use a mix of:

  • Intent (via keywords)
  • Psychographics
  • Objectives

It will get you closer to understanding who and WHY people buy your product. By all means, do audience research to get a rough idea of your target audience, but if you want to get results, you need to think past personas and look at what drives your audience.

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