In my career, I’ve worked in marketing, product, and analytics. While the American Marketing Association defines all of that as marketing, the reality is those are rarely under the scope of one functional team, and the people in those groups see things very differently much of the time. One of the key ways this manifests that creates confusion for the organization is in the creation of personas. All three groups have their own ways to define personas that don’t tell the same story. And in many cases, these are called marketing personas even though they are very different. I’ll walk through each of them to try to define them separately, and talk about how to use each of them best and avoid common pitfalls.
The Analytics Persona
The analytics persona is the most straightforward of the group. The analytics persona is created by looking at clusters of users based on their usage and defining them based on that usage. At Pinterest, these were defined as core, casual, marginal, and dormant users. Core people came every day, casual people came every week, marginal people came every month, and dormant users had stopped coming to Pinterest altogether. This segmentation can be useful to see if your product is becoming more or less engaging over time. Key projects can include migrating people from, say, marginal to casual, by understanding the statistical differences between the two groups. Then, a product team might take something the casual group does that the marginal group does not and try to make the marginal group try to do that thing as well. Some of these differences are just correlation (or represent the people more so than the action itself being important), but some may be causal, and experiments like incentives or education to marginal users may help them become casual users.
The Product Persona
The product persona, just like the analytics persona, focuses on understanding existing users. In contrast to the the analytics persona, it relies on qualitative research to define who these people are, not just what actions they take. Someone that uses the product monthly can be the same persona as someone who uses it every day. When we built our personas at Grubhub, we had to use a mix of qualitative and quantitative research to define them. After a back of forth of customer calls and surveys, we were able to define four personas that used Grubhub based on two specific criteria: whether they ordered spontaneously or planned ahead of time, and whether they ordered for themselves or with others. When we mapped these personas back to our data, we were able to find that one segment was detrimental to serve because of high customer service costs, and that one segment was high potential, but low value currently because we had not built the right product for them yet. This helped inform our product strategy for the future.
The Marketing Persona
The marketing persona, unlike the first two personas, is usually a forward-looking persona: about who the company is going to try to reach. These are customers you want rather than customers you have. Marketing personas are common for product launches and market expansions since there are no existing users or data to build analytics or product personas.
The marketing persona exists to define a target market to go after. Marketers rarely try to target all people. They attempt to define a niche with specific needs (physical and emotional) and make their product attractive to that group. Marketers have many tools to define this persona. They pore over demographic and psychographic data and map competitive landscapes to spot opportunities for new markets. Since this persona is about targeting people outside the product, one common tool created during this process is a mapping of the target customer’s typical day. What they listen to on the radio on the trip to work, where they get their morning coffee, what they watch on TV during dinner, etc. From that, marketers identify opportunities to advertise to the target during one of those times to introduce them to the product.
Issues with Different Personas
All of these personas have pros and cons, and I recommend using them in tandem rather than a one size fits all approach. The danger with the analytics persona is it looks at people solely based on their activity and not also their motivations, their personalities, etc. There are key insights you will never find out from data that you can learn within ten minutes by talking to a customer. The product and the analytics personas also assume the current customers are the most important customers to understand. This is not always the case. Many times, you need to expand your market. Other times, focusing on existing users makes the product worse for incoming users.
Marketing personas also have their flaws. Since they are based on secondary data, marketers can sometimes invent personas that don’t exist or are too small to be important. This is why so many marketing teams create personas that are just cooler versions of themselves. It’s why whenever a fashion designer is asked who they design for, they say something like “a gallery owner in New York City.” They are maybe 500 of those people in the world. Now, I should be clear in that last scenario there is a blurred line between the marketing persona and the aspirations of the true persona, but you get the idea.
Marketing personas also can be unhelpful to some organic growth strategies or for products that have infinitely large markets since they are based on niches and targeting. When we tried to build marketing personas to target at Pinterest at around 50 million users, I asked, “What exactly are we going to do with this? We don’t spend money on advertising. Our targeting is defined by whoever searches for something on the internet that Pinterest is relevant for.” Similarly, does Google search have a target market? Sure, if you can call every single person with an internet connection a target. I bet you the Google Home team had a very specific target in mind for its launch though.
Personas of all types are also mistakenly used in lieu of personalization for many internet products. Email is a common example. Many companies still spend a lot of time creating dedicated emails for specific personas, segmenting lists, writing custom copy, and adding custom content. This frequently doesn’t makes sense in a world of personalization and one to one messaging. Pinterest has automated, personalized one to one messaging across email and push to over 200 million users. It doesn’t need to know what analytics, product, or marketing persona you are to be effective. This is not proprietary tech either. Many third party companies can help build this same type of system for smaller companies with less data.
Personas are very useful tools to help you identify opportunities to grow your business and better serve your customers. You should be using them in almost all phases of a company. Understanding the different types of personas, how you could use them, and how to prevent making mistakes with them is key to making sure they are worth the effort to define them.
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