Say Goodbye to Personas: Adapting your marketing strategy for today’s consumer


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Personas have historically played a central role in the marketers’ playbook for understanding, segmenting, and targeting consumers. By dividing groups of consumers based on characteristics like demographics, income, occupation, and location, however, what is ultimately created is a profile of the “average” consumer within each segment. While this strategy can be helpful when trying to gain a high-level understanding of your various audiences, it falls short for engaging consumers in 2021.

The fundamental reason is that there is simply no such thing as an average customer and today’s consumers expect a highly customized experience. Relying on personas is equivalent to saying that all “Soccer Moms” want to drive minivans. The categorization is obviously not true – some prefer to drive a sports car or SUVs – and creates significant barriers to engaging the consumer on a more granular level.

While it’s possible for marketers to build personas for increasingly smaller categories, in reality it is too cumbersome and impractical to segment campaigns and messaging based upon the large number of personas that would be needed. In addition, marketers who rely on personas to target consumers for outreach risk suffering from tunnel vision as they are only able to focus on a few personas at a times, completely ignoring those who fall outside of these narrowly defined categories.

Real people do not conform to averages, and marketers need to stop thinking they do. Thanks to companies like Amazon and retargeting algorithms, today’s consumers experience highly-customized online shopping that isn’t informed by personas alone. Companies are delivering personalized experiences with more robust customer data – intelligent data that provides a broad view of shopping behavior.

Enhanced First-Party Data

This superior data that improves consumer experiences, as I’ve previously outlined, is behavioral data. Behavior – unlike demographics – changes constantly and provides a clearer view of the consumer in real-time. Typically provided by a third-party data partner and through effective capture and analysis of your own first-party data, behavioral data provides insights on actual actions, giving marketers a more accurate understanding of an individual’s intent.

How specific can you get with this data? Today’s technology can provide marketers insights on what consumers are currently shopping for, when they are in-market, how frequently they are shopping, what time of day they shop, and more. Using this data from outside of their organization, marketers can enhance their own first-party to allow them to create tailored messaging and customized outreach strategies based upon behavior that lead to exceptional customer experiences.

Behavioral Data’s ROI

While implementing behavioral data requires an upfront investment, the payoff is worth it. A Forrester Total Economic Impact Report shows that businesses leveraging behavioral data to engage the right customers at the right time were able to achieve an ROI of 191%. With the advanced consumer insights available to marketers today that improve retention rates and increase customer engagement, the cost of not implementing the use of behavioral data is now higher than the cost of acquiring and leveraging the data.

According to Peter Fader, author of Customer Centricity and keynote speaker at our Journey Summit, too many people think being customer-centric means doing everything a customer wants. While taking care of customer desires is part of the equation, it’s not the full picture. In fact, successful customer centricity requires companies to provide a higher level of attention to the customers that will provide greater customer lifetime value. A focus on these consumers, best identified through data, will ultimately drive the most value and growth for the company.

Diminished, But Not Forgotten

While I believe that marketing will continue to move further away from personas for customer targeting, they can be helpful in other areas. For instance, when developing messaging for a new product or service, personas can be a useful tool. It’s impossible for humans to wrap their heads around hundreds or thousands of different possible messages, but someone still has to come up with messaging. Having a small group of personas that generalize groups of people can be useful for this purpose. So, while they may not be the key to consumer engagement, they still play a role in informing messaging and even creative and overall campaign development.

We have seen dramatic changes in the marketing landscape in the past several years, especially during the pandemic. Customers are expecting increasingly personalized attention and experiences. A business whose strategy depends largely on personas for segmentation will not be able to keep up in today’s digital landscape. By leveraging behavioral data signals for a 360-view of consumer actions, marketers can get personal with marketing strategies and adapt to keep up with expectations for years to come.

Rich Smith
Rich Smith is CMO of Jornaya, bringing more than 25 years of experience leading marketing strategies and teams to the company. In his most recent role as partner and CMO at Chief Outsiders, the nation's leading provider of fractional chief marketing officers, Smith worked with companies of all sizes to drive profitability and growth. His long track record of success includes CMO roles at Ditech, AIG Bank, and Recovery Centers of America.


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