When Personas Go Wrong or, The Search for Fluffy

The woman on stage proudly told the conference audience how her team had spent three days to find just the right kitten for Emily.

Emily was a single working mother in her early 30s who lived with her 4-year-old daughter in a two-bedroom apartment. She was on a limited budget and often pressed for time. She also loved cats. Hence the search for the perfect kitten. The thing was, Emily didn’t exist. Emily was a persona dreamed up by the marketing team. The aim of the team was to create a series of recipes that used the company’s products — a series of recipes just for Emily. And they spent (wasted) three days looking for a photo of a kitten to accompany a made-up person.

I’ll be honest. I have a few problems with Emily — and others just like her.

Personas with too narrow a focus

By focusing on an individual as a persona you can narrow your focus too much and miss a large percentage of the customers and prospects who might benefit from your message. By creating messages “just for Emily,” the team was ignoring a wider need for anyone who wanted to create quick, nutritious meals on a limited budget. Personas should be focused on addressing customer needs, not on developing fictional characters.

It’s a marketing point of view

Often, as with Emily, personas are developed by the marketing team with little or no interaction with actual customers. Marketing teams are often organizationally isolated from everyday interaction with customers, which can lead to personas that reflect what the marketing team thinks customers are looking for, rather than what customers actually need and how they go about finding information. It is essential that your marketing team take into account real-life customer experiences and needs.

Customers are changing

I have seen many personas documented along the lines of “Emily goes to the website to do initial research, checks reviews on mobile, and uses the app to purchase.”

The customer experience evolves rapidly. I know my digital behavior patterns have changed over the last 12 months. You need to keep up with these changes. How often do you review personas to ensure that they keep up with new technologies and changes in how customers interact with your brand?

Still part of the “Sell and Forget” model

Historically, personas have focused on the buying behavior of a given set of potential customers. They are designed to drive people along the traditional sales funnel from awareness to lead to prospect to sale. But that only represents a small part of a customer’s overall interaction with a company.

How do personas fit with the continuous customer journey?

Once prospects become customers they shouldn’t be forgotten and neither should the relevant personas. How do your personas interact with your brand from delivery of the product through owning, operating, and getting support? Do you understand the full customer life-cycle of your personas and how their journey across every interaction with your company is connected and mapped?

Get that right and the satisfied customer persona can be your best advocate to generate even more business.

Was the kitten really necessary?

When you are developing needs-driven personas to help you understand customer behavior, your process needs to be systematic, efficient, and based on data. Building an emotional backstory for a character is all well and good if you are working on your latest novel, but it can be a time-consuming misdirection in developing effective customer-driven personas. How many customer interviews could that marketing team have done during the time it took to find the perfect photo of Fluffy?

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