External Personas Enhance Marketing, Part 1

In product design, Web site development, even branding, personas (define) have been used for years to better understand one’s target audience and ensure the superior usability of a site or product. Think of creating a persona as condensing a customer group into a single fictional being, complete with a bio, demographic information, interests, a headshot, even a name. Beyond giving a face to a faceless mass of consumers, a persona can help focus a creative or engineering team’s efforts on the most critical element in any design project or tech build: the customer.

The notion that millions of consumers can be reduced to a handful of fake folks and still impart invaluable knowledge might seem irrational, but these “people” aren’t easy to come by. Take a long, hard look at what goes into creating just one of several personas used in a typical site development project. You’ll realize your agency knows a heck of a lot more about some character named Belinda Jones than you know about yourself. And that’s after a few solid decades of in-depth personal research.

There’s something else impressive about the use of personas: for all the work that goes into creating them, they rarely see the light of day. Their role is mainly behind the scenes. The actual consumers they’re meant to represent usually don’t even know they exist.

This is really a shame. The two obviously have a lot in common. What a perfect opportunity to leverage their similarities not just to improve consumers’ interaction with your site but also to strengthen their relationship with your product or brand. There’s never been a better time in the Web’s history to introduce fiction to reality in this sense than now, when marketers and consumers alike hold customization and the community experience in high regard. Single, thirtysomething, shoe-loving professional with an interest in foreign travel, meet Ms. Belinda Jones.

Someone Just Like You

Whether they used the word “persona” or not, product marketers embraced the idea of using different characters to forge a connection with consumers ages ago with the introduction of such products as the American Girl Just Like You and Bratz dolls (full disclosure: Bratz is a client). Both brands offer a selection of dolls with a variety of looks, interests, and personality types to allow girls to choose the one that most resembles them. Having a doll that’s in many ways like them holds endless appeal for young girls who are still uncovering new things about themselves, largely by comparing themselves to others.

Bratz took this concept to the next level with its new line of Be-Bratz dolls, which begin with a predetermined look but invite the consumer to go online to virtually modify them in their own image. This is the next generation of external personas — making an existing persona as personally relevant as possible.

When the girls who play with these dolls grow up, they’ll likely be quick to respond to marketing messaging in which they see a reflection of themselves, their interests, and their needs. They’ll be accustomed to living in a world where entertainment is all about them and won’t flinch when advertising takes on their likeness as well.

They might find an ad for a health insurance company, which creates a persona for each of its target audience and presents them in a storyboard format on an interactive product information site. Or an ad for a cosmetics company that creates four fictional characters â la “Sex and the City” to demonstrate the virtues of its different beauty products on varying skin tones and for assorted occasions, all in a banner ad campaign. Whatever the product, whatever the industry, messaging that speaks to consumers through characters they can relate to stands a great chance of inciting a powerful response.

The days when consumers routinely encounter someone just like them in an ad aren’t here yet. But some marketers are experimenting with external personas in an effort to strike a chord with target consumers. Next week, I’ll look at a few examples of how and why personas are being coaxed out of the agency war room and ushered into the real world.

Related reading