Walk into the marketing department of any large brand and ask about their personas and it’s likely that the nearest brand manager will quickly reach into their rolling file cabinet and pull out a slim, nicely bound, glossy four-color book and hand it to you. As you marvel at the details of the young men and women profiled, remind yourself that you’re perusing a relic, an artifact of a bygone era.
Many smart and talented people labored over that book and the ideas, nay, guidelines contained within. It took many months of research, discussion, editing, and design. Many thousands of dollars went into defining and memorializing these archetypes. And the names, wow, they’re fantastic: the Gearheads, Popgirls, and my favorite, Fastidious Eclectus are alive and well in the minds of every marketer.
Our modern use of archetypes is credited to Angus Jenkinson as recently as 1993-4. The digital agency OgilvyOne is said to have popularized the idea. But it was Alan Cooper, a noted software developer, in his 1998 book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, who actually coined the term personas and made the case that building software for specific users was essential to success.
It’s remarkable to think that the idea of customer-centric thinking in design and marketing was developed and popularized so recently – wow. As with all things digital, we’re once again at another dynamic moment where the ideas must evolve further.
Marketing organizations have traditionally been structured around media channels and disciplines. Chief marketing officers (CMOs) oversee vice presidents of brand, communications, and now, digital.
While “take downs” of large campaigns generated by the advertising team and their AOR can permeate all disciplines, each team tends to have their own similar but different skill sets, agencies, campaigns, and sets of strategies and tactics. While many organizations say “good ideas come from anywhere,” the vast majority of big ideas are still generated from one place – brand managers focused on big-budget TV and the agencies and media teams that support them.
This model is so pervasive it feels innate. But, like all other organizational structures, it was engineered long ago based on quickly dissolving assumptions about customers and the marketplace.
From Personas to Cohorts
Largely driven by the rapid permeation of digital and the ensuing data, we will soon be forced to completely abandon these old models and archetypes.
We are on the verge of transitioning from a channel-based model to a cohort-based model.
Let me explain.
For the sake of argument, call me a Gearhead. Every morning when I wake up I check my phone. I read email, review my calendar, check Facebook, the weather, and quickly read the news. By 6 a.m. I may have already seen an ad or read about something your brand is involved in. Likely I’ve seen marketing materials created and distributed by your PR and digital teams. As I drive to work I see OOH ads and hear either radio or podcast ads. Again, likely created and distributed by different parts of your marketing team. At lunch I check Facebook again then run some errands, seeing another brand piece at retail – different materials from different teams again.
You get my point. As a consumer, I notice it’s all different, impersonal, and largely I ignore it.
In the new model, a Web search during my wake-up routine may indicate I’m in the market for one of your products and I’m automatically placed into the “Gearhead: likely to buy” cohort. It is from this insight AND the rich profile data you’ve been building on me, that all of my brand touch points for the day, or until I make the purchase, are driven.
The ads I see in my Facebook News Feed, or the podcast ad, since I’m likely not listening near a store or able to take advantage of an offer in the moment, shares some compelling emotional and practical details about the product I’m considering. As I check Facebook during lunch I see a video and an offer for free shipping with a link to buy now from your e-commerce store or easily add a mobile coupon to my phone to redeem in-store. As I’m running errands I run into the store and make my purchase, scanning my phone for the discount. Process completed, I’m then moved back into the “nurture” cohort. I was in the market and the brand touch points actually helped me decide and purchase. The marketing was actually useful.
The New Model
While the technology to track and reach me across all of these disparate channels and devices is nascent, it’s maturing quickly and this level of interaction and engagement will quickly become possible.
The biggest obstacle will be our marketing department itself.
How the teams are structured, where we spend our money, where the big ideas come from – it all seems silly in this scenario. I haven’t watched a second of TV and how I feel about the paranoid Rob Lowe and his cable subscription matters zero – money well-spent?
What if personas weren’t something we consulted but became the driver of all our efforts? What if we went even further and built our entire marketing team around a new incarnation of the consumer insights team? What would happen then?
Granted, these models are over-simplified. Every team has many nuances and is doing what it can to integrate and collaborate across disciplines and agencies. Many marketers consider themselves “customer-centric,” but the world they work in just isn’t. Maybe it’s the structure that’s wrong, not just the calcified hierarchies, lopsided allocation of resources, and inability or unwillingness to face the realities and challenges posed by modern consumers and the marketplace.
Today, marketing programs are initiated from executive teams, teams developing new products or updating existing one’s or from marketing leadership feeling the pressure to support tent poles or “refresh the brand.” Very few of these programs are sparked by a consumer insight. Yes, big ideas and campaign executions are sometimes driven from a key consumer insight, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m suggesting that all marketing (and product development, too, actually) is sparked by deeply understanding the people who buy your products or services. This type of structure worked when large groups of people acted similarly and we didn’t have the data to know the difference. Now everything is fragmented and trackable, a fundamentally different reality.
There are a few key differences in the segment-driven model:
- All projects are now initiated by the new consumer insights team working closely with senior leadership to make sure corporate objectives are aligned. Everything from new products to developing a Super Bowl campaign starts by asking, “Who are we trying to engage?”
- Instead of grouping the teams by marketing discipline and channel, they’re grouped by their role in moving customers from awareness and consideration through exploration and purchase. And management teams then collaborate to be both the voice of the customer and accountable actually influencing customer behavior. They must or they let down the teams before and after them in the journey. For example, the Reach team, a group of experts who understand traditional media buying, digital display, social, search, and PR, develop a rich plan for getting the right messages in front of the right people where they spend their time. Everyone is working on the same segments, keywords, publications, etc. No forced integration necessary because they’ve all been provided the same insights and target audiences.
- Agency teams fit much more seamlessly into this model. Instead of being a trusted partner with one part of the team and a predator who doesn’t get it to another, they fill key roles where needed. Maybe the Reach team has a member from a media buying agency, a PR agency, and three internal folks. All on the same team with the same goal.
- Agility is built into the model. New consumer insights or performance optimizations or real-time content opportunities can arise and the teams are fully equipped to handle them. The content team can make a funny tweet and the community managers and paid social teams are ready to go because they already know the key segments. Since everything starts with a consumer trigger, we can quickly assess who they are, what they need, and where we’ll reach them – and quickly execute.
Marketing Is Complicated
There’s no end state to marketing transformation. The genie is out of the bottle and we’ll never return to a world where everything is bought on Main Street and everyone watches the same TV shows. The traditional models served us remarkably well for a long time, but now they’re getting in the way of our success.
Completely restructuring your team, even if you could, is difficult, especially into an unproven model, I get that. But the ideas that Jenkinson and Cooper pioneered, driven by the dynamic and customizable digital world, are so powerful that they must soon take their rightful role at the help of our discipline.
What if you started every conversation with the question, “Who are we trying to engage?” Then, based on the answers, you determined the best ways to reach those people and you invited only the people who know how to reach those people to come-up with a plan together. And at the same time, based on the same answers, you asked your strategy team of planners and creative leadership to figure out the best messages and content for reaching and engaging those specific people in those places. What if you started creating “cohort dossiers” instead of briefs?
Am I wrong? Is the current model working great for you? Are consultative personas enough today? Are you already doing anything remotely similar? If so, is it working? If you have strong feelings about this one way or the other, I’d love to talk to you. You can leave a comment here or reach me @markoz.
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