When Personas Fail

Over the years, we watched the term “persona” achieve buzzword status. Monkey see, monkey do: some companies actually created personas. For all the hype, though, there are too many personas collecting dust in the “been there, done that” file.

Despite the buzz, personas are poorly understood. Not all personas have the same purpose. They can be used to develop user interfaces, plan marketing, model buyers, and so forth. But all bring abstract data to life to increase empathy. It’s much harder to do than it sounds, and it’s really simple to screw up. If you do personas right but don’t use them, they fail. And if you apply the wrong type of persona to an exercise, it will fail even if it was well-crafted.

In a recent “DM News” column, Andrew Frawley writes:

First introduced in 1991 by Alan Cooper, personas have evolved as a popular technique for marketers to attempt to segment customers better and more effectively address their needs and wants, giving them the background they need to create more targeted messages.

This drives me nuts: Alan Cooper popularized the term “persona” to create better user interfaces with his book “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum.” It was timely and necessary, but hardly new. The concept is much older than that. He continues, articulating why many personas fail:

While personas claim to provide a greater understanding of your customer, they can fall far short when two people have similar profile information but very different wants and needs. While the marketing program may be well thought out and attempts to speak directly to customers, it also needs to take into consideration how, where and when Joe and Fred consider and carry out their purchases.

Frawley implies all personas share this shortfall and therefore fail. Don’t blame the personas! They were created to help the marketer understand customer types. Attempting to stretch a simple two-dimensional persona over an entire purchasing process is like wearing flip-flops on a ski slope. If your personas were created with specific tasks and goals in mind or if they’re simply demographic sketches to plan marketing messages, their usefulness is limited to those purposes.

I’ve written about personas in this column for years. Our clients rave about their personas. But would our personas be useful in planning user interfaces? No!

The persona tools we’ve developed are to treat content and copy as the interface. The purpose of persuasion architecture personas is to plan and predict a dialogue that allows buyers to naturally navigate your content so they feel confident as they persuade themselves that yours is the solution to their problem. As far as we know, persuasion architecture personas are the only ones that get accounted for in Web analytics and have a scientific optimization process required.

In the persuasion architecture process, personas are created to account for the needs and motivations Frawley alludes to. Of course, the psychographic dimension is only part of the persona creation process; topography (the industry and competitive landscape) and demographics are also factored in.

Another measure of a successful persona is your team’s ability to dialogue and role-play with it about its ideal buying experience. Personas must be used to plan relevant content no matter where they are in the buying cycle. In the persuasion architecture process, personas are used to plan the content interface customers will engage in as they buy.

This is the only way to solve Frawley’s stated dilemma. Personalization is not the answer.

Tamara Adlin, author of “The Persona Lifecycle,” offers more insight into why personas fail:

Did you know that most persona efforts fail as soon as the personas are completed? Teams create wonderful personas, design fabulous posters to put on the walls, and say “ta-da! We have personas!” Creating personas is really just the beginning. A persona is not a document — it is a clear understanding of a target customer that exists in the minds of your team.

No matter how well their personas are created, companies lose interest in them when they’re unwilling to invest the resources and effort to fulfill their needs in the buying process. Other companies will focus on one or two and ignore the opportunities the others represent.

Again, this isn’t the persona’s fault. Many people invest significant money in a diet plan only to work the diet for an hour, a day, or a week, then resume their consumption of fries and Ho-Hos. If that’s your choice, that’s fine. But don’t blame the diet if you don’t lose weight.

What has your experience with personas been? Good? Bad? Indifferent? Let’s discuss it.

Related reading