How to Make Buyer Personas Relevant Again

Hint: Ditch qualitative methods for a quicker, data-driven approach

“Persona” is a divisive word in marketing. Some marketers view personas as overly simplistic, while other marketers will tell you that identifying personas is an integral step of any marketing endeavor. The critics of persona research tend to fall on the analytical side of marketing, often condemning the lack of statistical rigor involved. However, these critics are quick to overlook the many advantages of persona research.

Our research team at Spredfast saw both the potential value of persona work and the problems of qualitative research methods and set out to determine a framework that would: (1) correctly identify prototypical customers who share several qualities with a significant segment of a brand’s broader audience and (2) offer deep psychographic data (activities those people tend to enjoy, their purchase motivations, their family or relationship status, etc) that leads to actionable insights.

Our latest Smart Social Report, What Instagram Data Reveals About Traveler Personas, does just that. Our framework provides a way to identify a brand’s key personas, deliver deep insights about their interests and motivations, and compare and contrast personas to identify the most important characteristics of each. And the best part? The process is not only statistically -sound, but it requires less work than traditional methods. But first, let's explore why persona research is controversial among marketers.

Personas are still relevant, if the research is done well

The value of well-researched personas is two-fold. First, personas are simple. When persona research is done well, it conveys a large amount of information succinctly. Looking at examples of a few customers who represent the characteristics of many customers is easier to digest than looking at statistics about the same audience. Personas are easy-to-understand, regardless of job experience or department. An intern can look at a list of customer personas and quickly understand a brand’s most important customer segments. At the same time, an executive can look at a list of personas and digest the information quickly, saving time in busy schedules.

Second, personas produce actionable insights. I’m willing to bet that all marketers have, at some point, been presented with (or presented themselves with) a report filled with numbers and percentages that are ultimately meaningless. One hundred metrics about a segment of your audience is not as actionable as seeing that information distilled into a persona: a snapshot of a person, paired with a handful of the most meaningful attributes that describe them. That handful of attributes can immediately be used to inform content strategy, through both targeting and content optimization. Let’s say one of your brand’s key personas consist of new mothers who are interested in nutrition and are likely to click Facebook ads. A marketer can then quickly make the decision to target new mothers on Facebook with ads emphasizing healthy lifestyles.

Simplicity has its downside

So, if personas are simple and actionable, why do so many marketers find them outdated? As a marketing analyst on the Research team at Spredfast, I have to admit I fall under the category of marketers hesitant to trust the efficacy of most persona work. While simplicity and actionable insights are undoubtedly valuable aspects of persona research, analytically-minded marketers will point to two major downfalls: inaccuracy and inefficiency.

Though simplicity is a good thing, over-simplicity can hurt persona research. Many times the approach marketers take to identifying personas is as simple as reading through a list of customers from a database (which is usually a tiny fraction of the actual customer base) and looking for patterns. This approach could be an hour-long assignment handed to an intern who selects a few customers from the list who seem to exemplify the traits of other customers in the database. Or, perhaps your brand conducts interviews with customers and then extrapolates qualities of the entire brand audience based on small number of interviewees. The problem with these approaches is that they are both based on assumptions. Marketers assume a few patterns are representative of a significant portion of their audience without testing whether or not those assumptions are true. Perhaps the first three customers in a list of a thousand are millennial men. The pattern could lead to the assumption that millennial men are an important audience segment, regardless of how many of the remaining 997 customers fall into that category.

The second major downfall of these qualitative research methods is that they end up taking longer than data-driven approaches. Why? Because customers’ interests and buying behaviors are constantly evolving. Trends change at a rapid pace, meaning personas need to be updated just as quickly in order to remain useful. Data-driven approaches to persona research, on the other hand, can be refreshed automatically. Once a method is in place, data can be refreshed on a yearly, monthly, or even weekly basis.

If you’re in the travel industry, we also did the work for you. Our newest Smart Social Report makes use of this data-driven approach to persona research by identifying how travel looks different for four distinct personas: students traveling with friends, parents traveling with children, traveling couples, and professionals traveling for business. To find out when people are most likely to travel for adventure versus education or relaxation or which persona type prefers to visit historical sites over hiking or dining, and so much more, click here.

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Justine Braun the Senior Analyst of Research & Insights at Spredfast. Her career began in Chicago studying social data from a psychological perspective. When she’s not buried in analysis, you can find her climbing, making ice cream, or rambling about female-fronted punk bands.