This article is part of an occasional series from leading voices about key issues facing marketing today.
When someone has a hot-sauce habit, he knows when that extra zing of impact just isn't there. On the other hand, many live their entire lives without ever opening a bottle of Cholula. They accept that their meal is as good as it gets, that there's no new dimension of flavor within reach—because it's what they're accustomed to.
That's also where too many marketers are right now in relation to crafting personas for marketing.
A customer persona is a figurative sketch of an audience segment; marketers rely on those personas to define customers and their needs—and to meet their needs and wants.
In relation to hot sauce, for example, you might define one segment of buyers as those who have never tried it, another as those who use it occasionally, and yet another as those who may be so passionate that they keep a small bottle on their key chain. Each segment is a worthy target, but they will be motivated by different messages and offers.
Personas help you identify characteristics of each segment so that you may shape optimal messaging.
A carefully crafted representation of a customer segment also brings humanity into a campaign at a time when technology and demographics tend to be in the spotlight. Yet, it's more effective to design campaigns and experiences for a personality than, say, an age range or mobile device model.
So the problem is that too many marketers are still relying on traditional personas even though consumer behavior has evolved far beyond such tidy categories. As a result, the relationship between brands and consumers has become stunted.
To understand the limits of traditional persona-based marketing, consider how human behavior has changed since personas gained steam back in the late 20th century. We now have exponentially more choices in how we communicate, consume information, relax, complete tasks, travel, make payments, and so on. Connectivity and mobile devices have unlocked the where and when of each of our daily routines: We're watching TV on the train, grocery-shopping at work, and paying bills on vacation. Simply put, our options have blown up.
Now, it's still possible for brands and agencies to create personas that reflect modern behavior. Broad brush strokes can give us, for example, "Mary," the Millennial mom who is also an early adopter of technology, prioritizes family but also plans the occasional 'me' time, and leans heavily on her mobile device and apps throughout her day. In this persona, we gain a good sense of Mary's personality—who she is—but we haven't addressed the how, when, and where yet.
Some may argue that those questions have historically been answered in the media plan, and they wouldn't be inaccurate. They are, however, treading on the dangerous ground commonly known as That's How It's Always Been Done. By locking into one "Mary" segment, marketers are relying on a persona that suits a much simpler behavior model.
In today's world, Mary exists, but within that segment there are significant variances in her day-to-day behavior patterns that need to be identified if you're going to build an effective media strategy. Modern marketers aren't simply challenged to meet Mary's needs, they also need to address Mary-Ann, Mary-Rosa and Mary-Beth, and so on—and in the moments that matter most.
If that sounds like a lot to squeeze into a PowerPoint slide, it's because we've entered a more complex era of personas—one distinct from traditional persona marketing, for a few reasons. For one, it's data-driven as opposed to assumption-driven. Though you may initiate your persona creation with an intuitive sketch of "Mary," these days you apply data to help paint a clearer picture of her needs, and to map variables in Mary subsegments.
For example, in a recent campaign for a popular snack brand, we analyzed the patterns of one audience and observed that the most receptive moments varied based on where they shopped. This opportunity for optimization would have been invisible had we relied on broad-brush segments alone.
Of course, this depth of analysis isn't something you do manually, which is why machine-learning is an essential element in modern persona marketing. Machine-learning makes it possible to identify the many variables in consumer behavior and, importantly, zero in on those that impact a marketer's ability to influence awareness, traffic, and purchases. With the resulting more sophisticated and dynamic analysis of where, when, and how your audience shops, watches tv and travels, and which experiences they are most receptive during, you can target more precisely and effectively. Even better, you can shape creative messages that account for the most influential variables.
Another key distinction from traditional personals is that this approach provides a constant feedback loop—which is essential to the ever-changing dynamics of modern behavior. For example, Mary may have always bought groceries in store, but she could also be among the 55% of millennials who plan to order groceries online in 2018. A dynamic, data-driven persona model will help you identify these behavioral shifts and then apply that insight to campaign optimization. This "living" persona can also provide critical input into marketing and product strategy. (Are you starting to taste the hot sauce yet?)
There's meaningful value in taking a multidimensional, data-driven approach to personas. By identifying and adapting to the variables that have the greatest impact on your influence, you can deliver better-timed marketing with higher relevancy and dramatically increase the effectiveness of your marketing.
But maybe even more important is the impact on your audience's experience: When you're smarter about your audience's needs and behavior, you can meet those needs more effectively. People will like your brand and messages better, their propensity to respond will increase, and you can heat up your performance numbers.
And that, like hot sauce, is habit-forming.