Hey, Marketers: I am a Person, Not a Persona

Blog Post
December 08, 2017

Our mission at Harte Hanks is to make marketing human. Not that we reject marketing technology, big data, market research, analytics, and so forth. Quite the contrary, we are expert users of all of these tools. But too often marketers let the tools do their thinking for them. They put the numbers first and people second—sometimes leaving the human element out altogether.

We see these marketing tools as supporting and enhancing the human interaction. They provide clues or signals to getting the human element right. And there are a lot of signals—both from a personal purchase or how I make a decision in business. Some signals may be the same, others may vary drastically.

I am more than demographics.

One of the most misused marketing tools is the persona—the archetype of a particular kind of customer, complete with goals, behaviors, points of view, etc., synthesized from market research.

Rather than the traditional approach of creating personas based on demographics, effective personas must be all about detail. They start with understanding the situation—the job to be done or problem to be solved and the key concerns in solving the problem. Then they add the emotional state—is the buyer frustrated, under a tight deadline, excited about …? Next, personas should include the role the persona is playing in the buying process and in the decision to select a particular solution. What channels does the persona engage with to inform the decision? Where does the persona go to obtain information? And lastly, personas should be rounded out with demographics. 

I explain how I'm not just Frank—why it's important to understand more than just who I am—in this video:

When used properly, personas are very helpful. They help us interact with customers as humans, not data sets. 

A great example of personas humanizing marketing is on the LLBean website. The first image is a multi-racial, millennial family playing in the leaves under the words “Be an outsider.”  (The heading is ambiguous: It can be read “Bean Outsider."  Very creative!) The caption says, “Because campfires were made for gathering around. Leaf-peeping is more fun with your people. And comfort food tastes even better when everyone pitches in.” The next image is of a young, professional female. The next a young professional male. Four, multi-racial friends. A 30-second video featuring all of the above in turn. And thumbnails of millennial men, women, and children wearing the fall product line.

In my mind’s eye, I am exactly that young, handsome, professional man, enjoying the fall colors in a scotch plaid flannel—a fact that may not be obvious to a casual observer. I can relate to the persona they've identified me as; it's as if they're speaking directly to me.

My persona pivots—I am not static.

But there are pitfalls to personas: specifically, when we market to the persona and not the person. 

This is particularly problematic in B2B marketing, when all we have to go on is a series of website visits and the firmographics—the visitor’s company’s size, industry, geography. These amount to tea leaves for us to read and respond to. These are signals, but very limited and don’t tell the whole story.

For example, not only am I the scotch plaid professional playing in the leaves, I’m also a CMO, and my next search may be looking for a company to hire to do a marketing job. In this case, I'm playing a different role with a different job to be done and have much different motivations for entering a buyer's journey. Marketers must sense when the prospect pivots away from one persona to a completely different persona—or perhaps to a new, unique, personal buying process. 

At Harte Hanks, we view our website visitors according to intensity (how focused are their visits on a particular topic or topics?), frequency (visit our site four or five times in a couple of months, and you have our attention), and intent (are you focused on our capabilities in marketing consulting, in agency services, in execution, etc?). We look at each interaction and discuss as a team what we think the person is trying to do and what problem they are trying to solve—or what job they are trying to do.

In other words, we're reading the buyers' signals rather than assuming they fit into a certain persona bucket, as I explain in this video:

Often your behavior places you in exactly the right category, or persona. But we must be alert to the fact that you are a person not a persona. In general, you may be analytical and deliberate; our white paper on a particular topic you’ve been studying may be exactly the right way to have a “conversation” with you in most cases. But in a particular situation, you may have an urgent need, and you need to buy right away. In this case, the white paper is anything but responsive. You have pivoted and we need to pivot with you to support you in the way you want.

We have a chat icon on our site with a picture of a dog and the caption, “Is there something I can help you with before I fetch my humans?” [And yes, he is a real puppy, not a stock photo—one of our office dogs. And our live chats are answered by members of our marketing team—also not stock photos.] Recently a very deliberative buyer, who typically communicated through the “contact us” channel, used the chat button to let us know he had pivoted to wanting a quote right away for an emergency. We pivoted with him and customized our support and response to him in exactly the way he needed to be supported.

Personas are efficient and often effective, but sometimes they are wrong. And we need to be sensitive to the behavioral clues customers give us that they have pivoted away from their normal persona. And then we need to pivot with them.

Find this interesting? Learn more about Harte Hanks' approach to personas.