Persona Myopia Ruins Digital Marketing

June 12, 2017 Frank Grillo

The biggest risk in the growing use of personas in digital marketing is to presume too much. When this happens, you are not personalizing your interaction with the customer, you are alienating them. You are falling victim to persona myopia.

Any retail salesperson worth their salt knows it is better to ask than tell.  The first, default question is: “May I help you?” Not: “Would you like to buy this?” It’s not only polite to do the former, it is also far more successful. Sure, if a well-known and conversational patron walks in to a clothing store, the experienced salesperson will be proactive. Maybe they will point out a new arrival related to the customer’s prior fashion interests, or maybe they will ask them about recent travels, and so on. 

But if it’s a new customer, the good sales person knows not to pounce. They are attentive and easily accessed, ready to serve. They may even start a conversation. But they let the customer lead.

This sensitivity is even more important in digital marketing. Don’t let persona-myopia lead you to pounce.

Persona myopia results when marketers become overly enamored with the personas they create. One very understandable reason is that it takes significant time and effort to create and operationalize them. The persona development process goes through multiple phases.  Customer interviews are conducted. Databases are analyzed. Buyer behavior clusters are identified. Clusters are mapped into buyer’s journeys, and are anthropomorphized with invented names, family stories, career paths, and so on. Digital sensing systems are set to sort customers into personas and respond in ways that best fit their associated journeys. We fall in love with “Meg, the hi-tech CEO,” or “Michael, the Lululemon-clad millennial.”

This love-induced myopia makes us forget the most basic of all marketing rules: listen!  Marketers must guard against letting personas and associated response algorithms interfere with listening to what the customer is really saying in the moment. We need to let Michael take a shower, put on business casual and act like a CEO when he wants to.  And Meg may need to put on some Lululemon and work out the stress of her 10-hour day with a spin class now and then.

Always remember: personas are situational and contextual. Today’s digital sensing systems are rudimentary compared with face-to-face dialogue. We can only make weak guesses about what would be far more obvious if we were face-to-face with Meg or Michael. So, at the first whiff of the possibility that a persona is not tracking with actual behavior, abandon it and default to the most basic and polite of digital routines: listen and respond.  

If everything you digitally know about a buyer tells you they use slow, careful consideration, but then they put something in the shopping cart without viewing other products, don’t slow them down with the assessment tool that lets them compare other options just because their historical persona is deliberative. Ask them if they want to view their shopping cart. If they decline and navigate to another product, then you might offer a comparison chart. Otherwise, stick with the new assumption that they have adopted a new persona in this situation and, at least for this transaction, they are behaving in a quick-and-efficient purchase mode.

Any number of reasons can move a buyer to divert from his or her previous shopping mode to another. No matter how much work you’ve put into creating a persona, always be ready for the persona to be wrong. Keep listening carefully just in case you misheard what the customer wants or they have changed their mode for this purchase.  

Careful listening applies to every phase of digital customer interaction. If your website search engine only returns product spec sheets, you will alienate many potential customers. Most digital shoppers expect to receive how-to information when they ask for it. They often type questions on browsers and get answers from their search engines, so why should it be any different on your website? If they want a spec sheet, they will ask for it.  If they search for how-to information on your site, give it to them. 

Persona myopia also stems from the importance of personas in the overall marketing strategy. Ultimately, your digital marketing program is only as good as your customer understanding, and personas are one of the best ways to make this understanding tangible and real for the customer. Many design decisions for analytics, user experience, media, and device/mobile strategy are informed by your personas. 

But personas should never overrule common sense. Think of personas as hypotheses about the customer and their mood at a given moment in time. As we all know from personal experience, moods can change quickly.  Someone who tends to be a careful, slow and considered buyer can turn on a dime for no apparent reason. If we don’t shift with them, we are in effect telling them that they are wrong for changing their mood and that we want them to use to their “normal” purchasing mode. Obviously, this is an obnoxious and undesirable signal to send to your customers. 

With these cautions in mind, personas are clearly a major component of a well-developed customer understanding.  If you have a treasure trove of data on customer buying behavior but don’t translate it into personas, then you have the proverbial tree that fell in the woods: your customers will not experience much of your deep understanding of them. 

The reality for many companies, however, is that that their digital behavior databases are far from treasure-trove status. It is nearly impossible to convert the data into actionable insights. Some think the solution lies in marketing technology (martech) investments. But until you know exactly what you want, there is a strong chance that you will be disappointed if you just throw money at technology.

Speaking from experience, our martech investments were high but the returns were not. So, we literally inserted humans into the equation and created what we call the War Room. We have a team of marketers who meet daily to review recent website activity. They review frequency of visits, intensity or time spent on the site, and intent, or whether visitors exhibit a pattern of interest. We interpret multiple types of data to gauge high, medium and low levels of frequency, intensity and intent. The team hypothesizes whether the prospect is in the mode of browsing, shopping, or buying.  Then they make best estimates of whom to contact and craft appropriate responses. 

War Room Process

Here’s an example of how this hybrid—technology-human—process works.  Early in their buying process, one company visited our site 33 times over a few weeks. Their time on site was well above average, and sometimes they spent 15 or more minutes on a page. On multiple occasions, they visited our financial services pages dedicated to insurance, finance and banking. The specific topic of marketing strategy captured their interest most, as demonstrated by the time they spent on this page. Our team “listened” to this digital behavior and responded by sending a book on strategy to their CEO with a personal note from our CMO. From there, we reached out with additional content aligned with their prior site behavior. Our interpretation of the company’s behavior was validated when they asked to be contacted. We assigned the lead to a business development executive, and they established a more formal business conversation.

We are excited about how this “high-touch” process can evolve beyond Phase I. After tracking results for a few quarters, we can validate our measures of high, medium, and low for frequency, intensity, and intent.  We can refine our method of identifying who to contact and how. We can track which responses were most effective. We can identify response bottlenecks.  We can add more automation. And, we can develop more refined personas. 

While personas are a critical vehicle for enhancing the maturity of customer understanding, they must evolve along with our understanding of digital behavior.  Automation is a poor substitute for listening and making personalized responses.  In other words, personas are just one tool for listen-and-respond marketing. Rely too mechanically on persona-based categorization of and response to customer behavior, and you suffer the consequences of persona myopia—you bump into the wall of rejection. But just because personas are not right all the time, don’t deprive your team of the insights and implications for effective responses they can offer.  

Learn more about Harte Hanks' approach to personas here.

About the Author

Frank Grillo

Frank Grillo, CMO, brings creativity and an emphasis on customer centricity to the Harte Hanks brand. With more than 25 years of sales and marketing experience, Frank has helped many brands expand and transition their marketing strategies through periods of significant change, innovation and disruption in the marketplace. He is laser-focused on two of our clients’ critical needs—defining solutions for digital and data, and raising the Harte Hanks profile with external audiences like media, analysts and investors.

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