As marketers, we often rely on personas to understand customers and frame messaging. This can be a valuable exercise: We create these people, give them names, and assign them attributes and interests. They help us think about our customers in a tangible way. A persona makes Walt from Milwaukee a real human, instead of a group of data points.
But personas aren’t a perfect tool. Use them wisely—and avoid falling into these traps.
Pitfall #1: Stereotypes can be misleading
It’s all too easy for a persona to become an inaccurate stereotype, as I learned when it happened to me in a recent exercise we did here at Part and Sum. Given my basic demographics (female, age 35-44, living in the Midwest), all the assumptions made about me—where I shopped, which social media platforms I like, and the number of children I have—were wrong. This experience was a great reminder that the top-level demographics that describe me, on the whole, have little to do with what I want to buy and what I’m interested in.
Solution: Think “what,” not “who”
Sometimes you need to flip personas on their head. Instead of asking who they are, investigate what people want. What problems are they trying to solve? What other brands do they admire? What causes do they engage with? And instead of focusing on demographic differences, consider what your customers have in common. For example, an eco-friendly cleaning product could appeal to suburban moms who want to protect their kids from harmful chemicals, but a young, single, urban professional may share a the exact same concern about their own health.
This shared interest opens the door to more opportunities. Both of these customers probably care about ingredient transparency. Both might be willing to pay a premium for this product, because it reflects a personal value. So, instead of building messaging around “be a better mom,” you can expand your reach by emphasizing the product’s broader value: it’s the safe, healthy way to keep your home clean.
Pitfall #2: You have too many personas
In another recent project, I worked with a client who had twelve top-line personas, each of which was broken down into several smaller categories that covered every possible use case for their entire line of products. The client recognized that this system was unwieldy: With so many personas in play, it’s hard to use them effectively, or even remember them all.
Solution: Start small and iterate
We quickly began paring down this client’s personas. For most brands, three is plenty to start with. Align these with your primary business goals and use cases. Outliers are important to recognize, but trying to cover every possibility gets confusing when teams are building out strategy, design, and marketing.
Once you have a handful of solid personas, you can begin to test messaging and see how different groups respond. From there, you can refine and narrow your customer profiles. Any personas or customer insights that don’t get used should be saved for later—this information may be helpful down the road if you need to pull in additional attributes.
Pitfall #3: Customers change faster than personas do
Locking customer groups into rigid personas may inhibit your ability to follow them from one life stage to the next. A classic marketing persona represents a customer at a moment in time. What happens when their needs or interests evolve?
Solution: Map out lifecycles to inform strategy across the customer journey
A great example of how to grow with your customers is the Honest Company, which began by appealing to new and first-time moms. Then, recognizing that moms’ needs change as their kids get older, Honest developed products and services to go from babyhood to the toddler years and beyond.
Try building out email flows to reach customers at specific milestones. Did someone buy a crate of 12-month sized diapers? Reach out a year later to highlight a sale on training pants. Knowing where your customers are right now is an important starting point, but it is just that, a starting point. People change over time, and if you don’t follow them, you run the risk of losing them.
Personas can focus teams and make it easier to build clear pathways for users—especially if you need to quickly segment and drive them to specific actions. However, over-reliance on personas can limit your marketing efforts, brand perception, and customer experience. By aligning strategy with what you can do for people, you’ll be able to reach more customers and highlight the true value of your brand.
So, the next time you brainstorm a new marketing plan, ask yourself: “What do my customers want? And what makes my business uniquely suited to help them achieve it?” Look for common interests and needs, and evaluate how individual moments may reflect an ongoing journey. Most important of all, remind your teams that sometimes it’s better to rally around what people want—not who they are.