Why customer personas may be an outdated marketing technique

customer personas


“When my head is in the typewriter the last thing on my mind is some imaginary reader or customer personas. I don’t have an audience; I have a set of standards.”  

 Don DeLillo

A few weeks ago here on {grow} I ran a piece by Rob Petersen explaining the value of working with “customer personas” to develop a content marketing plan. In fact, he provided 31 great ideas!

Customer personas are a centerpiece of many marketing strategies today, but I wanted to provide an alternative perspective.

I’d like you to think about this idea — Maybe to stand out in a world of malignant information density, we need to throw out scripted content aimed at target personas and try to actually create content by humans, for humans. After all, aren’t our competitors creating content to cater to the same personas?

Personas may hurt, not help, content creation

100 percent human contentCreating “personas” is a popular technique to provide focus and help a company develop a “voice” aimed at an ideal reader. I’m not saying that personas are without merit (especially when it comes to tech and developing user interfaces), but I would like you to think critically and not go down this path just because a consultant or advertising agency tells you to do it.

If you believe that authentic, original, and human content is the best formula to attract an audience who will engage with you, then why would we ask a marketing professional to fake their way forward based on a script aimed at a theoretical personality?

Here’s an example of the problem.

The Persona Trap

I was recently working on a content strategy with a CMO of a medium-sized and fast-growing company. As I often do, I worked in collaboration with their advertising agency, who was going to be handling the nuts and bolts of the execution.

I sat politely and quietly as the ad agency walked the CMO and her team through a painstaking process to develop buyer “personas” for targeted content. I knew I would not have to make an intervention because I could tell the CMO, an experienced industry veteran, was growing increasingly agitated as we entered the third hour of the process!

Finally, the dam burst.

“Why are we spending time on this?” she asked. “Are you telling me I don’t know my customers and can’t write about something that is relevant and interesting to them? I have worked in this business for over 30 years!”

I gave her a standing ovation in my mind.

She’s exactly right. If you know your business intimately — and every marketing leader should — manufacturing scripted content gets in the way of real customer connection.

I saw this same thing happen with a customer in Toronto. The president and founder of the company was handed a persona-based content development plan from an ad agency and was miserable. “I just can’t keep writing this way,” she said. “I’m bored out of my mind, and it’s not working anyway.”

I encouraged her to scrap the plan and write from her heart. Her first post, which recounted important business lessons she learned from The Grateful Dead, was the number one blog post in the company’s history. And more important, content creation became fun for her again. Her passion came alive, and it shined through in her content.

The human imperative

As I explained in my Content Shock article, we’re in a period where the novelty of content marketing has worn off.  In an environment characterized by dramatically increasing levels of information and a limited ability to consume it, we have to do things differently — much differently — to stand out.

Here is something I am convinced about — over time, the most human companies will win. Showing our hearts, showing ourselves, showing our love of The Grateful Dead, is the opposite of what we expect from business leaders but it is the essential characteristic that draws us to them.

Be. More. Human.

How do you achieve this human connection by writing according to a script of what you BELIEVE people want to hear? Tear down those artificial walls and show yourself. This is not easy. This may not feel like the safe path forward. But it is what your customers want and crave.

If you are writing for a persona and your competitors are writing for a persona, how is this creating an emotional connection and unique value? Being “you” is the only true source of originality you have.

If you know your customers intimately, don’t hide behind a cookie-cutter advertising plan. Consider scrapping the personas and meeting customers on their terms, with an open mind and an open heart.

Be. More. Human.  Agree?

Mark Schaefer is the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. He is the author of some of the world’s bestselling marketing books and is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak at your company event or conference soon.

Follow Mark on TwitterLinkedInYouTube, and Instagram.

Illustration from the Berlin Wall courtesy Flickr CC and Abhijeet Rane.

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