Taking a marketing persona from vision to execution

October 10, 2022

Ashley Terpstra
Marketers time and time again have utilized personas to base their marketing strategy off of. However, in the current, data-driven world, personas have a few pitfalls.

Taking a marketing persona from vision to execution

If you’ve spent time working in marketing, you’ve likely come across a persona — the fictional target audience brought to life by a mood board of interests, pictures, and often, a name. For example, Peg, the Midwest grandma who dotes on her grandkids and has an active social life in retirement. Or Carter, the single 20-something who spends his time working out and going to concerts.

Personas are often built from a variety of first-party research, such as interviews or focus groups, and are paired with third-party research to continue to define the audience, such as syndicated audience data from companies like MRI-Simmons or Comscore. It’s important for marketers to understand their audience to successfully innovate their products and services, resonate with prospects, and break through competition. This is why the idea of a persona — a guiding light for everyone in your company to rally behind — has been a tried-and-true marketing tool. 

While personas enable marketers to have a unified view of their target audiences, they are often missing important pieces of information, like the values and feelings that drive decisions. The ability to look beyond surface-level demographics and instead shift to more empathetic marketing remains imperative in today’s volatile world. Many consumer trends (digital fatigue, blending of work and life during the day, and a constant onslaught of worldly events) have taken a toll on people’s mental state. A brand that can identify the in-between data, including feelings and emotions, can build trust and loyalty and take a persona from vision to action. 

Traditional personas are still critical to understanding an audience and executing strategy, and can be even more useful and relevant by adding a few small but important data points. Marketers should be aware of these common mistakes of traditional marketing personas:

1. The data gathered are too generic and not actionable

Collecting first-party data, like interviews, can be a lengthy and expensive process. And oftentimes, the sample size can be too small to make actionable decisions against. So, marketers often turn to the larger sample sizes and faster turnaround time of third-party research. But unfortunately, these data aren’t always helpful. For example, Peg, our active grandma, is likely to drive a Honda and read People magazine, along with millions of other people who are not Peg. As a means of getting a general understanding of your audience, using third-party research might be helpful. But when it comes to deciding on targeted media placements, it can be hard to activate against this information, as the outputs are either too obvious, create too much waste, or simply don’t transfer into a media placement.

The solution is knowing what your audience research is going to support. While personas don’t always impact where to place media, they do help with top-level messaging and content creation. Whether it’s first-party or third-party data, focus on research that outlines a person’s feelings, values, and motivations to uncover unique ways to stand out and meet audiences where they are with the content they need. To do this, consider using emotional keyword research to identify sentiment and analyze available first-party data to gain additional insight. 

2. Personas don’t account for all of the nuances of your target audience and their lifestyle, leading to a less relevant experience

Relevance is key. By nature, personas put people into categories based on their demographics and buying behaviors. But, lifestyle differences have tremendous impacts on preferences and needs. For example, a parent of young kids and a college student might look very different on paper, but they may share a common feeling that they are short on time.

As marketers utilize personas, consider the challenges, problems, and topics that the person is thinking about that would bring them to different brands. Use focus groups and surveys, keyword research, social listening, and customer care data to help with this. Also consider what messaging will resonate best with your audience. For example, repeat customers should receive different messaging than prospects. And to really hone in on your audience, use targeting data to pair a relevant message to your desired user.

3. Alternatively, personas can be too exclusive, which pigeonholes algorithms and can leave out other prospects that might be interested in your brand

Stated simply: don’t over-engineer targeting. Instead, question if a potentially relevant audience is being excluded from your targeting or content — whether it’s age, gender, race, geographical region, or interests and beliefs. The earlier example of the college student and parent of young children applies here too, where a product or service that saves time could be intriguing to both audiences. By focusing less on what a potential customer looks like on paper, and more about how certain feelings and emotions could bring them to your brand, brands can cast a wider net, opening up the potential of more reach, engagement, and sales.

What marketers need to know

In the end, any work done to better understand your audience is worthwhile. And personas can be a powerful marketing tool to improve products and advertising campaigns. But the modern-day persona should inform messaging and audience relevance without being so exclusive that brands miss out on other potential buyers. Pairing traditional persona elements with consumer mindset can inform actionable insights for media placement and content, and will round out a marketing strategy, taking a persona from vision to execution.