7 useless facts about your personas

Aaahh, personas. Those imaginary people that all planners invent to help inspire our marketing.

At their best, personas are like our childhood imaginary friends – so real that we can almost hear their voices in our heads. At their worst, they’re cardboard-cutouts, boring “average” people designed to appease everybody and please nobody, with 2.1 kids and a dog, who haven’t existed outside of a Norman Rockwell painting in half a decade.

Now, there are tons of resources out there on how to craft personas that work. Some planners favour a statistical, data-driven approach; others prefer in-person interviews or focus groups; in the digital world, we tend to rely heavily on social media conversation audits. From psychological profiling to ethnographics, the methodologies are as varied as the personas themselves. I’m not here to provide a primer or a 101 on persona writing. Nor am I trying to provide a critique or a simple good-or-bad analysis.

But it occurs to me that one of the reasons that personas get such a bad rap among marketers is that we pad them with far too much redundant information. That is, we add details to our imaginary people that, while they may be true, are probably so common so as to be completely useless.

What if we could strip out the redundancies, and just be left with the most relevant facts about our fake people? Wouldn’t that improve both the planning process and the creative process?

There are probably zillions of redundant facts. Here are just seven:

1. Jane is busy.

Yes, of course Jane is busy. Whether Jane is a CEO or a librarian or a single mom with two kids or all of the above, she’s busy. Do you know anyone, anywhere, who isn’t busy these days? Other than newborn babies, everyone in just about any wake of life is pressed for time these days — including marketing planners, creative types, and clients. So can we skip the redundant “busy” qualifier and just take that as a given?

2. Jane is connected.

Unless you mean in the “Godfather” sense of the word, you probably don’t have to specify that Jane uses the magical interwebs for things like email, Facebook or shopping. Now, whether Jane has home internet access is another story – a good 20% of Canadians still didn’t as of the latest census two years ago. So you’ll probably want to specify whether she’s logging on at home, at the office, or at the café with convenient WiFi. You may also be interested in what her connection speed is, whether she’s using a smartphone or a tablet (and what type), her browsing frequency, and her online habits. But simply stating that she’s in some way connected is the 2012 equivalent of stating that the sky is blue.

3. Jane has people she cares about in her life.

How many times have you read in a persona, “in her spare time, Jane likes to spend time with her family and friends”? Me too. What does this tell a marketer about Jane? Nada. I would find it much more interesting or useful to know that in her spare time, Jane likes to play live-action roleplaying games, or spend time at her local Scrabble society, or rescue alpacas from farms. Everyone has people who matter in their lives; simply stating so isn’t useful, but making those people come to life will help Jane seem more real as well.

4. Jane shops.

Of course Jane shops. She buys food; she buys clothing, she buys necessities and perhaps luxuries of various sorts to fit her life. Most personas at least make an attempt to identify Jane’s favourite stores and brands, but have you ever questioned the usefulness of this information? Usually, it falls into the redundant category unless it comes loaded with a specific insight. For example, knowing that Jane buys her jeans at the GAP is probably useless information — unless you happen to be selling Levis. Usually, though, people’s generic shopping habits are fairly boring and predictable, and a good persona will pare them down to the few relevant essentials.

5. Jane is 30-35 years old, earns $50-$75k and is married with 2.2 kids (and a dog).

Basic stats like age, gender, income and family status make it into nearly every persona that I’ve ever encountered. And in most cases, these stats are utterly meaningless. They’re typically not included to inspire any insights, but merely to appease the client, who has specified this target market information somewhere in a briefing document. Basic demographic information is only useful when it tells us something — a key selling benefit, perhaps, or a major point of differentiation from the competitive brand. Otherwise, it’s far more useful to describe who Jane is as a human being, what drives and motivates her, and what she is passionate about.

6. Jane is passionate about [product that client sells].

She’s really, really not. Marketers frequently fall into the trap of assuming that they’re marketing to enthusiasts, when really, that group tends to comprise a tiny sliver of the target audience for the vast majority of products and services. Companies know that the mass consumer market probably doesn’t spend much of their day thinking about the product. Marketers need to recognize that too, by building realistic personas who may not know – or care to know – about every brand’s features and distinctive benefits.

7. Jane is looking for solutions that work for her life.

This could be translated as “the writer of this persona is looking for shortcuts that work for her life”. Platitudes and filler statements such as these have no place in a useful consumer persona.