Do your customer personas help writers see your audience clearly? Or are they writing to stereotypes?
Creativity Creative Thinking

Customer Personas: Smart Marketing Move or Slippery Slope to Stereotyping?

10 Minute Read

I have a love/hate relationship with customer personas.

As a freelance content marketer, I’ve written for dozens of brands. Many of them send me personas during onboarding, and some are super helpful. They help me visualize who I’m writing for, better understand what my audience wants to know, and take the right tone for the brand and its customers.

But I’ll be honest: Quite often, I forget all about those personas as soon as I read the descriptions. (Shh, don’t tell my clients.)

Shh - don't tell my clients

Image attribution: Kristina Flour

I don’t forget about these personas because I’m forgetful (though I sometimes am) or because I don’t care what the client wants (I absolutely do). I forget about them because they don’t actually tell me anything useful. Some are too generic, others are way too specific, and—worst of all—some are based on nothing more than stereotypes.

I’m not alone in this experience. A friend and fellow content marketer recently shared with me her own buyer personas horror story:

I used to work for a small strategy consulting firm with a seller-doer model (i.e., the managing directors were the salespeople and also led the client delivery). The MDs didn’t have much sales or marketing acumen, but the CEO was breathing down their necks to get in front of potential buyers, so what did they do? They farmed the job out to their new associates (fresh out of college, with nothing but theory to guide them), who came back with the most offensive caricature of a business executive I’ve ever seen and a sales campaign to match.

The persona they built out was straight out of central casting (an aging white man, divorced with two children, who enjoys playing golf) and the campaign involved sending them scotch glasses. By relying on a stereotype to guide marketing/sales efforts, we turned into the most horrible version of a seedy consultancy ourselves. The CMO and I were able to put the kibosh on it before it came to fruition, but it was discussed for WAY longer than it should have been.

Stereotyping is a bad marketing strategy whether brands are marketing to consumers or to business buyers, and not only because it’s insulting and alienating for the audience. It puts content teams in a box, hampers their creative thinking, limits their reach, and can even sully the brand’s good name.

But personas aren’t stereotypes—at least they don’t have to be. Good personas are based on data, research, and customer insights.

How do marketing teams create valuable customer personas and then use them thoughtfully and appropriately in their marketing strategy?

Think Archetypes, Not Stereotypes

It makes sense that personas often devolve into stereotypes. The two have much in common. Both require us to make generalizations about large groups of people, and both enable our pattern-craving brains to make snap judgments—for better or for worse.

The difference is that stereotypes are based on potentially inaccurate assumptions about a group of people; personas are based on proven commonalities.

Done right, personas aren’t stereotypes. They’re archetypes.

In literature, an archetype is a typical character, symbol, or action that represents universal patterns of human nature. Common character archetypes include the Hero, the Villain, the Mentor, the Everyman, and the Mother.

Let’s take the Hero, for example. Literary characters who fall into this category include mythological heroes (Hercules, Odysseus), Shakespearean heroes (Othello, Romeo), Victorian heroines (Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet), science fiction heroes (Luke Skywalker, Superman), “modern” heroes (Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen), and many, many others.

Just consider these ten heroes. Their life stories, personalities, and quests differ dramatically, but they still have much in common. They’re all brave and strong—emotionally, if not physically. They put others before themselves and stop at nothing to protect the people they care about. They seek justice and want the world to be a better place.

The Hero is a classic archetype

Image attribution: Lore Sjoberg

When we think about personas as archetypes, we’re less likely to stereotype. We’re looking for relevant commonalities, not making generalizations. It’s not too hard to identify what Wonder Woman, Frodo, and Atticus Finch have in common—but finding stereotypes that apply to all three heroes would require some serious creative thinking.

Think Fact, Not Fiction

Stereotypes are based on what we think or believe to be true, depending on our own experiences and prejudices. Personas are based on what we know to be true, depending on data.

My favorite definition of personas comes from Hubspot: “A buyer persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer based on market research and real data about your existing customers.”

The word semi-fictional is important. Personas are fictional, in that they’re not real people, but they are based on facts.

Developing personas is not a creative writing exercise. If anything, it’s more like reporting. It’s about finding all the information you can, narrowing it down to the relevant information, and then sharing that information in a useful way. It’s about turning data into stories—in this case, short stories about why certain customers buy from a brand.

Where does this information come from?

  • Analytics: Demographic and behavioral data shed light on who is most likely to buy, how and what they buy, which channels they prefer to use (both for research and purchasing), what kind of content they like to read, and so on.
  • Online polls and surveys: Gathered data is certainly useful, but given data is even more enlightening, more emotional, and more accurate. Polls and surveys are great ways to learn what matters to an audience, what challenges they face, and what they want from a brand.
  • Customer interviews: Talking to representative members of each persona also sheds light on commonalities among customers and helps marketers better understand what guides their buying decisions.
  • Market research: Marketing teams can and should conduct their own surveys and customer interviews, but their time and scope are fairly limited. Respectable research firms have access to far more respondents and have the expertise to put data into context. Hiring market research firms to do sponsored studies might be cost-prohibitive for many brands, but most firms sell their original (i.e., non-sponsored) reports for a much more reasonable price.

These sources will yield a lot of data. The next step is deciding what’s actually relevant for the brand. This is where many marketing teams get carried away.

Think Relevant, Not Specific

In an effort to make personas seem like real people, marketing teams often include irrelevant details and quirky attributes. These are usually based on stereotypes: “Sally the Soccer Mom has a couple glasses of wine when the kids go to bed.” “Ernie the IT Engineer loves Comic Con conventions.” “Carl the CEO works around the clock and never takes vacations.”

Irrelevant details make the persona too specific and inaccessible. We start writing for an individual, when we should be writing for an archetype.

Ardath Albee discussed the problem with hyper-specific personas at Content Marketing Institute’s Intelligent Content Conference (ICC). In her speech, “How to Develop Audience Personas That You’ll Actually Use,” she explained:

A lot of us get excited when we find a unique attribute of one of our customers. We think, “Oh, this is cool. Let’s focus on this.” The problem is, if you focus on the interests of the person wearing the red shoes, you miss all the people in the white shoes.

Unless you’re advanced enough to do one-to-one personalization, which I haven’t seen very often except in smaller account-based programs, you need to focus on the commonalities. Focusing on commonalities allows marketers to be relevant to a wider swath of that target market.

If you’re writing for Carl the CEO—the middle-aged workaholic with a wife and two kids—you’re not writing for Carla the CEO. You’re not writing for the millennial CEO who hasn’t started his family yet, or for the CEO who takes a week off once a quarter to rest and replenish her creativity.

And here’s the thing: It probably doesn’t matter that Carl is married and works too much, unless you’re trying to sell him marriage counseling or a much-needed vacation.

When developing personas, marketers are better served by considering some other questions about their target audience.

  • What challenges are customers facing at work (B2B) or in their personal lives (B2C) that your product or solution can help them overcome?
  • What are their relevant goals?
  • How do they see themselves? How do they want others to see them?
  • What causes them to buy your products or services?
  • What concerns might they have about purchasing from you?
  • Who or what influences their purchasing decisions?
  • How do they prefer to interact with your brand at different stages of the buying journey?
  • What kinds of content do they prefer—short or long, video or text, conversational or didactic?

These are just a few possibilities, and choosing which pieces of information to include depends on the brand and the marketing campaign. The key is to ensure information is relevant, factual, and based on archetypes, not stereotypes.

Relevant personas are archetypes, not stereotypes.

Image attribution: Arnaud Mesureur

A Few More Helpful Hints About Customer Personas

As marketing teams create and begin to use customer personas, there are a few other important distinctions to keep in mind.

Personas have a shelf life.

Brands evolve. So do their audiences and marketers’ understanding of those audiences. Personas often need to evolve as well. That’s why it’s important to review personas on a regular basis to ensure they’re still useful and not limiting writers’ thinking.

Some experts suggest writing new personas for each new marketing campaign. According to Chris Ross, a Gartner research director covering marketing leadership and management, “Effective personas are designed to be connected to subsequent marketing initiatives. They seek to find answers to questions that will inform marketing programs and other activities. Begin with the end in mind, have a clear purpose or objective for what you can do with the output of any given persona project.”

Personas are fallible.

Even when personas are based on archetypes, relevant data, and customer insights, they still don’t represent every single member of a brand’s target audience. Simply assigning a nationality, gender, or age range to a persona (which is sometimes unavoidable if there’s a picture with the persona) automatically leaves out large groups of people.

Of course, that’s fine for brands selling exclusively to one gender, country, or age group. For everyone else, it could be a problem.

But it’s not a problem if marketing teams and freelance writers understand that personas are representations—not real people—and that they’re incomplete and fallible. They’re meant to inspire creative thinking, not limit it.

Personas are most impactful when they tell a story.

The best customer personas don’t just list relevant facts. They turn those facts into stories that bring personas to life.

In her ICC presentation, Ardath Albee suggests taking the story angle one step further by writing in first person. Here’s a great example from one of her slides:

Slide from Ardath Albee presentation on customer personas for Content Marketing Institute

Back to the Original Question

Are customer personas a smart marketing move, or do they put brands on the slippery slope to stereotyping? The answer to that question is another question: Can’t it be both?

Personas can be an extremely valuable marketing tool and they can easily devolve into stereotypes. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just remember the keys to a great persona: archetypes, relevant data, and a good story.

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Featured image attribution: Joshua Earle

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Taylor Mallory Holland is a freelance writer, editor, and content marketer specializing in technology, healthcare, and business leadership. As a content strategist, Holland contributes thought leadership content for some of the world's top brands, including Samsung, IBM, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, and UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. She has been a contributor for The Content Standard since 2014.

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