Sunday, 21 October 2018

Personas make marketers stupid: It’s time to embrace the complexity of human behaviour

Understanding customers better than competitors was once an advantage; now it’s critical to survival. However, misunderstanding a market can be as dangerous or damaging as not understanding it at all.

When trying to understand and define a target market, there is a strong tendency to over-simplify. But target markets are made up of human beings, and human beings are complex.

Photo by Mario Purisic on Unsplash

Brands, organisations and agencies divide target markets by simplistic and generic attributes such as age, gender, income, marital status, and so on. However, these attributes do little to reveal the complexities of a target market; who they are or what they care about; and they certainly don’t help brands to connect with real people.


In an attempt to understand their customers, brands are ‘bucketing’ their available or perceived market into neat, contained boxes communicated through an artefact called a ‘persona’. Each persona is created to represent a distinct ‘group’ of the people in a market, defined by attributes that are hypothesised to drive their needs and behaviours.

Often based on stereotypes and largely informed by generic demographic attributes, personas are fundamentally flawed in their assumption that these factors are the things that define and differentiate people.

Decision makers and stakeholders inside organisations take personas and make them truth. Brands then base decisions on labels like Millennials, DINKS, MGBs, Empty Nesters and Grey Nomads, when the real people being jammed into these boxes often wouldn’t relate to these labels (or even understand what they mean).

Someone who is married, on a relatively high income, with 2.5 kids may have the same desires or needs as a single, bartending, uni student living in a share house. Why? Because their values align, or they use technology in the same way, or they have the same approach to savings. In many contexts, these attributes are more important than demographic data. Personas overemphasise and over-represent insignificant attributes. They impair judgement and amplify biases.

Personas are a classic case of great intention and poor execution. Rarely based on rigorous, human investigation that can be verified, personas are instead more likely to be a manifestation of aggregated opinions from people who aren’t qualified to be making such claims.

Personas are not helping organisations to understand or tailor to their markets, worse still, they’re making them think they are, when they’re not.

Organisations need to stop putting people in static, contained and over-simplified boxes, and acknowledge complexity. People are made of many, sometimes conflicting and certainly connected, attributes that change over time.

Behavioural profiling investigates independent attributes based on evidence gathered and verified. Rather than attributes being static, e.g. all Millennials use social media at the same rate and frequency, behavioural profiling ‘plots’ behaviours in a relative sense. Fixed knowns like age or geography are overlaid with fluid and individual factors such as language comprehension, technical literacy or political stance.

Rather than assuming perceptions, opinions or knowledge (which are all theoretical), this method plots and measures actual behaviour in context and what attributes contribute to that behaviour.

In a recent project exploring a new technical solution to access remote data, our client was confident that age defined attitudes towards digital security. After investigation, it became clear that it was risk appetite, not age, that was dividing people. Age was irrelevant; an 80-year-old had the same view as an 18-year-old. Stereotypes (personas) were impairing this client’s judgement.

The Australian National University (ANU), too, are broadening their view of traditional attributes. In attempting to support a more diverse student cohort, ANU have recognised that academic marks are one dimensional. Other attributes like family make-up, personality, values and worldviews are just as important when thinking about fostering the future leaders of Australia.

Organisations must move beyond persona-based thinking. Brands can’t use stereotypes to inform decisions and call it responsible. It’s time to get better at being evidence-led and embrace the complexity that comes with trying to understand (and therefore better serve) humans and the communities they live in.

Michelle Gilmore is design director at Neo.



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