Behavioral Personas In The Mainstream

In the world of omni-channel offer optimization, we tend to devalue those who tout their demographic-based marketing plans. Why? Because they are based on a system developed before the data-rich consumer world of digitization. And more still because personas are far better indicators of consumer subsets and thus a statistically superior methodology for crafting content and messaging that moves the bottom line. After years of learning and unlimited means for parsing and making data actionable, we are dying for the big marketing machines to “get it” -- and even more so, to “implement it.”

So it was with a cheer that I read this recent article from the savvy Joe Mandese of MediaPost who explains how NBC News Digital is switching from a demographic-based ad targeting method to a persona-based one -- in a system that uses consumer behavior within the digital news stream, no less.



In that post, Kyoo Kim, vice president-sales NBC News Digital, explained that “focusing on behavior versus demographics gives our customers better insights into the tendencies of our viewers.”  Instead of parsing content experiences by traditional class-gender-race-location-based data, they were making the moves to deliver experiences based on these personas:

·         “Always on”: Consumers who are constantly connected to news feeds across multiple devices.

·          “Reporters”: “Digital natives” who grew up consuming news via online and mobile media and who disseminate news.

·         “Skimmers”: Consumers who are not passionately connected to news.

·         “Veterans”: Consumers who primarily rely on traditional media as a trusted source for news.

As we have deployed behaviorally based personas for years, we were thrilled, of course -- but not completely satisfied. Why? Because this move alone is not sufficient to optimize the objective of NBC News Digital, which at the end of the day is to sell all ad space at the highest price possible. 

Let’s break that down a little further.

Personas must be developed with a purpose

Any persona scheme to be developed and deployed must have a solid business objective. Two different business objectives could end up with two wildly varying persona schemes. Personas are a textured output of rigorous statistical analysis of data, colored in with domain expertise. They should quickly emit data points with every transaction -- your customer is not a number

In order for the process to work, the statistical analysis must be guided by an objective, which may be to “register,” “purchase,” “sign up,” “open,” “vote,” or “donate.”  In this case, NBC News Digital has developed its personas based on historical digital news consumption. Does this provide a true differentiator to advertisers who want those personas to buy something from them? Not necessarily.

It seems that the NBC personas are useful in helping to optimize the timing and frequency of display ads, as well as the actual construct of the ad, but not necessarily the content of the ad. Combining purchase and intent data in the development of the personas would be a great next step.

Demographics can still play a role

Once behavioral personas such as these have been developed, demographics still play a key role. First, if there are any demographic consistencies among the behavioral personas, those demographics can be used to help physically describe the personas to be more understandable to advertisers. For example, the “Reporters” above would seem to trend younger since they grew up with digital media, but are they statistically younger than the “Always on”? And the messaging of marketing content is always a key consideration. Suppose that you are selling the benefits of Product A.

Wouldn’t it make sense to message those benefits differently to a family than a single renter -- although they both reside in the same persona, based on digital news consumption? Adding a demographic edge to the personas would greatly also enhance this effort for advertisers.

Personas must be narrow enough to provide real value

In this case, NBC News Digital has developed four personas. Generally, successful projects have between 8 and 12 personas in order to provide enough focus to enable successful differentiated content strategies.  We have found that schemes with five or less are simply too broad to be successful. There is too much diffusion in a few large personas to provide real value in targeted marketing efforts. Adding in purchase and intent data would certainly help advertisers in media buying across the NBC News Digital properties.

Despite these issues, NBC News Digital must be applauded for taking this important first step in moving from demographics to behavioral personas. It is the only way to engage consumers with differentiated content, but more progress must be made in order to sharpen and refine these personas. As test results begin to pour in, NBC News Digital must use these results to continually improve their personas in order to achieve their objective of maximizing ad revenue.

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