Navigating The Nuances Of Customer Segmentation And Searcher Personas

The ability to communicate with intended audiences through relevant language, and in appreciation of expressed intent, are established keys for effective search engine marketing. You have to know your audiences, and what their needs are, to realize any degree of success. 

This is old hat for SEMs with any tenure in the industry -- deliberate audience segmentation is a crucial prerequisite for best-practice search marketing. By applying a segmentation schema to programs, SEMs are forced to think about customer needs relative to their proximity to the eventual purchase decision. That’s a good thing.

But what about personas? They’re kinda, sorta the same thing, right?

Though personas are similar to customer segments, they’re different in important ways. The distinctions can be subtle, and often cause confusion when discussing how best to create a Web experience or search campaign. Let’s investigate.

Market segment - a grouping of users based on shared characteristics. Those characteristics can range from simple demographic criteria (e.g., age, gender, geography) to more complex psychographic criteria (e.g., activities, interests, attitudes), depending on what’s important and known about the intended audience. The process of identifying distinct market segments allows for tailored communications messaging.



Personas – a series of fictional user archetypes that help both digital marketers and UX specialists craft meaningful Web experiences. Persona development is a functional communications technique. Built on the back-of-the-market segments, personas help bring depth and emotion to websites, landing pages, search ads, etc.

Well-crafted personas will also specify user goals. They change the paradigm of marketers seeking throughput purely against their own objectives, in favor of experiences crafted entirely around users and their needs.

Search marketers with access to necessary audience insights are then in an enviable position of authority to speak in a more complete and credible way with prospective customers. Beginning with the initial market segmentation approach, keywords, ad copy, description tags, and landing pages all operate in concert with one another to communicate clear, focused messages. The resulting experience, in turn, helps complete user goals as articulated via personas.

Too, we’ve come to realize that the incremental customer insight learned today becomes the new baseline knowledge for tomorrow. That new knowledge then informs the next wave of segmentation possibilities, along with representative personas. It’s an iterative, unending process.

Marketers today wield an unprecedented amount of communications power, and precise customer targeting and message experimentation has never been easier. Facebook’s ad platform in particular allows for an incredible mash-up of demographic and psychographic characteristics. Aimclear’s Marty Weintraub recently described this confluence in his blog post, “Psychographic Targeting Unhinged! The Zen of ‘Whole Customer’ Persona Modeling.” Marty, in his famously unique way, describes a data pool so rich that the lines dividing segmentation and personas are becoming murkier by the minute.

Perhaps that’s the key trend to watch in all of this, and the real culprit behind the confusion. Customer segmentation and searcher personas, traditionally separated by clearly defined guardrails, have together become a fluid strategic-model exercise. And though these distinct tools serve specific purposes, the differences between them are now more difficult to define than ever.


3 comments about "Navigating The Nuances Of Customer Segmentation And Searcher Personas".
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  1. Michalis Michael from DigitalMR Ltd., November 27, 2012 at 5:41 a.m.

    Thanks for your post Ryan. I would like to contribute another approach to what you are describing: We maintain that the only useful way to create a customer segmentation is based on the customer needs so that the product offering and the communications can be customised to the segments. Once the segments are defined based on customer needs then the personas can be created i.e. they need to be profiled by demographics, psychographics, lifestyles, attitudes, behaviors and whatever else we can find out about them. I look forward to your response. Here is a free eBook on the approach:

  2. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, November 27, 2012 at 8:49 a.m.

    You have to [look for] your audiences, and [learn] what their needs are, to realize any degree of success.

  3. Ryan DeShazer from GSW Worldwide, December 3, 2012 at 12:58 p.m.

    Michalis - thanks for the additional thought. What I'm advocating for, and the model we employ, re-sorts the order you describe. We utilize the persona to bring a degree of humanity to our segmentation schemas, complete with specific goals by persona archetype. So our "customer needs" piece is a consideration throughout, and included in a more tangible way than is possible by thinking of the needs of the abstract prospective customer up front.

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