The Persona Is Dead, Long Live The Person

First, let me go on record as saying that up to this point, I’ve been a fan of personas. In my past marketing and usability work, I used personas extensively as a tool. But I’m definitely aware that not everyone is equally enamored of personas -- and I also understand why they're not fans.

Like any tool, personas can be used both correctly and incorrectly. When used correctly, they can help bridge the gap between the left and right brain. They live in the middle ground between instinct and intellectualism. They provide a human face to raw data. 

But it’s just this bridging quality that tends to lead to abuse. On the instinct side, personas are often used as a shortcut to avoid quantitative rigor. Data-driven people typically hate personas for this reason. Often, personas end up as fluffy documents and life-sized cardboard cutouts with no real purpose — a sloppy way to run things.

On the intellectual side, because quant people distrust personas, they also leave themselves squarely on the data side of the marketing divide. They can understand numbers – people, not so much. This is where personas can shine. At their best, they give you a conceptual container with a human face to put data into. This provides a richer but less precise context that allows you to identify, understand and play out potential behaviors that data alone may not pinpoint.



As I said, because personas are intended as a bridging tool, they often remain stranded in no-man’s land. To use them effectively, practitioners should feel comfortable living in this gap between quant and qual.  Too far one way or the other, and it’s a pretty safe bet that personas will either be used incorrectly or be discarded entirely.

Because of this potential for abuse, maybe it’s time we threw personas in the trash bin. I suspect they may be doing more harm than good to the practice of marketing. Even at their best, personas were meant as a more empathetic tool to allow you to think through interactions with a real live person in mind. But in order to make personas play nice with real data, you have to be very diligent about continually refining personas based on that data.

Personas were never intended to be placed on a shelf. But all too often, this is exactly what happens. Usually, personas are a poor and artificial proxy for real human behaviors. And this is why they typically do more harm than good.

The holy grail of marketing would be to somehow give real-time data a human face. If we could find a way to bridge left-brain logic and right-brain empathy in real time to discover insights that were grounded in data but centered in the context of a real person’s behaviors, marketing would take a huge leap forward.

The technology is getting tantalizingly close to this now. It’s certainly close enough that it’s preferable to  the much abused persona. If – and this is a huge if – personas were used absolutely correctly, they could still add value. But I suspect that too much effort is spent on personas that end up as documents on a shelf and pretty graphics. Perhaps that effort would be better spent trying to find the sweet spot between data and human insights.

3 comments about "The Persona Is Dead, Long Live The Person".
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  1. Carole Bailey from EMC, May 26, 2015 at 1:04 p.m.

    Totally agree that Personas need to be ever changing but do not believe they are dead. The approach we have found helpful is a dynamic persona development model. Updating and moving foward based upon new quatlitative research and marketing analytics of past behavior is still a better angle for us than no persona development.

     Our company has built into our database and marketing automation systems a dynamic persona capability which updates based upon activity we track across a number of sources  (marketing & sales data, third party data, etc. ) with an applied algorithm of frequency, recency, & title.)  Combining this with our qualititave research, provides our marketing teams, pursuing tactics and content development, to be more effective

    We have seen time and time again our assumptions of what and who may be interested was not totally accurate based upon their title even if the title was descriptive for one technology. 

    So  I would recommend that when you combine the quantitative review with the qualitative review when representing personas the effect is markedly better.  People change, resasons to buy change and titles change, and so should your personas analysis.

  2. Krishna Boppana from Mr, May 27, 2015 at 8:28 a.m.

    We are in a world of quantitative based nameless persona!

    Yes, Persona has become very dynamic and evolving faster than your traditional paper and card board cut out persona. If you think "Persona" is a phrase that represents a conceptual user profile, it is still applicable today in the big data world as long as the persona for your marketing is chaging as fast as your data is telling you. The modern persona is connecting your quantitative analysis to your persona, not someone producing a 10 page analysis of what your comapny's persona are. 

    At Digilant, we built Consumer Persona Graph, that specifically marry your marketing efforts to a group of behaviors using data science, dynamically changing those group of behaviors to reflect in "Persona" that is meeting your KPIs. These persona are pulrey quant based, no human or qualitative analysis involved. At Digilant, we found interesting persona changes when a consumer vistis a web page to actual conversion. 

    The persona today is not your marketing class qualitatvie paper and fictitious character like "soccer mom". They change fast and you can effect your comapny persona with quant based persona development and targeting.

  3. Krishna Boppana from Mr, June 16, 2015 at 10:42 a.m.

    A quick update, Digilant announecd "Consumer Persona" - a real time big data driven persona -

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