Barney Larkin
Barney Larkin 30 September 2019

Why 2D Buyer Personas Are Harming Your Growth

We think that marketing and commercial teams are missing a trick when it comes to developing buyer personas. They’re settling for shallow 2D representations, based on certain assumptions, that could actually be harming their customer acquisition and campaign strategies. People and culture change all the time, so if your last marketing campaign fell flat, it could be because your personas and targeting are in need of attention.

2D Personas and internal bias

We are sure that you’ll know what a persona is, so we won’t labour over an extended definition but, in short, they are representations of a customer or consumer group, which draw from market research and real data. They are used by nearly every business and feature as strategic sales and marketing tools that help teams to focus on, and visualise, target audiences. 

Basic ad-hoc personas can be formed using a blend of information sources already available to you. This includes analytics tools that capture current customer/user metrics, competitor desk research which highlights consumers you might want to explore and internal team discussions focused around customer patterns and behaviour. While this can be a cheap and relatively quick way to build up an idea of who your consumer base is, it also increases the likelihood that personas will be built upon internal biases and broad assumptions, as you and your team try and ‘fill in the blanks’. However, there’s a real danger that business decisions based upon these ideas will fail to resonate with your consumer base or, continue to reproduce ideas that are currently harming your potential growth and profits.

Great insight allows you to identify how you can innovate and grow. Great personas, and persona development based on research, allows you to identify exactly where this growth can take place and with who.

Qn: So how do you build GREAT personas?

Ans: By talking directly to your customer or target audience. Simple right? 

Well, maybe not actually. The key is to use a method that allows you to understand what drives a customer’s actions, emotionally and across a broad range of contexts. It is this latter part where we think that many are missing a trick. Everyone knows that emotions fuel actions and choices. It seems like a no brainer to explore these in order to build a consumer character. Most also understand that we want to explore those emotions within the context of a purchase or service, as this will ensure that the personas point towards touchpoints or value that a company can target and deliver upon. However, what many fail to understand is that a real 3D persona is made up of data that explores a multitude of related contexts. This is something which often gets missed out and that leads teams back to making those dangerous assumptions mentioned earlier.  

Any decision is rarely made in isolation. To fully understand why someone does something, you have to understand a myriad of contextual factors that influence their behaviour. Knowing this, how can personas be considered ‘authentic’ or 3D if they don’t build-in a range of contextual data? 

For takeaway delivery services

Let’s say we were looking to create personas for a new digital takeaway delivery service. The client wants to know who their audience is and has a hunch that age, location, marital status and income might play a role. Participants are recruited to these specifications (along with a few outside of it, so we can test the existing hypothesis!). 

Now, in most cases, the personas created will rely on insights focused on a singular, service-oriented, context. Due to time and budget, participants will be interviewed, or asked, to share and rationalise their experiences just about takeaway services; this is the focus of the project after all, why would we explore anything else? Their responses, along with the sampling criteria mentioned above, will guide the structure of the personas. However, although we have some light data around who these participants are, we have only engaged them in a single context. Yet, effective personas are meant to be versions of a real person, including motivations, emotional triggers, psychological traits etc. This typically leads to interpretations of the participants' overall character, based upon their demeanour during the fieldwork and the research team's assumptions on what they MIGHT do in contexts outside of the service scope. Now, some guesswork is always likely and bias will always crop up in any project, but the aim should always be to limit either as much as possible. The more that is present, the more likely that the persona’s become a work of biased fiction as they do empirical insight. 

Building rich 3D personas you can rely on

We use a digital methodology (research strategy) that allows you to gather data about multiple aspects of your audience/persona’s life; all of which will intersect to influence their relationship with your brand, products and services. This can be done using a mixture of interviews and ethnography, as multiple contexts and identities can be viewed across time and location. 

Connecting with participants over a number of days, directly through their phones, means that you can explore their lives and experiences in detail when they are at home, at work, in the shops or relaxing. You can capture their emotions throughout the day, or when they are tasked with engaging with a service at specific and random times. Importantly, you have greater opportunities to gather up insights into other areas of their life, which will still influence their behaviours and choices. When it comes to creating personas, guesswork is greatly reduced and so is the risk of making business decisions that fail to connect with target audiences.

One additional aspect to consider (if you work for an agency) is that we’re finding personas are a great way of helping clients visualise insight when we present our work. They provide a creative focal point through which we can talk about our findings, tell stories and bring the whole project to life.

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