Theatre concept with the white masks, isolated on a white background

I’m tired of personas. It’s not that they aren’t valuable. It’s just that we’re doing them the wrong way–most of us, anyway–and we are overdoing them. Personas can be helpful in activating the right brain to really focus on communicating with real people, but only when personas actually resemble a small number of customer types.

Here is what’s wrong with what I see smart folks doing with their personas:

  1. Opinions eat data. When those smart, loud people get into the room, they start telling stories about what they know. Those stories are valuable for getting us motivated–and often they are riveting. But they are no substitute for data. We have to collect all the actual data we have on our customers as the place to start–surveys, focus groups, social listening, sales calls, call center logs, emails–and synthesize enough of it into the insights we need to make decisions.
  2. Creating too many personas. It’s better to have five personas than 20. Always. Now, maybe your company is so big and you have so many different kinds of offerings that you really do need 20 personas. Fair enough. Make sure you have no more than five per offering. I used to not make an arbitrary limit, because maybe there should be exceptions, but many of my clients have dozens or personas and no one can remember them, tell them apart, nor think about them when creating the messages–which is the point of personas.
  3. Ignoring personas when we create messages. This seems amazing, but I see it over and over again. Because we’ve created so many personas, no one knows how to write for them, so they just go back to the same persona-free writing they have always done. If you have only three personas, it isn’t hard to know which one you are writing for. When you have 30, you won’t want to write 30 messages, so you end up writing the same homogeneous pap you wrote when you had no personas.
  4. Forgetting our differentiation. It’s not enough to list off a number of customer types. For each one, we need to know how our offering’s unique differentiation speaks to that persona. What’s the use of identifying a persona if we have nothing to say to them that our competitor can’t also say? One way to limit the number of personas is to be ruthless about recognizing that we aren’t differentiated for every kind of customer.
  5. Letting personas go stale. Because it is hard to get people together to debate 30 personas, once we do it, we’re ready for a nap and we don’t want to talk about personas again for three years. Instead, we must be constantly focused on feedback that our personas–and the content we create to reach them. If we write our content for our personas, we should be able to see higher clickthrough and conversion rates when that content is found. If not, we must re-evaluate our content, and perhaps our personas.

The idea of personas is good. The execution, however, is the difference between personas changing your marketing, and just being a check box that you can say you checked when your CMO wants to know if you are following best practices.