Beyond Personas - Bringing segments to life

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Segmentation is a crucial tool that many major marketers use to help target products, services and communications and build understanding of customers. Segment personas derived from these segmentations are meant to provide a ‘snapshot’ of that customer type. In reality, these often don’t work all that successfully to really bring those segments to life.

What’s the problem?

Segmentations are built from batteries of questions about behaviour and attitude. Although these batteries can be quite broad, they are inevitably limited. By contrast, the reality of consumers in the wild is that everyone is richly unique, each with our own peculiar quirks. Segmentations built on a few questions don’t account for this rich diversity and the result is that segment personas, especially since they are derived from clusters of common characteristics, can often end up feeling a bit two-dimensional. Stereotypically the segments often have two word monikers like the “Stylish Connoisseurs” or the “Adventurous Entertainers” which don’t seem to adequately describe real people, are often hard to remember and all too easy to get confused with each other.

Shiny happy people

Many segment descriptions or personas often end up as unrealistically idealised. There’s a kind of polished perfection to these portraits that makes them unlike the flesh-and-blood friends and people that we know. In this respect these remind me a bit of Facebook profiles, but at least FB profiles build over time. In the wild, people have strengths and weaknesses, flaws and quirks that are rarely reflected in stereotypic personas.

Hard to relate to, hard to design for, hard to advertise to

A common resulting problem is that the segments and personas that were meant to make it easy for us to target the right kind of consumer don’t end up bringing us closer to that consumer. Unless we can truly empathise (feel with) the persona then it’s hard to design products, services or interactions that truly meet their needs. Equally, because advertisers can’t intuitively relate to their intended audience, they can end up writing communications that are poorly aligned with their target and their values.

Consumer connections – a way forward

Rubbing shoulders with and getting inside the lives of target consumers is a great way to understand segments more deeply. We are so immersed in our own cultural world that it often blinds us to what it might be like for many other people who live in different circumstances. And seeing people’s multifaceted lives close up, allows us to both understand them and their idiosyncracies and get a felt sense for what drives them.

How can this be achieved?

Understanding who people are and what their lives are like is best done outside the focus group goldfish bowl. In-context research, such as spending time with people in their homes, going shopping with them, watching them eat at their favourite café is optimal. Sometimes we may combine several of these occasions or supplement these with an online journal. What we are aiming for is understanding via a more granular view of people’s lives: exploring the details of who they are and what makes them tick through observation, immersion and asking questions.

What issues are there – matching real people to segments

Segments are built from clusters of people who share mostly the same attitudes, behaviour and/or demographics. But from long experience of recruiting people to match segments, the reality is that people are individuals and though they may match the segment in some ways, they probably won’t match it in all. We need to be comfortable with some level of fuzziness where the people that we find and spend time with are a good match for most key criteria. Trying to identify perfect examples is not the best way forward; instead we need to accept that segments have elasticity. They should be a shorthand way of describing a type of customer rather than prescribing what our customers must be like. A less rigid approach helps us identify what the underlying feel of a segment is all about, rather than slavishly relying on matching every criteria statement.

Making the most of it

Greater understanding of segments through consumer connection can be achieved in a variety of ways. We have done video ethnographic studies where we have used deep immersions and created video profiles of people to help get to know them. Outsourcing connecting with the consumer in this way is great for creating artefacts that can then be easily shared across the wider team within the organisation. Video is a good tool for building empathy, and using video in this way requires minimal time and effort by stakeholders. Nevertheless, it’s even better when the stakeholder team itself gets to spend time face-time with consumers. This maximises the ‘felt’ understanding and direct empathy for customers and while time-consuming and demanding, is often very worthwhile . A combination of stakeholder connections and video ethnographies can be a great way to go. To get the whole team involved, and extract the most from the whole teams’ experience, we’d recommend a debrief workshop event. As part of the workshop, stakeholders are encouraged to tell the story of their consumer connection and what really struck them. Commonalities, themes, and identifying traits can be discussed as well as builds on understanding to the original segmentation persona.