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Audience Targeting Brand Strategy Buyer Personas

Personas non grata? Marketers on new approaches to audience profiling


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

July 17, 2023 | 12 min read

Are marketers finally moving beyond audience personas? Or does this tried-and-true method still have a part to play? We asked a bumper crop of specialists from The Drum Network.

Four neck-and-hed mannequins with very long necks, wearing fancy brown hats

Are audience personas dead, or an essential part of the marketer's toolkit? / Chiara Maretti via Unsplash

Mark Iremonger, managing director, Nucco: “It’s understanding your audience, stupid! Marketers need to know who they’re talking to, to know what to say. Defining audiences to apply actionable insights is as important as ever. Targeting people in ever-decreasing segments is easy based on attitudinal and traditional demographic data.

“The biggest challenge is knowing when to stop dividing audiences to find the right target audience and messaging balance to maximize return on investment. Anyone who thinks the expanding tools that help marketers get inside the heads of an audience (like segmentation, profiles, personas, AI and social data) are redundant are idiots. Personas are a simple way of bringing an audience to life; the data available to make them gets better all the time.”

Ryan Parkhurst, vice president of strategy, Basic/Dept: “Here’s why generational definitions suck.

“Sure, they’re easy to grasp (and write about), but they don’t really help us understand and influence human behavior. Most insights attributed to generations are in fact mostly the consequence of life-stage and the tech/media landscape. Understanding an audience as ‘new parents who fully embrace social media’ is way more helpful than simply thinking of them as part of a broad cohort of millennials.

“Generational thinking (and writing) is cyclical and repetitive; a lot of what's currently being written about gen Z is quite similar to what was said about millennials circa 2005-2010. So even if it’s comfortable and entertaining to think about generations as unique and distinct, we’re really just drawing broad generalizations that don't help us get to useful insights.”

Barry Richards, vice president, global strategy, Transmission: “The persona is dead, long live the B2B persona!

“There has been growing tide of thought that places persona as yesterday’s news, that by tracking actual pain points and purchase through analyzing buyer journeys there is a better solution than bucketing by demographics. This has been a welcome addition to traditional insights.

“However, B2B marketing has gone beyond firmographics (demographics in B2B speak) and looked at pain points that unite groups of people. B2B personas are routed in roles (HR, IT, operations…). These roles are driven by similar responsibilities, challenges, pain points, and industry trends that affect how they buy. If you couple that with the need to drive efficient campaigns across large numbers of prospect accounts with often limited budgets, then there’s a need for messages, content, and buying journeys that can be easily scaled – often regionally and globally.

“For now, both the new and the old are relevant to B2B marketers.”

Sam Evans, strategy director, Rawnet: “Basic personas ignore nuanced differences. Digital teams often segment their target audience with basic demographics such as generation, sex, and income. This is a costly assumption. Millennials are often stereotyped as lazy, entitled, and tech-obsessed. But they’re just as likely to be ambitious and hard-working.

“Financial service companies often market to an older generation, emphasizing being ‘conservative’ and ‘risk-averse’. This stereotyping ignores that they are a diverse group with a wide range of financial goals.

“When strategists focus on basic stereotypes, they ignore the nuanced differences within their target audience. This leads to effective campaigns that fail to reach the mark. As an industry, we should focus on understanding more attitudinal aspects to develop more effective campaigns and products that reach the right target audiences and resonate with their values.”

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Dave Jones, head of strategy, True Digital: “There’s a kind of magic trick behind truly effective communications: to talk to millions of people in a way that makes each person feel as though you’re speaking directly and personally to them. Personas (when they’re based on real research; when they avoid lazy generational stereotypes; when they’re written with care) can be an invaluable tool for pulling off that trick. They provide complex, disparate marketing teams with a shared understanding of an audience and allow us to have meaningful conversations about how to address them. You can’t empathize with a grid on a matrix, nor write great copy for a cell on a spreadsheet. No amount of smart technology will change that.”

Simon Hearn, managing director, Distillery APAC: “We need to shift our mindset to engage communities, not audiences. Strong communities have a collective intention and shared identity, making it easy to segment, and sharpen the pencil on who and how to target.

“While audiences can often be larger in size, people in communities tend to be far more engaged and deliver a much higher chance of engagement, loyalty, and advocacy for brands. This is incredibly important in the DE&I conversation where we talk to underrepresented communities. These are not just another audience persona.”

Rumble Romagnoli, president, Relevance: “Ultra-luxury audiences defy traditional personas due to the nuances, individualities and anomalies of the ultra-wealthy, who are also typically difficult to recruit for panels and focus groups. Furthermore, marketers often 'imagine' incorrectly the behavior of ultra-high-net-worth (UHNW) people. To combat this, Relevance developed a proprietary audience profiling system enabling us to profile real UHNW audiences via their connections to each other and the digital world. This enables us to craft data-driven insights that dig into real (not imagined) influences, and craft campaigns based on true UHNW insights.”

Ryan Enoch, senior vice president, director of strategy, New York, Momentum Worldwide: “I wouldn’t say personas are irrelevant, but they are only one part of the equation, and with limits.

“The problem is personas don’t always reflect the intricacies, niche interests, or unique challenges of an audience. It’s easy to talk about any audience in generalities. This is because personas typically define what ‘a majority’ of that audience thinks, feels, or does. However, ‘the majority’ doesn’t reflect everyone. If research shows 60% of an audience believes X, it’s easy to leave the other 40% out, but they may have more passionate beliefs, or be more likely to move the needle., With any audience, you’ll find a wide range of interests and needs including minority groups with strong voices and purchasing power.

“The goal is personalization over personification. Speak to the individual not a stereotypical version of them. Knowing your audience, by means of living and breathing their culture, is always the key to understanding where to push and pull.”

Joe Murgatroyd, partner and creative director, Brandnation: “While personas still have a role to play, audiences have become less homogenous; each audience is a labyrinth of niches and sub-cultures. By inserting brands into culture and aligning to their passion points, we can more effectively target.

“Audiences’ interests are many and varied, from music to sport to travel, and they buy because they care about and are engaged in these interests – not because they fit a traditional millennial profile, for example. It’s these cultural touchpoints that are driving success – presenting brands through the lens of our audience’s world and meeting them in their own playground.”

Kim Walker, head of strategy, M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment: “Do you ever see yourself in personas? Like you, to a tee, in all your technicolor glory? Didn’t think so. Most personas are lazy stereotyping of imaginary ‘comms targets’ based on generic data, making the audience look like a fuzzy polaroid photo.

“As a passions agency, we base our personas on the passions people care about. If you really want to get to know someone, ask them about their passions, not their age. While there’s no such thing as the definitive persona of, say, a football fan, a festival goer or a fashion week front-rower; personas can point our collective imagination in one direction, so our view of the audience is shared, box-fresh and vibrant.

“And personas adopting AI to color them in with the very latest information could get us to super interesting and high-definition pictures. Let’s get to more colorful personas.”

Andrew McLean, head of strategy, EMEA, Bulletproof: “I’m picturing in my head a Venn diagram that I think we’ve all seen a lot of: three concentric circles that magically satisfy the debate between clients and agencies over a fundamental question: ‘who?’

“One outer circle that represents everyone. A smaller circle represents the broad media target (until we get into execution…) Another smaller circle, inside that one, let’s call ‘creative muse’.

“Compromise creates a lack of focus over audience thinking and betrays a fundamental aspect of marketing: to be able to understand an audience and their needs so expertly that it can be turned into competitive advantage.

“Audience planning should be a zero-sum game, not a hedging-of-bets as that only creates ambiguity. Only two things need to be satisfied, a quantitative understanding of who is going to grow this brand, and a qualitative understanding of the human need that results in insight.”

Cheryl Tulipana, senior director, media and data insights, Signal Theory: “I don’t think that personas have lost their usefulness, but I do think marketers get lazy. Heading up a discipline that has to transact on data points, I know that we must have a quantitative definition of our audience for the purpose of buying media. However, personas based solely on data and demographics are incomplete. Unfortunately, that’s where many brands stop with understanding consumers.

“Consumers are more complex than that. Understanding how they behave through their motivations, desires and cognitive biases can ensure that we're hitting on the three Ps, reaching the right people in the right place with the right product/promotion. It takes an extra level of effort to gather that qualitative data via interviews, observations and social listening, but it will ensure that you have a real understanding of your consumer and how they might behave in different scenarios, not just a generic box to stick them in.”

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Audience Targeting Brand Strategy Buyer Personas

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