Why you need to rethink your audience personas

If you’re a marketer, then you’ve seen an audience persona or two (or two hundred) in your line of work. To be sure, they have the potential to be useful tools that help teams keep their focus on core audiences: A mix of qualitative and quantitative data, from surveys and stakeholder conversations, that is summarized in a handful of user profiles (dropped into an easily-referenced PowerPoint presentation).

But what happens when teams lean too heavily on them? Teams might end up recreating the conditions that led to the U.S. Air Force redesigning the cockpits of its entire fighter fleet.

Confused? Read on!

The Flaw of the “Average” Man

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard marketers refer to their user personas as if they were real people. “David would be interested in…” or “Mary wouldn’t like…”. A handful of users are set up as proxies for the thousands that a brand might interact with.

But how useful are those proxies? Step back, for a moment, to the late 1940s, as the U.S. Air Force embarked on an investigation into why there was a rise in jet accidents. The hypothesis: the original Army Air Corps design for pilot cockpits (compiled in 1926) was based on specifications that no longer matched the population of pilots in service (leading to a rise in in-flight complications at the controls). Pilots were taller, heavier, and with different proportions — or at least, that’s what the hypothesis was. If researchers compiled the average body dimensions from active pilots, they could design new cockpits around this “average” person.

But a scientist with the Aero Medical Laboratory, Lt. Gilbert S. Daniels, discovered that both the original design, and its proposed remedy, shared a fatal flaw: there is no average pilot. That is to say that no pilots, after being measured, shared the same dimensions as the average of the population. It was not close either — less than one percent of pilots were even “average” (defined as falling in the middle 30 percent of each dimension examined) across just five dimensions, let alone the full set of ten that Daniels used.

It’s a startling finding: to think that an entire manufacturing process centered around catering to all pilots was actually just serving them all poorly? It’s just as startling to realize that, in effect, that’s what organizations across our industry are doing with audience personas.

Audience Personas Don’t Represent Real Users Well

In a technical note summarizing his findings, Daniels writes “Thus it can be seen that the “average man” is a misleading and illusory concept as a basis for design criteria, and is particularly so when more than one dimension is being considered.” What he describes is a persona in everything but name.

Think about the last one that you used. It probably had the basics like name, age, and hometown. Maybe it also listed a profession, and family details. But I bet it also got into some fairly granular details. How does this user browse online? What podcasts do they listen to in their commute? What social networks are they active with?

Dozens of these dimensions are thrown together to form the illusion that all of these metrics and conclusions pull together to form the basis for an audience that you and your organization can engage with. In effect, this is a lot of independent circles (dimensions) trying to convince you that they’re actually the extremely slim center of a complex venn diagram.

So why bring this up? Because audiences are complex. Pretending that “David from Oshkosh”, who listens to steel drum solos while commuting to his accounting gig, is representative of the sum of that complexity just obscures the real trends that you could be pulling out of your audience data.

A Better Way to Understand Users

Instead of relying just on personas, we advise clients to “market to moments” — to identify the moments and contexts where their brand and content can be the most relevant. This reorientation ensures that key decisions will influence the moments at which an audience is likely to respond to outreach.

In this framework, consider David from Oshkosh. We don’t necessarily need to know his specific demographics, media preferences, or other granular information (though it doesn’t hurt to have as a frame of reference). But we do need to know, for example, the needs that he shares with other audience members — the needs that our clients can solve for.

  • Routines: For example, planning around cycles of healthcare that can be common across audiences (e.g. getting that flu shot)
  • Obsessions: For example, knowing what in the news cycle is captivating these audiences (e.g. a celebrity’s death due to cancer)
  • Extremes: For example, the flares that signal a potential immediate tie-in with our client (e.g. “I’m sick right now”)

You can prioritize each of these moments as part of an overarching content strategy. Multiple tracks of content can target disparate audiences with a unified theme of solving for those moments across audience segments. This tailored approach for market and audience fit mirrors the solution to Daniels’ problem.

His finding led to a revolution in aircraft design: a cockpit that could adjust to fit individual pilots. Innovations in interior and safety design are standard now not just in military aircraft, but in your own car. Your own implementation will identify and engage audiences in a way that makes your content marketing efforts smarter and more honed to audience needs than if you had just relied on standard personas.

Don’t try to reinvent the wheel (or the cockpit) — get in touch with us to learn more about how marketing to moments could work for your organization.

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