3 Signs Your Personas Are Broken

danger iconLast month, the venerable Bryan Eisenberg wrote on his blog about Content Marketing Personas. The article was a good reminder for us that there are a lot personas out there in the marketing world, and many of them are sub-par if not dangerous.

I especially liked his suggestion that readers explore his “conversion trinity” on paid ads and landing pages using existing personas to see if they were up to the task of helping optimize a landing page experience. He has promised us more columns about “getting personas right” in the future, so I recommend you keep an eye out for those.

Coincident with me reading Bryan’s post, I was doing an on-site consulting engagement with a new client. They were looking to redesign a microsite with the goal of boosting lead conversion rate. I was relatively unfamiliar with their marketing efforts, so I asked if they had marketing personas. They answered, “Yes,” and I was delivered an 8Mb PDF with a professional layout, high-quality stock images, and content that was backed by legitimate research.

I deleted it minutes later.

Why did I delete these personas, choosing to “start from scratch” instead of leverage a document that had obviously taken many hours to produce?!? I won’t answer that specifically about this client’s personas, but it’s my segue into my 3 warning signs that your personas may be toxic. If the personas you’re using to do Optimization (or any Marketing) show any of these traits, you may be shooting yourself in the foot.

Reason #1: Your Marketing Personas are Stereotypes

In order to be effective, marketing personas need to represent a typical prospect and help build empathy for their needs, desires, objections, etc. They are a “many-to-one” tool where thousands of site visitors are fairly represented by a single, believable character. This is a difficult task, and many personas fall prey to the mistake of turning their characters into stereotypes.

Examples of stereotyped personas:

  • The “Type A Personality” executive who’s curt, aggressive, and fast-talking. While his management job may demand these traits from him, a persona that relies too heavily on these characteristics will essentially be a stereotypical @sshole that nobody likes. Ever tried marketing to someone that nobody likes? Impossible 🙁
  • The “IT Nerd” who lives to make your worklife miserable by talking in jargon, playing MMO video games instead of fixing your hard drive, and always has one shirt tail untucked. While we’ve all experienced aspects of this persona in the corporate world, if you cram all of them into a single character, you’ve got a stereotype and you’ll end up marketing to him/er with nothing but snark. Snark, in my opinion, doesn’t test well!
  • The “Soccer Mom” who frantically drives around all day in her minivan, shuttling her 2.75 kids to various activities. We all know how offensive this stereotype is to women who, while they may or may not be homemakers, have wonderful quirks like being into kite boarding and listening to LCD Soundsystem. Note: Authors and marketers Holly Buchanan and Michelle Miller blasted this stereotype expertly in a book and you should check them out.

The Danger: If your personas are stereotypes, the risk is that your team will subconsciously (or consciously) dislike them, and will market to them accordingly. The purpose of personas is to build empathy, not degrade it!

Reason #2: Your Marketing Personas Don’t Deal with Decision Making Styles

Well-crafted personas can tell you a lot about your target prospects’ demographics, psychographics, and purchasing habits. Good. However, most marketing personas don’t deal with something crucial to conversion optimization work: decision-making styles.

Imagine making an “elevator pitch.” The reason it’s so scary and difficult is because you generally know nothing about your prospect in an elevator pitch situation. Now, imagine pitching your boss on a new idea, now that you’ve worked with her, during good times and bad, over a period of 3 years. Less scary, right? The reason is that you know what makes her tick, what keeps her up at night, and what gets her jazzed up about coming to work.

Good personas give you at least a glimpse into their decision making style, which makes persuading them with your marketing SO much easier! For example, people tend to make decisions either logically or emotionally. Yes, it’s a spectrum, but people tend to skew one way or the other. How would you craft a landing page if you knew the visitor would be making a logic-based decision? How about if you were fairly certain they would be swayed by an emotional appeal? Two very different landing pages in terms of content, yes?

The Danger: If your personas don’t help you understand how prospects make their decisions, or how they rationalize their decisions, you’re likely going to take the wrong approach at least 50% of the time!

Reason #3: Your Marketing Personas Don’t Represent “Decision Makers”

This one is more applicable to B2B sites, but I believe there is relevance for B2C sites as well if they sell products that are “considered purchases,” like high-end electronics for example.

Many personas, and the research to support them, are developed by User Experience practitioners that come from the school of User Centered Design, and know little about direct response marketing, persuasion, or conversion optimization.

As such, marketing personas are often too similar to “user personas” which help software designers design more effective digital products. They focus on who will be using the product, not necessarily who will be paying for the product.

If you market enterprise-level security solutions, your “users” and your “prospects” are pretty different. They may talk to each other, but they inhabit different professional worlds, to say the least. The users are stakeholders in the decision, but the prospect’s posterior is on the line! If he OKs the purchase of a system, and it fails, he’s out of a job. That’s the stress and fear you’re marketing to, not to how “easy to use” your software is.

The Danger: If your personas represent users instead of decision-makers, you’ll tailor your messaging, content, tests, and even media buys to the wrong person. You can persuade the system user all day long, but if you don’t persuade the decision maker prospect, you’ve go no sale, and now it’s your posterior that’s on the line 😉


Dust off your personas, take them through Bryan Eisenberg’s “conversion trinity” exercise, and check to see if any of my 3 red flags are present. Make the necessary adjustments now, because Bryan and I agree that using bad personas may be worse than using no personas at all!

Your Turn

Do you use personas in your marketing? Do you feel they allow you to do your job better/easier? Are there other “tell tale” signs of broken personas? Comment away.



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