Are Personas the New Customer Segments?

by MarthaBush on October 14, 2010

Martha Bush

Martha Bush

In the old days, say 18 months ago, I understood the concept of a Persona to be an archetypal web visitor to a particular site.  Web designers and strategists needed to wrap their brain around the users of their websites and they imagined the characteristics of a Persona – the motivations, objectives and typical visitor behavior of the person they were designing the website for.  A Persona was a single, focused imaginary user, usually with a cheerful name like Alice or Robert to make them seem more like someone you might know.    I always thought that the major flaw in this approach was oversimplification.  There isn’t a single user or customer or prospect, there are many different segments, which you can easily forget if you focus on just one.

The digital concept of Persona is catching up with the database marketer’s idea of Segmentation.  The web experience has become richer, and web strategists have embraced the idea of many Personas and have tooled the experience to deliver choices, and personalization and different pathways to support different groups of visitors.  Marketers commonly talk about Personas in the plural, and this is a great thing for improved relevance for consumers.  And there’s no doubt that the word Persona has become more of a digital buzzword — and  anything  digital is more buzzworthy than traditional marketing concepts like “segments.”  So, the word Persona has begun to be used almost interchangeably for Segment.

I have to argue with this word swap.  We describe consumer segments as highly complex profiles of online and offline behavior; key performance indicators, such as lifetime value or profitability potential; likelihood to buy or attrite; channel and engagement preferences. We try to get as close to a 360-degree view of these customer and prospect groups as possible, and we dig and dig across an organization to find the data to support these robust portraits.  “Persona” seems much more limited than our concept of customer segment – limited to a single channel, the Web – versus a multichannel view which is really more actionable across the organization.

Of course, the meaning of buzzwords morphs over time! If marketers want to deliver robust multichannel experiences across media and sales channels, then Personas have to grow up to support both online and offline customer relationship realities.  If “Persona” means the Whole Customer relationship, then I’m happy to drop the word “Segment” for good.

About the Author:

Martha Bush is SVP of Strategy & Solutions at SIGMA Marketing Group.  Follow Martha on or connect with her on .

Read more articles from Fifth Gear on Customer Segmentation.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

November 1, 2010 at 3:58 pm

I agree with your disagreement :) The careless swap of terms can lead to inferior differentiation (paradoxically at a time when we can do proper segmentation better than ever).

The phenomenon is not unlike the (still persisting) confusion between customer segmentation and market segmentation. Through most of the 20th century, the predominent channels being above-the-line mass media, individual customers weren’t uniquely identifiable and it was appropriate (was there other choice?) to use market segmentation based on sample research. ‘Attribution to base’ (the matching of those discovered profiles to real customers) was a challenge, but marketers* happily slapped labels like ‘boomers’ and ‘genx-ers’, and the occasional ‘Joe’, ‘Jose’ or ‘Gertrude’ onto unsuspecting customers. And treated them accordingly – even if Gertrude happened to be a Steve, or the ‘millennial Jose’ actually a baby-boomer Jane. After all, they (marketers) had used Science (a big black box they didn’t need to understand) and had no doubt that the real individual looked and behaved like their ‘representative’ statistical sample.

This is unacceptable in the age of massive databases and technology-enabled unique identification of each individual among millions of customers. The better companies are not making the mistake and have proper Customer segmentation in place, but I still come across (too many) marketers, who live in the past century and still rely on Market segmentation.

Digital channels are precisely where this shouldn’t be allowed to happen – but the ‘persona’ thing sounds very much deja vu :( Why the #$*!#! should I call someone Alice, when I know dead sure his name is Robert Johnson, aged 24 (and 3 months), studying nanotechnology, addicted to iPad games playing, visiting the site 11 times a week, spending 6 minutes on page 5 and 9 minuts on page 7 of our site… etc etc. Why Alice?

* Any criticism towards marketers is in self-irony, as I like to think of myself as one of those.

Josh November 4, 2010 at 6:05 pm

While I would also agree with your objection to using persona and segment interchangeably, I think you have a fundamental misunderstanding of what a persona is. What you describe isn’t a real persona, but it is an oversimplification, as you stated. Personas are also most definitely not limited to use with web development. They can be used in the design of any product, service or experience.

A persona has nothing to do with imagining what a user might be like, it is the result of serious research into you users. Ideally lots of research, like ethnography/field studies, market segmentation, usability, behavioral data mined from web analytics, etc. Once you have adequate data on your users (demographics, motivations, goals — again from research, not simply imagined), similar users are clustered into groups. From these, you create multiple personas to help the team better understand the various types of customers that will interact with your product or service.

When done incorrectly, they are not only useless, but dangerous (I unfortunately have personal experience working on a project with personas based on wild guesses and assumptions). When they are done correctly, and are tied to data, they can be powerful tools. We need to be careful in how we use these labels to make sure we also understand and use the tools correctly.

Martha Bush November 5, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Thank you V and Josh for reading and your great comments! I totally agree that done right, creating deep customer knowledge is the homework we all have to do to create the best customer experiences possible. Whatever we call the output! It drives me bananas when people skip the hard work or don’t use (or know how to use) all the data and research assets they have available and jump right into experience design or personalization. You just can’t rationalize shooting from the hip anymore. Thanks for sharing your insights.

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