Why Your Personas Don't Work

 Personas are our social masks. If we're trying to truly understand our customers, we have to dig deeper. 

Personas are our social masks. If we're trying to truly understand our customers, we have to dig deeper. 

There's the private persona and the public persona and the two shall never meet.
-Liev Schreiber 

The key to marketing that works? Understanding your customers. And not just their age, weight or hair color. It's getting to know their hopes and dreams, their fears and desires.  

A person is moved into action for one of two reasons:  

  • Avoid pain
  • Pursue pleasure

So, if you don't know what motivates them, how could you possibly create content that spurs activity?  Think of your audience motivation as the fuel for the content marketing machine. 


That's just the first part of the story. "Persona" is tossed around a lot these days as the end all and be all to market segmentation. Have a marketing problem? Put a persona on it. That should fix it, right? 

Not really.  

I've worked on creative teams where "personas" were handed down to us from the UX or Research department. I could tell that the team was really proud of their accomplishment. I knew that a LOT of work went into the primary research and analysis. But at the end of the day, personas never gave me what I needed to write compelling copy. It almost made it worse.  

Kate Kiefer Lee's team over at Mailchimp are content marketing masters. They've given the community truely useful tools like voiceandtone.com. When I first mentioned MailChimp on my blog back in 2007, they were quick to respond with a witty and personality-filled comment. It's been wonderful to see their brand and product evolve over the years.

So I was surprised when I saw Mailchimp's persona project. For some reason, this project didn't seem to have the polish of their existing campaigns. When I looked at their posters, the people looked like glassy-eyed mannequins staring off into space. While this project was clearly stated as a short-term project for their product redesign, if I was a writer at Mailchimp and was expected to use these personas to write compelling content, I'd be frustrated. I wouldn't be able to form an emotional connection to the people depicted on these posters.


It's not that personas aren't a useful tool. They're just not the right tool if you're trying to create emotionally resonant content on an ongoing basis for a brand. Personas come from our good friend and superstar psychologist, Carl Jung. Here's how he describes them:  

the mask or façade presented to satisfy the demands of the situation or the environment and not representing the inner personality of the individual     

Read that last part again.  

"NOT representing the inner personality of the individual. "

Let's say you're a mom, a soccer coach, and a business owner. Your persona is how you present yourself in each situation. You have a "mom persona", a "soccer persona" and a "work persona" but none of these are really you. It's the "mask" that you put on when you're interacting with the world. 

Personas are a good start, but to truly connect with your audience you need to go deeper.  


Luckily, our good friend Jung, stumbled on another piece of psychology gold.

Archetypes: a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc.
 Hero is a common archetype. Think Luke Skywalker in  Star Wars , King Leodonis in  300 , or even Simba in  The Lion King . Of course, there's Superman, too.

Hero is a common archetype. Think Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, King Leodonis in 300, or even Simba in The Lion King. Of course, there's Superman, too.

Archetypes get to the heart of why people buy. And best of all, it's a pattern of thought. A pattern is a beautiful thing, because it can be repeated.  

Beginning in the 1940's, professor Joseph Campbell took Jung's archetypes and began his famous work in "Comparative Mythology", which is presented in his book A Hero With A Thousand FacesInterestingly, this was the book that George Lucas, who was recovering in the hospital from a severe accident, that inspired the time-tested character of Luke Skywalker. 

Recently, I stumbled on a fantastic resource. Margaret Hartwell and Joshua C. Chen recently published Archetypes in Branding: A Toolkit for Creatives and Strategists. I've recently started using Archetypes in my strategy work and find that they're a more accurate way to determine a customer's motivation. The toolkit is filled with beautifully designed cards for sixty archetypes. On each card, an archetype is outlined with its inherent strengths and challenges. This allows us to really understand WHY a person (or a group of people) behaves in a certain way. Remember, people are moved into action to 1) pursue pleasure (aka strengths) or 2) avoid pain (aka challenges). 


Welcome to the wonderful world of creating customized content that speaks to your audience, moves them into action, and can scale. Couple this with efficiencies like Contact Reputation Management (CRM), customizable templates, and effective writing training, and boom — you're ready for the big time. 

Do you love personas? Have you dabbled in archetypes? Keep the conversation going in the comments below.