Simplifying Audience Modeling and Personas for the Data Age

October 27, 2017 Kyle Harper

The Audience of One: Audience Modeling for the Data Age

Before I was interested in audience modeling and funnel analysis—before content strategies and keyword tactics—I was trained to be a writer. It was a degree that my parents weren’t wild about me pursuing at the time, but over the years, I’ve found that much of the craft of writing actually has a deep-seated connection to marketing. Really, when you get down to it, the only difference between creative writing and content marketing is that for writers, the content is the product—brands have to do the extra work of pulling their readers through an extra step.

This small difference is the subject of millions of dollars in work and research every year for brands. Trying to understand what makes your audience tick—what you can offer that they would find interesting or valuable—is one of the consistent struggles that brands have had since the earliest days of marketing. For these earlier strategists, a lot of the work of audience modeling was tied in large part to hunches and observation. In the absence of more complete data, a businessperson’s ability to understand motivation came from being physically close enough to their audience to perceive them—the age of the shopkeeper as audience analytics. For this reason among others, it made sense for marketers to describe their audience through archetypes, through audience personas—attempts to distill and summarize what could be known about a brand’s audience for lack of other solid detail.

But for marketers today, the problem has swung pretty powerfully in the other direction. We’ve gone from relying on the sympathetic perceptions of workers for audience understanding to drowning in data about our customers. Personas, for many marketers, have been pushed to the wayside in service of focusing on data analysis.

And yet brands continue to struggle to understand and respond to their audience’s needs. Why?

Image of a tourist in a crowd

Image attribution: Elliott Chau

Your Brand Isn’t Personal. Yet.

“Your friends don’t trust you because of how much you make, where you live, or how old you are,” explains Jemalyn Griffin, assistant director of content marketing at Harvard University Continuing Education and Adjunct Professor of Advertising and Public Relations for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “They trust you because they know your story, where you come from. Brands have to do the same thing.”

Jemalyn and I sat down for lunch in a small, yellow-painted cafe on a rainy day to chat about marketing audience personas and what they mean for brands today. Jemalyn works in a wide open higher education space where she has to craft narratives that capture the interest of “non-traditional students” that span the gamut from recent high-school grads to curious-minded retirees to tireless professionals who want to study at night. For an industry that we often think of as insulated, Jemalyn’s struggles with broad markets that can shift on a dime in a way that mimics the threats faced by other at-scale brands.

I asked Jemalyn how she thinks audience personas play in the marketing mix today. “You have to understand, there’s a big push for marketing to be personalized at the individual level,” she explained. “Ideally, brands would be able to serve their audience on a one-to-one basis using what they know about them. Personas don’t mean much then.

“But we’re not there yet,” she added.

This is the transition where so many brands have found themselves stuck. We continue to get better at data collection and storage, and have even made initial forays into how we use that data to send timely, personalized messaging to our audience. But for today, much of this personalized messaging has been confined more to transactional conversations than personal ones.

Trying to consider better ways of using user data quickly presents a mound of difficult challenges: How can we personalize our brand’s story rapidly and on an individual level to anyone who interacts with us? Social media marketers do a pretty decent job of this, thanks to the combined benefits of a conversational medium, powerful social listening and data tools, and shorter conversational formats that made customization a relatively quick lift.

But expand out of the social world, and the energy needed to customize on a granular level becomes much heavier for content marketers. Websites become a jungle of hidden landing pages and blogs with twenty topic areas. Email systems become split into ever more specific and long drip campaigns. Advertisers are asked to place ever more creative into their ad sets to make sure their campaigns can be optimized just right for every service of their material.

And then, the moment our audience’s needs or perceptions change, the ripple effect changes massive systems of marketing that have just barely been put in place.

Personalization is clearly the future for brands, because in contained circumstances where it can be effectively deployed, updated, and managed, it’s making huge wins for companies. But for today, at the brand level, most marketers aren’t equipped with the tools necessary to quickly and appropriately respond to the audience on such a detailed level.

In the meantime, we have to rely on some kind of grouping to personalize against the most effective identifiers in our audience. This is where personas continue to play a part.

“Storytelling needs to be the basis of everything for your brand to come across as authentic,” Jemalyn explains. “Data moves quickly but doesn’t tell anything. Turning that data into stories is how you actually market your brand in a way that matters.”

Your Brand Is Slow—but That’s a Good Thing

The holy grail of personalization that marketers want is to be able to keep your brand dynamic and welcoming across the board for your audience. Data is necessary to accomplish this—we have the foundation for tools that can actually deliver content in this way, but what we currently don’t have is a fast way to translate the quick changes of market preferences into new stories for our brand. There continues to be an essential human process of interpretation, strategy, and content production that we just can’t speed up (yet).

The best that brands can do today is find places where personalization will have the greatest effect, and deploy it there. This ensures that your brand isn’t missing opportunities to meet your audience where they are, while also controlling how much you have to pivot in the event of a rapid change in your market.

And through all of this, you need your brand’s presentation to remain consistent, maintaining the trust earned through your efforts. The data can change rapidly, your personalization and other campaigns can react with relative speed, and at the end of this line is your brand responding to the successes of your campaign changes.

This is where personas serve powerfully for data-saturated marketers.

Rather than using personas as a way to hypothesize or explore new market segments, marketers can use personas as a way to gather and organize the key audience behaviors and demographics from their data, which might then be translated to brand-level narrative shifts.

Flowchart about marketing response speeds

To use personas in this way, there are three key components that you should always include. Each one is particularly important for each step in the flow from data to brand:

  • Demographics: This is the traditional data we include in personas, and is tied tightly to the data end of the flow. This describes what we know about individual users as people.
  • Behaviors: This is a tracked metric that ties closely to the persona stage, because behavior tends to separate out segments within demographic groups. This would include data like site behavior or campaign analytics.
  • Intentions: Unless you have an audience with a particular affinity for surveys, intentions tend to be a derived descriptor that tries to synthesize demographic and behavioral information into a narrative. This is what your brand is actually creating content to meet.

Much of this is likely familiar, but the application changes when we think about personas as a filter between data and brand decision making, rather than a hypothesis or descriptor that is used at the beginning or end of our marketing activities.

Will this process last into our hyperpersonalized future? That remains to be seen. My guess is that this technique will best serve as a bridge for brands that want to embrace their data and develop personalized experiences to their audiences, always pursuing the holy grail of one-to-one interaction. But for today, as brands work to wrap their heads around robust automation systems, data overload, and audiences that can be particularly slippery to track, personas remain relevant as an essential sorting tool for maintaining focus and simplicity in the data-marketing age.

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Featured image attribution: David Whittaker

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