The Stepford Personas: What Lies Beneath?

stepford persona

Conferences are fun. The drinks afterward are better. Confidences get shared.

Let me give you a peek into Chad’s world. Chad is the chief marketing officer (CMO) of a very successful company you’d recognize and probably admire. I changed his name to protect the innocent.

Chad’s Stepford Personas

Janice, Duane, Samantha, Nathan, and Ari are our personas, explained Chad, while showing me a stunning deck. We invested a great deal of time and money researching our customers and these personas nail their perspectives, he said. Chad was obviously proud of them.

Chad, like many modern senior marketers, wants to use his personas to optimize and unify all his marketing initiatives. He has their posters hanging in the office and the agency he hired to create them also produced some slick persona decks, including customer journey maps and background research. His team, especially sales and the product managers, talk about the personas all the time.

Are they really helpful? I asked Chad.

I’m a little disappointed, he replied with candor.

Chad’s marketing isn’t broken. By almost any measure Chad’s core team is killing it. Several people on his team are crazy talented and their initiatives are mostly customer-focused and relevant. They can communicate with the rest of the company and get cooperation from extended teams. So why is Chad disappointed?

Chad told me that he is worried that their marketing team won’t scale. We are growing quickly and we’re hiring a lot of inexperienced and not-quite-as-talented players, he said. It’s hard to maintain the quality as we grow, he added.

I was hoping that personas would help the newest members of our team get up to speed quickly. Personas should help us get buy-in for our marketing initiatives from legal, finance, and IT. Personas should allow sales to optimize their sales funnel and product management should adopt a persona-centric approach. They get referenced from time to time but I bought into the hype. There’s no way they are worth all this time and money we invested, confided Chad.

Chad had enthusiastically and genuinely championed personas. For obvious reasons, Chad cannot tell his story publicly and treats his persona initiative as a success.

Chad’s situation is all too common; personas sizzled but the steak wasn’t worth eating. We all still hear an awful lot of sizzle out there. Am I being too cynical to think that it’s because marketers are marketing to marketers?

I’ve had at least a dozen conversations like this one while researching our new book. I’m starting to think of these “perfect personas” that get written up in the industry press as “Stepford Personas.” If you remember, inThe Stepford Wives, the heroine arrives with her family in the little town of Stepford, Connecticut. She quickly discovers that there is a sinister truth about the too perfect behavior of the other wives.

What lies beneath all these all-too-perfect persona tales?

Let’s Get Real About Personas

Personas first appeared in this column in 2004 when I wrote:

Personas created for a persuasive experience must initially be defined by completely understanding their needs. Their needs lead into character biographies that represent and convey their worldview, attitude, personality, and behavior. Personas are constructed from research that describes their demographics, psychographics, and topographics related to how they approach the buying decision process for the products or services offered.

Every competent marketer strives to understand the needs of their customers, so it is natural that marketers have taken to using personas. And I have devoted more than a few columns here on ClickZ to outlining their value, showing you how to create them, and even showing you some powerful uses for personas.

So why do so many strong marketers like Chad fail to extract the maximum value from their personas?

  • First, let’s assume that Chad’s personas were created correctly — to evoke empathy and create understanding of the target audience.
  • Next, assume that Chad’s personas provide his company with information about each persona’s inner life, their needs, their perceptions, their buying preferences, and buying styles.
  • Let’s also assume Chad’s personas are well researched, well written, and are more than sufficient to accomplish his particular marketing goals.

Those are a lot of assumptions. Nevertheless, let’s give Janice, Duane, Samantha, Nathan, and Ari the benefit of the doubt. Chad’s personas do everything that personas should do. So what exactly is the problem?

What Personas Can and Cannot Do

Personas, even great ones, can only do so much. What personas are never created to do is provide your team with an action plan.

In our client work, using personas was part of a more robust process we used where creating personas and writing a scenario narrative was standard operating procedure. This made our personas actionable, and was something we took for granted.

I described it in a March 2006 column:

Most effective persuasive efforts begin with a narrative or brief storyline that describes how each persona will behave and what it’ll need to gain buying resolve at all stages of the buying process. A persona’s path to a macro conversion may consist of several unique scenarios, each with a measurable micro-conversion action required. Only after you’ve identified these persona needs can you create and map your persuasion scenario.

That sounds overly complicated and I apologize for making it so dense. Only recently have we simplified it in our new book.

Personas by themselves can only evoke empathy and understanding, a vital and noble goal, but without an action plan those personas are handicapped. Personas without an action plan are like exercise equipment bought with the best of intentions.

More Agile Personas: The First Step in a Simple Process

In our latest book Buyer Legends – The Executive Storytellers Guide we describe a simple process any marketer can use to create their first Buyer Legend, or narrative in about 90 minutes. That Buyer Legend will make your personas actionable. They are also naturally powerful tools to communicate your action plan company-wide. Sharing Buyer Legends will improve your team’s buy in, reduce execution cycles, and it willimprove your conversion.

I hope you dust off those personas and create a Buyer Legend.

Please share if you think others would benefit.