Identity crisis: where did it start?

Personas promise to help us understand audience needs and desires. But do they work?

By: Caitlin,   5 minutes

mind reading

Everyone wants to know why people do what they do. Brands especially. Anyone who’s seen the lipstick testing scene in Mad Men can tell you target audiences and their actions have fascinated brands for decades. But in recent years it’s become an obsession. It’s the driving force behind constant analytics updates and the reason personal data from social media is so valuable.

Enter personas. When it comes to content, our clients’ target audience has always been the pulse of a project, and that’s true of any creative industry. As an agency driven to make words count, Stanger Collective’s creative team is constantly thinking about the end readers we’re actually creating the content for. But we started to wonder if investing more time into understanding and researching audiences could help us produce even more impactful copy. Should we be looking at creating personas for our projects?

With years of experience in the digital marketing world, I’m aware of both the value of personas and the abuse of the term and concept. So before we jumped impulsively into a new approach, I thought it would be worth doing my homework. I’ve taken a few Feeds to journey into persona creation and discover what we can learn about making the process as valuable as possible.

I’ll be sharing my findings with you through three individual posts, over the next three weeks.

First up: where did it all start?

Pre personas: just making conversation

Persona-based marketing revolves around developing a deeper understanding of the needs, wants, opportunities and limitations of your core audience.

If we really want to start at the beginning, we could go back to before the term marketing even existed, and look at how people utilised storytelling to get their message across and encourage audiences to act. With this in mind we could write an entire book dedicated to the content strategy behind the rapid growth of Christianity in Europe. The church understood its target market. Low literacy, no problem – we’ll create huge buildings with pictures that very clearly tell our story. Pure marketing genius.

Fast forward a few centuries and we find ourselves amid the scientific examination of marketing and behaviour. In the 1920s marketing and advertising agencies began delving into psychology and behaviour studies. Edward Bernays is credited as the founding father of public relations. A nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays applied his uncle’s physiological techniques to the actions, needs and unconscious desires of the public to encourage mass consumerism. There’s a great documentary from the BBC in 2002 called The Century of the Self, which tells the story of this crusader’s contribution to marketing theory. He was the first to recognise that a deeper understanding of the individual should shape the message and approach of a marketing campaign.


The ’50s: lessons from a seventeen year-old girl
Writers have been thinking about their audiences since Shakespeare penned dirty jokes into his plays. Magazines in particular have a long history of writing for a specific audience. They need to know their readers, inside and out. As highlighted in this great post from Rachel Sprung on Hubspot, Seventeen magazine created a persona called Teena way back in 1950. Like all good personas Teena was created from in-depth market research through surveys of actual teenage girls and their moms (it’s an American brand, they don’t have mums).

This is a great example of how audience targeting isn’t a new thing and isn’t limited to the tech or marketing industries. It’s important to look across industries to understand what works and why it provides value. The process helped Seventeen’s writing staff, all of whom were usually at least a generation older than their reader, connect with their audience on a personal level and in an authentic way. They didn’t guess what a seventeen year old girl cares about. They just asked her. 

The ’90s: scrunchies, Gameboys, and personas
In the ’90s two different camps were looking at how market research and data could be used to understand individuals better: the rapidly expanding software industry and the ever-evolving advertising industry. These two parties ran parallel to each other, both evolving the application of persona-based market research.

The New York Times ran a piece in 1990 predicting future advertising trends. One of their insights was: ‘Single-source data is the big area of growth – you make a lot of different kinds of measurements off an individual. One of the things that will do is provide the measurement capability to permit this media revolution.’ Starting to sound familiar?

In 1993-94, Angus Jenkinson developed an approach to understanding consumer segments as communities with their own identities. This was adopted by Advertising agency Ogilvy, who called it Customer Prints. These concepts were built on the idea that tribes or communities of people have similar characteristics, shared experiences and may in turn have similar attitudes or reactions towards brands or messages.

From Apple to ad land, people started using personas to understand audiences. Or at least that was the idea. And then it all went horribly wrong.

While the ad agencies on Madison Avenue were all obsessing over the creation of characters to help sell more cars, on the other coast the emerging Silicon Valley residents were grouping people into user categories for a very different purpose. With the constant development of new software for an ever-increasing consumer appetite, the tech industry started to think about user experience (UX). What problems could they pre-empt before taking a product to market? How could they ensure people would instinctively be able to use their software? UX became a huge focus for new software start-ups.

In the mid ’90s, a software developer called Allan Cooper coined the term personas, focusing on how a specific person, versus a more generalised user, would interact with the software. Cooper had been working on the concept of personas since the early ’80s when he would use interviews and play acting to think about how specific people would interact with the programs he was developing. Cooper’s work in person development reached the masses in 1998 with the release of his book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum.

From Apple to ad land, people started using personas to understand audiences. Or at least that was the idea. And then it all went horribly wrong.

The noughties: adoption, overuse and abuse
Following the millennium, we got greedy. As often happens with research, people always want more answers, more quickly and for less. To flesh out a strong persona you need to do a huge amount of research and audience modelling. That takes time, real time with actual people. Without this investment, the intelligence behind persona development becomes watered down. And so the backlash began. In 2007 Jason Fried from 37 Signals (founder of Basecamp and writer of REWORK) wrote a post calling the whole practice out as ‘artificial, abstract, and fictitious’.

Even so, in 2015 we’re still talking about them. Hubspot has a tool for building your own and clients still ask for them. However, in the age of the hack, it’s too tempting to cut corners. Maybe it’s time to kick it old school and take a leaf out of Bernays’ book – keeping it real.

So what makes a good persona and are they really valuable?

That, my friend, is a question for another day. Friday 24 July, to be precise.


Fancy reading further into personas? Take a peek at these links:

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