Personas, Content Personalization, Big Data…and the Here and Now

I’ve checked, and yes, “Minority Report” was science fiction.

personaI frequently find myself at odds with the pundits in my field – it was a recurring theme of my years in the Knowledge Management field, and it seems to be my lot as a Content Marketing practitioner as well. I often have found the pronouncements of the personalities who present themselves as thought leaders to be unhelpfully far ahead of day-to-day reality.

I had an experience this week that vividly reinforced this impression, at an online “virtual trade show” hosted by the Content Marketing Institute. I sat in on a chat session moderated by a Content Marketing consultant who has a lot of visibility – certainly far more than I have at events like this. The subject was the use of content as a way to create good customer experiences. It was “open-mic,” so to speak, so I chimed in.

I’ve been interested for some time in the intersection between the Customer Experience (CX) discipline and Content Marketing, and the potential for the concept of “Customer Journey Mapping” to provide a useful roadmap for content strategy – or at least for the planning of what content to generate. I wrote about this last fall.

I’ve been sharing this idea fairly widely, and generally getting a warm response. Briefly summarized, the journey map will leverage a small set of “personas” – stereotypes of your typical customers, or at least an important slice of your audience, developed through analysis of a far-from-exhaustive but representative history of customer interactions.

Reasonable Consistency

The premise behind personas is that there are a finite number of well-worn paths by which people arrive at the realization that they have a need and that your product is an effective solution for it. The premise assumes that among customers who fit a given persona, people are reasonably consistent in how they approach the problem and resolve it.

In fact, there is enough consistency to allow you to draw a fairly reliable map of their process of deciding to buy your stuff – recognizing that along the way, most of them will have predictable “Moments of Truth” when they need a specific kind of information from you. Each of those Moments of Truth, given insightful analysis on your part, will reveal a need to create and deploy a specific kind of content.

Thus, by mapping out this “Customer Journey” for each of these personas, you also get a compelling plan of attack for filling out your library of essential Content Marketing materials.

As usual, participants in this week’s chat were warming to this concept – but not our moderator. His problem was with the personas.

Stereotyping customers in this way, he suggested, is outmoded – unscientific, even. It’s a shortcut, designed to make the marketer’s job easier, at the expense of precision in targeting the content. These days, he argued, marketers have access to Big Data on their prospects, and content should be tailored to individuals – not broad stereotypes. The objective should be personalized content. Personas are artifacts of the marketer’s laziness. The whole approach is outdated – “It’s lame,” he opined.

Years Ahead of Reality

I mulled this over as others in the chat started to climb on board with this idea.

“I get the point about Big Data and personalization,” I responded. “I just don’t think most companies are there yet. They don’t have the tools and their content isn’t nearly granular enough. This is one of those cases where the pundits are years ahead of field reality.”

Our host conceded this point. “Correct,” he replied. “Hardly anyone is there, which is why it’s important for us early adopters to move the needle in that direction.”

I’m going to go out on a limb here. I’m not sold.

I believe personas have years of useful life left in them, because they work, and are likely to continue to work. I have no specific data to support this, but my read is that people tend to approach a specific problem in consistent ways — not all the same way, but the variety of strategies is far from infinite. Stereotyping them sounds unfair, possibly archaic. But I believe for most marketers’ purposes, personas get close enough to reality to provide quantifiable value.

persona_bI’m as smitten as anyone with the marketing and customer relationship management possibilities in Big Data. I’m just not convinced that the buzz around data mining applies to content creation. Today, no one I know beyond the marquee Big Data pioneers (Facebook, Amazon, Google) has the capacity to generate marketing content of sufficient granularity to lend itself to individualization.

Even those companies are getting results – serving ads and offers on users’ personalized pages – that bemuse as often as they impress.  (Yes, Facebook, I’d love to retire in Italy. No, I’m not in the market for a Bugatti. Where on Earth did you get that idea?)

At any company for whom I have worked, any effort to generate content sufficiently fine-grained to take advantage of individualization would collapse under its own weight. There simply isn’t the manpower or budget to support such an effort. (As a content creator, I’d love it if there were.)

Siren Song

It’s entirely possible that our moderator was right, that the siren song of content personalization is so seductive that today’s benighted marketers will simply have to come around. I’m doubtful, and no, I don’t think it’s important for us early adopters to move the needle in that direction. Not yet, anyway.

I think for most organizations, personalization makes far more sense if we get there by putting relatively standard (but effectively crafted) content in the hands of human agents – “touch points,” in Customer Experience jargon – who are in a position to take advantage of individualized targeting when they provide that content to the customer. Because it does make sense to personalize the experience; for crafting the content itself, my money for the foreseeable future is on personas.

I welcome your feedback. Heck, I welcome your pushback. Comments?

1 Comment

Filed under content marketing

One response to “Personas, Content Personalization, Big Data…and the Here and Now

  1. Pingback: Customer Journeys and Content Planning — This is Now a Thing | Peter Dorfman Creative Services

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