Are Personas Useful in Social Strategy Anymore?

Rohn Jay Miller Director of Digital Strategy, Hanley Wood Marketing

Posted on February 5th 2013

Are Personas Useful in Social Strategy Anymore?

Best Buy may have fallen on hard times but a decade ago the big box retailer was one of the first “bricks and clicks” to embrace the use of personas in all aspects of marketing and e-commerce.

Buzz gets a tattoo

Buzz gets a tattoo

Best Buy was renowned for its four personas: Buzz, Jill, Barry and Ray. Buzz was the single, male nerd with disposable income who had to have the latest media and game technology, and so on. Jill bought the electronics in the living room or family room, and often bought the family camera. Barry was from the suburbs, had high disposable income and wanted the best. Ray was Dad in Dad jeans, trying to wade through all those choices to arrive at the best price.

I wrote about the importance of personas in social media two years ago, (“Personas Are Back In Style,” February 28, 2011) pushing the idea that personas gave marketing teams a solid, simple framework to triage social media engagement.

Writing last week in UX Matters, Paul Bryan of the Atlanta firm UX Strategy Group published an essay “Are Personas Still Relevant to UX Strategy?” He asks if the crush of big data, AB multi-variate testing, agile development and agile marketing have created a new frontier of direct engagement with customers that makes “persona thinking” obsolete.

Applied to social networks the question becomes even more direct. Social networks are environments of direct engagement plus broad distribution. Trust and authority are created through thousands of small interactions over time. It’s these interactions that create influence, and influence is the gold that corporations are trying to mine in the hills of social media.

Does a corporate team like Dell’s vaunted Social Media Command Center engage so directly with people on social networks that personas become irrelevant? In other words, are the tools of listening, engaging and developing direct relationships with a single consumer a more real way of building lasting influence than trying to stuff that consumer into a box labelled “Buzz” or “Barry?”

Bryan asks these questions more broadly about all online experience and comes to the conclusion that well drawn personas still create a very meaningful framework for online marketing and service teams.  To quote from Bryan’s essay, solid personas provide a primary means for teams to discuss big questions:

  • What makes a brand relevant to its fans?
  • Why do different types of customers behave differently from one another when using Web sites or mobile apps?
  • What factors influence purchases or other conversion behaviors?
  • Which characteristics differentiate one user type from another for the purposes of designing a user experience?

These questions are the stuff of ROI.  They ask not just “how do we create influence?” but “how to we build relationships with customers in order to sell?”


A persona-to-person connection?

A strong social media strategy should be engaging people to make a brand relevant and influence purchase or conversion. But social networks are two-way communication, while broadcast marketing is one-way. This two-way engagement means corporations need to listen first and truly understand.  They need to respond to what they hear, not just push back with canned, company-centric responses.

Bryan comes to the (rightful) conclusion that personas are still very valuable, saying: “If anything, personas have become even more useful because they put a human face on aggregated data and foster a user-centered design approach.”

A “persona” strategy that has worked in our engagements has three components:

  • Personas that describe the primary customer segments, especially looking at behaviors over demographics.  It’s easy to get hung up on gender or age when the real driver of ROI is behavior.  
  • Front line engagement with customers and prospects that begins with social listening and responding and engaging, using the framework of the personas
  • Third, front line personnel should gather offline and report back on the stories of real people and the very real problems or enthusiasm that these real customers bring.  These “front line stories” should be captured, written up, and distributed to other front-line team members.  Crucial to this front line reporting effort is effectively distributing the stories and discussing them among the team members in order to better understand the real-time engagement of the brand across many real life customers.

This third idea of reporting “front line stories” blends the idea of real-time data influencing marketing and service with the framework of personas that provides focus and consistency.

Social networks–like e-commerce or stores–involve direct engagement with customers. But unlike those other channels of engagement, companies only have permission to participate in communication, not design and deliver messages.

Perhaps the real value of personas in managing social media is that they focus team on customers, not messaging. That’s a customer-centric focus that frees teams to build authentic, organic responses both to individual customers and across customer types.

In social media you can’t speak at people–it makes them mad. Like any good conversation, we need to listen and understand first.


Rohn Jay Miller

Director of Digital Strategy, Hanley Wood Marketing

I'm Director of Digital Strategy for Hanley Wood Marketing in Minneapolis.  We've been in the content strategy and branded content business since 1984.  We deliver across content strategy and branded content. I speak in public, often by invitation. I can be reached at

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Posted on February 6th 2013 at 11:07AM

Awesome post Rohn.

I think customer personas are going to be a big thought area in 2013.

The problem, from my personal experience, is that some companies tend to see personas as their actual customers, and therefore they neglect the one-to-one conversations and all that comes with it, such as learning the individual characteristics and differences...even names. I think the main reason for this is down to industrial era thinking of efficiency and productivity. - a common problem in a lot of businesses it would seem. Yes, it's harder for bigger businesses, but I see a lot of small businesses taking a big business approach to the use of customer personas - becuase they see it as an easy option.

I think small local businesses can almost definitely do without personas - they need to be going back to basics. Sort of 1950's local shopkeeper mentality, where they know every person in great detail. And to some extent, I think all businesses need to have some element of this mentality. This should be the starting point, and only the learning journey can tell a business what's next.

It's an awesome discussion that you raise, and I think it's a topic that is no longer a 100% long as you have a truly caring customer culture within your business. 

Posted on February 6th 2013 at 8:50PM

Thanks for the good words, Kevin.  I think some of the social listening software platforms like Radian6, NetworkInsights, etc provide aggregate metrics around positive or negative keyword and other semantic analysis--and they also offer easy access to actual comments from individual customers, the "voices of the customer."  This is the third type of VOC that I think companies should curate and distribute, the first being demographic/psycographic personas and the second Big Data crunching and other real-time strategies.  

Thanks again, good discussion to continue from many perspectives--RJ

Posted on April 24th 2013 at 1:40AM

I found this article to be intriguing, but as with all the persona articles I've read I still have yet to find one that explains how to differentiate between one persona and another. Any insight or could you recommend an article?