At one time, persona-based marketing -- marketing that is based on designing journeys for fictional stakeholders who should like your company or product -- was seen as innovation. It was part of a larger innovative approach to customer engagement called user-centered design. It gave marketers direction -- "what content matters, knowing whom I need to engage?" Most important, it gave marketers a way to engage at scale that didn't depend on a single character with a single storyline. It arrived at a time when another approach to scale was just beginning to fail: mass advertising (the single character/single storyline approach).
Like all great things, this too shall pass. While persona-based marketing is not dead yet, it may soon become a relic of the past, like the marketing budget that prioritized generic broadcast advertising and communications. Why? Because marketing in the age of mobile -- driven by the evolution of intelligent machines like smartphones, tablets, wearables, and soon an expanding universe of connected appliances -- is rendering most of the practices of persona-based marketing obsolete. Here are a few:
The first challenge to the practice is the way the marketer characterizes the customer. In persona-marketing the characters are fictional. Of course, the best personas are based on solid research. But to scale their marketers, marketers have to have hunches. But people don't fit into buckets; every user is an individual, and her behavior, buying patterns, and other habits are unique. With mobile marketing technology, a lot of the guess work goes away. You can actually discover who your customers are and not leave it up to the creative genius of the folks at your agency or on staff.
The second challenge is the way the marketer talks to the customer, or in fancier words "assists with the customer journey." This refers to the scripts that marketers write for their fictional characters, often without what they really want, when they want, and on which device they might be most receptive to a message. Rather than assume any of these things for any of your customers, why not discover what works. Mobile marketing tech adds huge machine-learning muscle to this work, as long as you follow the rules of engagement (permission, personalizations, and purpose, as I outlined in the first article in this series). The opportunity for marketers is to stop wasting time writing copy that doesn't matter and start optimizing communications according to real customer needs.
An Aging Theory of Scale
Which brings us to the last and perhaps most important challenge to persona-based marketing: scale. Despite its original intent to provide a more customer-centric approach to scale -- more customer-centric for sure than mass advertising -- in the mobile era, persona-based marketing, as we know it, cannot scale. You can't imagine all the fictional characters that represent the potential high-value customers you do not yet know. And no budget for marketing will ever accommodate the content creation needs of this approach. The choices are simple: keep doing what you're doing and see how that goes. Or learn from the companies that are leveraging mobile marketing tech to grow their customer community scalably and organically.
It won't be the end of content marketing -- as I'll say in my next post, its best practitioners will play an elevated role in the age of intelligent machines. And it certainly won't mean the end of Don Draper -- the fictionalized adman on Mad Men who's become perhaps the most interesting persona in the world of advertising. There's a place for him, too. But it may mean the end of an approach that served the needs of marketers in the pre-mobile era very well, but has had its day. RIP.