Insights — The Trouble with Personas

The Trouble with Personas

Thought leadership , Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion / October 23, 2020
Marguerite Moore
Marguerite Moore

At a time when expressions of identity and individuality are prevailing, and there's an acute intolerance of bias, discrimination, and systemic racism, we must ask ourselves — is there still a place for personas in higher ed marketing?

I first learned about personas in grad school. They were positioned as tools to help marketers create messaging for different target audiences — a way to better understand their interests, motivations, challenges, and barriers. When I was introduced to them, personas were typically associated with a name, a picture, and a brief summary. Based on this information, a marketer can better reach "Mary" and tailor her messaging, but this tool requires further examination. Because, despite their intended purpose, personas often fail to consider the intersectionality of human beings, which perpetuates stereotypes, let alone often feels outdated in today's highly customized world. So we must ask the question — are personas still relevant in today's marketing landscape?

What's the trouble with personas? 

On the surface, personas seem like an innocuous tool that serves a distinct marketing purpose. But what happens when this tool incorporates implicit biases that may be lying dormant? What happens when personas create racist messages?

Any time you segment groups, you're creating generalizations, and those generalizations always have the potential to perpetuate stereotypes.

On a deeper level, personas can showcase a marketer's implicit biases. They can reinforce the same destructive stereotypes that many universities are trying to eradicate. In reality, all of us bring our own biases to our work every day. Ignoring them only provides an opportunity for biased personas to go unchecked. Picking a name and a picture to represent your persona is the first step down this slippery slope. How are you defining personas of prospective students who are thriving? Students who are struggling? High-end donors? First-generation college students? Who comes to your mind when you think of these individuals? Of course, this varies depending on who is writing the persona. Still, it's easy for many to fall into convenient stereotypes, associating pictures of White men with affluent characteristics or People of Color with aspirational ones. Unless you can justify a legitimate business reason to include a picture and name, remove them. If we can begin to imagine segments looking and sounding in different ways, we're more likely to be more thoughtful in our marketing efforts.  

Who is the Audience?

Even if the most obvious problematic elements of personas are removed, there are additional questions to ask. Personas are supposed to help tailor messaging and crafting messages that are authentic to a generation that increasingly demands highly customized content is inherently difficult. Gen Z demands to be viewed and understood on their own terms. Even if we do create personas with them in mind, are they effective? Can we really craft authentic messaging for this entire generation with a handful of personas? Can we affect a group's behaviors and decisions if they don't see this type of messaging as authentic? 

How Are We Creating Them?

Ideally, comprehensive research should be the foundation for building personas— a combination of demographic segmentation, best understood through quantitative data, and then using secondary variable analysis to hone in on those segments' psychographics — characteristics like motivations, fears, and ambitions. 

The issue comes when marketers start building personas without this data and start making decisions based on anecdotal evidence. This is where implicit biases, microaggressions, or subtle acts of exclusion often run rampant. Failing to consider individuals' intersectional identities lead to painting broad brush strokes on over-generalized groups like recent graduates, student-athletes, and African-American students. 

Unless you can justify a legitimate business reason to include a picture and name in a persona, remove them.

Individuals' intersectional identities impact how a person engages with the world and taking the time to better understand them will provide the most accurate insights into what motivates members of a group. But how many personas drill deep enough to gather those nuggets of information?

And who is sharing those anecdotes? Do those individuals represent insights from across campus or only a few departments/units? 

If you're looking for meaningful insights, use the campus community around you to help understand audiences more deeply. Depending on the target audience, admissions officers, student affairs professionals, or advancement officers may offer keen insights that you may otherwise miss. Ultimately, a number of campus professionals can provide insight into target audiences. Although marketers may be the individuals creating and using the personas, they shouldn't be the only ones offering insights into who these audiences are and what motivates them to act.  

The issue comes when marketers start building personas without this quantitative foundation and start making decisions based on anecdotal evidence. This is where implicit biases, microaggressions, or subtle acts of exclusion often run rampant.

Who Is Creating the Messaging?

Once personas are created, what happens then? Even if they're built on a foundation of comprehensive research, details can be lost in translation — especially over time. How can we work to ensure that a nuanced point in research isn't lost when translating that into strategy? How can we ensure that other marketers who are now messaging based on that persona also understand those nuances?

Training certainly matters, but perhaps we also need to reimagine what personas look like. Brevity is valued in marketing, but that same brevity can lead to the problems outlined above. Perhaps more personas are needed than originally thought? Maybe personas need to be less generalized and more detailed in their nature? If a university is interested in using personas, deeper conversations need to be had to understand their end-use in achieving their ultimate goal. The idea that a quick one-pager will provide the level of insight to truly understand an audience seems limited at best.

Finally, personas should evolve over time. What motivates someone today may not be the same six months from now. Clearly, this pandemic illustrates how rapidly psychographics can evolve. We must create a regular cadence to review personas and examine if the messaging was actually effective.  

Can the University Deliver on its Messaging?

The final consideration is equally critical. Once you've created a data-driven persona and crafted savvy and targeted messaging, is that messaging authentic and true to the university? Especially when targeting underrepresented groups, there's been a certain level of distrust regarding marketing messages. Everyone knows of the institution that leads with a multicultural viewbook spread, only for a student of color to arrive on campus and experience something completely different. No one wants to be a part of a bait and switch. It takes more than marketing to create authenticity — everyone at the institution needs to be willing to do the real work of creating change that ensures messages targeting these groups are authentic and true. Even the most nuanced persona and tailored messaging will fall short if it can't be actualized.

Personas can showcase a marketer's implicit biases and reinforce the same destructive stereotypes that many universities are trying to eradicate.

Is there still a place for personas in higher ed marketing? 

Consumers are as savvy as ever; regardless of your audience, details matter. In our current COVID world, everyone is beginning to look at education a little differently. Universities that aren't thoughtful about how they message to their audiences and what those messages truly communicate are likely to fall behind.

There is still a place for personas, but they're not innocuous tools. Any time you segment groups, you're creating generalizations, and those generalizations always have the potential to perpetuate stereotypes. If we continue to create personas, we need to acknowledge our own biases as marketers, create astute observations, recognize groups as multifaceted and dynamic, and intentionally examine how intersectionality impacts groups. If we take the time to do this, we're more likely to effectively tailor messaging that's actually meaningful and reduce the likelihood of creating biased, problematic, and ineffective generalizations.

Marguerite is a Strategist at SimpsonScarborough. She holds a B.A. from Syracuse University, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration from Loyola University Chicago, and an M.A. in Integrated Marketing and Communications from Emerson College. Studying abroad in Paris and Sydney allowed her to experience communications on a global scale, engage with diverse perspectives, and broaden her scope. Outside of work, you can usually find her trying new restaurants and planning her next trip. Read more about her and the rest of our team here.

Related Insights