In present-day marketing automation and content marketing, the persona is king. Though as of a couple years ago, according to ITSMA, only 44% of B2B marketers were using personas.
Adding personas mints sales like a marketer had just hit the engagement mother lode, had found the pot o'conversions at the end of the rainbow, had...well, you get it.
Just one case study by MarketingSherpa found that buyer personas drove a 900% increase in length of visit, a 171% increase in marketing-generated revenue, a 111% increase in email opens and a 100% increase in the number of pages visited. That's enough triple digits to make your head spin.
Marketers that don't use personas either aren't sold on them for their particular business, or they haven't managed to integrate data-based marketing automation into their stack yet, or management won't approve it or, because, well, money.
Buyer personas work, though. But their day may be waning before it's even totally arrived.
Personas are prone to...us
Just recently I worked on an inbound campaign aimed at software developers, as well as a wholly coincidental project from another client where I worked up an article and checklist about what a marketer has to do to engage those same developers.
The first project could have made a damn good case study for the second.
Marketer A had endured abysmal results from its prior efforts to get devs on board with its products. Marketer B had been through that grind, and had learned a few lessons it was willing to share with others.
What Marketer A hadn't learned was the key lesson Marketer B was teaching: the importance of connecting with developers on their own terms across the board.
That meant doing more than tossing some developer slang into their site content and social. It meant Marketer A would need to reform their entire attitude and process when it came to engaging people who inherently disdained, if not actively disliked, marketers. Most of those marketers, you see, hadn't ever made the effort to get past their own buzzwords and discover real empathy for the developers they were trying to convert.
It's not that there's some perpetual schism between the two sides. It's just that Marketer A had never mined insight into what made their audience tick, what thrilled and motivated them, how they preferred to be engaged. All things that would have been part of the well-crafted persona doing stand-in duty for their target.
So using a persona-based model would do Marketer A a world of good. For now. But a persona is only as effective as the people and processes putting it together, and it's at the mercy of their expertise, their biases, the quality of the data they're using, and other factors.
In a very few years, though, that way of building and deploying personas ain't gonna hang the wash anymore, as my mom would have put it.
Three barriers for present-day personas
Consider Marketer A, after they've successfully launched a persona-based content marketing program. They may need more than one persona, and the inbound marketing infrastructure that drives leadgen and conversion, populated by content that speaks to each of those personas.
That's already a lot of work, requiring a lot of costly upkeep and human intervention.
But there are three factors a-looming that are going to ensure the actual demise of persona-based engagement.
What happens if Marketer A has such a spate of success it grows beyond just its home market? What if it's reaching across borders, opening subsidiaries and creating digital touchpoints for mobile, web, email, social and more in multiple countries?
That means a brace of personas for each of those markets, because if there's one thing a global marketer can tell you, it's the importance of localization, whether you're selling petrochemicals, industrial equipment or apps. A software developer in Drupal may have a different set of concerns from one on Silicon Beach.
To deliver against all the possible permutations of personas (now that's alliteration!), there'll be a need for either a bigger digital infrastructure that allows allows local granularity (as with DXMs being adopted by global marketers) or some smarter automated solution that's agile enough to adapt to each locality. Or both.
But there's another challenge lying in the weeds for our plucky persona-maker.
Darn right it's ironic. Persona-based marketing is creating the movement that spells its own end. Digital consumers, even B2B ones, now have an insistent and growing demand for personalization.
Maybe a snake in the grass wasn't the right analogy. Pandora's Box might be better, taking the shape of a small handheld gadget Steve Jobs launched on the world from a stage in 2007.
The level of data-gathering and precision targeting made possible by the ubiquitous web engagement you get from mobile empowered marketer and technologists to make digital experiences more personalized. And that's fed the expectation of personal digital experiences among consumers and customers.
They want those meaningful personal engagements they're all a-Twitter about. Which is one of the social channels they'll take to in order to eviscerate a brand that fails to deliver one.
Take that demand for personalization and then inflate it to macro scale across a planet where over three billion of us are on the web already, and you can see the challenges ahead for marketing automation -- and digital governance of all that marketing.
Personas are a lot more efficient than the one-size-fits-all models we used to use. But they aren't that efficient, and there are other structural costs of a digital marketing program, as well as opportunity costs they still haven't overcome.
Companies still have to build content models around these personas, and there's often a lag between insight -- a predictive analytics output that can dictate a specific tactic -- and execution. That lag may be brief, but it's enough to lose the advantage of an in-the-moment conversation with your target.
Marketers, however, are turning to omnichannel experience platforms to deliver content and brand experiences, and that will demand perfect execution across every touchpoint. That means being able to function in real time, every time.
Is all of this a diss on marketing automation and personas? No. They're the best tools most marketers have had that are suitable for broad application lately, and they're light-years ahead of their predecessors.
But personas and any other type of title-based modeling are going away, make no mistake.
From personas to personalization
We've thrown personalization around a lot as the grail that marketing automation puts within reach -- but that's not true. It's still archetyping at the point of initial engagement, and even thereafter depending on the sophistication of a marketer's Big Data capabilities.
It's not really personalization. Not at the one-to-one level.
Artificial intelligence platforms, like those delivered by one of my clients (forgive the shameless humblebrag here!) are going to supplant the personas we know today. By sourcing a wide range of data, they'll apply deep learning in pursuit of two ends:
Creating predictive, automated personas that constantly evolve and respond to target behaviors and contexts to draw prospects into the funnel.
Delivering 100% personalized, real-time engagement with each individual prospect or customer -- even before they're on the path.
An A.I. that can engage with a prospect in the moment and quickly discern their intentions, needs and wants from website browsing behavior, what social feeds and content resources they visit, and other data will erase any need for hand-built, archetype-style personas. It'll be capable of carrying on engagement that quickly satisfies that user's expectation of receiving a hypercustomized omnichannel experience where their every ask is predictively answered in an instant.
That's an enormous leap forward from archetypes and segmentation...and it's going to be here sooner than we might expect.
Companies of all kinds are already utilizing machine learning in striking and imaginative ways, including marketing. "A.I. adoption" is already practically a meme among martech and IT communities. So with hundreds of A.I. developers springing up, and billions in investment, deep learning platforms will swiftly revolutionize marketing and customer engagement.
Here's a quote that sums up how fast and profound the impact of A.I. is going to be:
So someday soon, you'll have to take a moment to say goodbye to "Alicia / 34-year-old Hispanic working mother" and "Matthew / 46-year-old IT purchasing executive" and the rest.
Because you won't be having conversations with personas, but the actual people you've always wanted to reach.