By Marcia Riefer Johnston published May 14, 2015

Personalize? Or Persona-ize? Yes!

Personalize-persona-Scott-Abel-Robert-Rose

At its most sophisticated, intelligent content adapts according to what it “knows” (hence the term intelligent) about the person on the receiving end.

Or should we say the persona?

That’s the question Scott Abel and Robert Rose tackled in a recent video-recorded conversation initiated by Sean Schroeder, a principal of Blue River Interactive Group. Sean set up this conversation because Scott and Robert, in the keynote talks they gave at the Intelligent Content Conference in March, had taken apparently contradictory stances on the topic of personas.

Following is a summary of that conversation, which explores and affirms each point of view – and leaves content professionals with a sense of when to use a persona and when to stretch to personalize.

The apparent contradiction

How do Scott’s and Robert’s views seem to contradict each other? Scott encourages people to move away from personas – descriptions of categories of people. He says that personas are often created to enable content creators to do their work, but personas fail to deliver the kind of personalization that would be possible “if we took a different approach” and targeted individuals instead.

“I have a strong opinion about moving toward personalized content,” he says.

Robert argues that there’s a place for “persona-ized” content, which he describes this way: “It’s relevant. It’s meant for me. It’s impactful for me. But it’s stuff that I want to share with my friends, family, et cetera.”

In other words, persona-ized content is tailored not for individuals but for a group that has things in common. In Robert’s view, sometimes that’s exactly what’s called for.

‘We don’t disagree’

Do the two views oppose each other? Robert says, “I don’t think we disagree.” He calls on the metaphor of the marketing funnel, which represents the gradual conversion of noncustomers to customers through a series of narrowing stages. In the broad part of the funnel, in Robert’s view, it makes sense to address personas.

“As the shopping experience becomes more and more intimate,” he says, using his hands to indicate the funnel narrowing, “the content becomes more personal.” At this stage, it makes sense to address people by name, understand their shopping habits, and deliver the products that mean most to them. “We’re talking about a spectrum here … You want to deliver more and more and more relevance.”

Scott points out the risk of overemphasizing personas. Personas work fine, he says, when you want to explain things in a way that works for “the lowest common denominator” in groups of people. “But when you want to compel people to do things,” he says, the content needs “that personalized touch.”

How? Scott suggests that content pros ask, “How do we localize the content in terms of language and units of measure and maybe where the person is and what that person prefers?” Next, he says, “Nail down the differences between the people in the persona groups.”

Think that sounds hard? Scott agrees. It is hard. “It’s easier to have four little buckets to throw people in.” Personas can give us “a great excuse for not trying.”

Robert agrees. “But,” he adds, moving his hands apart to indicate the part of the funnel where customers are not yet customers, “as I get out to that TV commercial or that print magazine or that blog that I’m creating way up here,” content has to be more generic to appeal to a general consumer. “We just can’t scale to dozens and dozens and dozens of types of customers.”

Scott agrees. Still, he says, content providers shouldn’t give up or feel scared just because the challenge seems too big. He also points out the risk of departments developing separate, uncoordinated personas, resulting in companies aiming at different audiences.

Robert chimes in: “How many times have I gone into big businesses where the product people have personas, the marketing people have personas, the customer service people have personas, and they’re all vaguely similar but yet different. They’re not working toward serving the same customer.” Those companies are not using their personas “to deliver better, more-relevant content.”

Scott urges us to look for opportunities to personalize content. When we do, our companies disrupt the market. Our customers see our brand as caring about them more than other brands do.

Our content becomes magic.

What customer could resist?

My take: Ask What if?

Here’s what I take away from Scott and Robert’s conversation. Personas have their place. They can work well for targeting large, new audiences, especially when multiple teams produce content for the same audiences. But savvy content professionals don’t stop with personas. They also seek out ways to tailor content interactions to the individual.

Does this sound impossible for your content? Maybe it is today. Don’t let that deter you. Try asking questions like, What if our system could know about this person’s past purchases? What if the system could detect his or her location and the time right now? Ask all kinds of what if questions that might factor into the kind of personalized content experiences you would like your customers to have.

Then ask, How might people want us to vary our content delivery accordingly? The more we think in terms of questions like these – the more possibilities we envision – the readier we are to seek out technology solutions that support personalization.

Shifting to this what if mindset, and sustaining it in the face of naysayers, may require leaving our comfort zones. So be it. If we want our customers to have memorable, differentiating, even magical experiences with our content, we have to leap into the unknown, into that place where the best things in life happen.

Do you have a what if mindset when it comes to personalization? Share your what if questions with us in a comment below – and tell us where those questions are leading you and your organization.

Want to learn more about intelligent content? Sign up for the Intelligent Content weekly email newsletter. Not only will you receive our new posts, but you’ll also get an exclusive article from Robert Rose each week.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Full disclosure: The Blue River Interactive Group was a sponsor of the Intelligent Content Conference.

Author: Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About. As a member of the CMI team, she serves as Managing Editor of Content Strategy. She has run a technical-writing business for … a long time. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaRJohnston. For more, see Writing.Rocks.

Other posts by Marcia Riefer Johnston

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  • http://www.demochimp.com Garin Hess

    Great article. I’m delivering a presentation next month at CEB’s upcoming Sales and Marketing Summit in Vegas next month and I think I’m going to highlight this question. The session is on how to effectively personalize content in a way that not only increases likelihood to purchase at an individual level but increases consensus building across the buying group. I would argue that Robert’s comment that “We just can’t scale to dozens and dozens and dozens of types of customers.” is an outdated assumption that can be solved with technology. If we take a dual approach where we discover what we can about the customer by combining data sources as well as asking the customer to give us information that will help personalize the content to their unique needs and combine that with technology agile and flexible enough to gather what it needs for that individual, we can indeed scale to dozens and dozens, even hundreds of variations. At DemoChimp that’s exactly the problem we’ve been working on for a few years now. I believe personalization is going to completely change the face of marketing and sales over the next 5 years. I really liked your “What If” questions at the end. Another question to ask would be, “What would the technology have to look like if the constraint was that everything has to be personalized to the person, not the persona?” That kind of constraint-based thinking really leads to some interesting innovative directions. Thanks for a great article highlighting one of the key questions in personalization. It helped me think more deeply about the differences between persona-based and person-based content.