User personas are mostly worthless

User Personas

User personas — sometimes called “marketing personas” — are ways that companies attempt to define the customers they’re chasing. This is all an incredibly fraught deal on any number of levels, and if I don’t constrain myself somewhat, I’ll likely go off on a rant about it. (It would not be the first time.)

I guess the easiest way to begin is to say this: I think marketing, as most people construe it, is a total joke. I’ve worked in marketing departments and I’ve freelanced for different marketing departments, and it’s usually a gigantic train wreck on any number of levels. Marketers tend to over-focus on “campaigns,” typically in an effort to seem busy and important, as opposed to thinking about real ROI and value that would help the sales side do their job. You’ve also got a ton of new technology available to marketing teams, and while some are good at using it, many totally flop here. Don’t even get me started on email: it’s supposedly the gold standard of marketing in the digital age — it beats the social algorithm, baby! Directly to the inbox! — but most email marketing reads like a used car salesman is trying to get you in bed.

The whole thing’s a mess. And in a way, it shouldn’t be that surprising. The ROI of standard marketing has long been hard to prove beyond “Hey, our product was on TV, so I bet a bunch of people know and value our brand now!” (Whenever I heard that in office jobs, I wanted to plunge my head into an industrial fan.) Marketing has been chasing the shrine of big numbers for generations. That’s why, even now, most middle managers in marketing are reporting up the chain on impressions. “67,000 people saw this, boss! Facebook says so!” The boss could barely care. He/she is protecting his/her neck at the senior level and desperately trying to hang on until retirement. CMOs have no idea about digital; they’re just trying to cling to whatever revenue models will satiate their boss.

OK, ’twas a rant.

Now let’s tackle some user personas.

User Personas: What are they?

Here’s a visual example:

User Personas Example

Basically, you attempt to define a customer or, well, “user” of your product/service with user personas. Typically a bunch of people get in a room — let’s say someone from marketing, some executive, a guy from Product, maybe someone in UX — and they bat around ideas about who this person is and what problem (buzzword is “pain point”) they need solved. Then these outlines are created, probably part of a larger campaign. In reality, these outlines could be created about 45 minutes after the main meeting/brainstorming is over, but typically it tends up taking six weeks. At some point in the process, someone will say “Oh, I have to get that to design.” I’ve never really understood any of it, honestly.

Now we know what user personas are. Let’s move on.

User Personas: What are the issues?

The first issue is that they’re usually pretty generic. It’s something like “Product Manager Paul wants to keep his costs down!” No shit. Everyone wants to keep their costs down. I think if you Google “capitalism,” that might be the first hit: “A system where you try to keep your costs down.” So putting that in user personas is kind of a joke.

The second issue is that they often get cutesy. You see above where I said “Product Manager Paul?” I’ve done user personas with 12 different teams in my life. (Not a huge sample size, but not terribly small either.) In all 12 examples, the user personas had to be alliterative. People love it. I have no idea why, honestly. Maybe it makes it more fun?

The third issue is the biggest one. User personas are essentially completely outdated at this point. Why? Ah-ha, Big Data!

User personas and Big Data

Big Data is a pretty fraught concept to me — heck, even Dubner of Freakonomics is pushing back on it now! — but it’s supposed to be the forthcoming business revolution of the moment. Never mind that we hire too many “data scientists” and not enough “people who can explain the data to executives,” but eh.


With Big Data, though, and with advanced financial modeling, you come to this place:

Prior to the last couple of years, the technological infrastructure, the data … and skill sets in the market were just broadly not available to a lot of companies to understand individual behavior.… The idea of a persona or an average customer was the typical way that marketers would think about their customer base. But now with advancements in technology, with modeling, with more available [data and] skill sets, they are able to understand and predict future behavior at more granular levels, and it’s a dramatic shift that’s happening. It started in a lot of e-commerce businesses but now is spreading to bricks-and-mortar more traditional industries as well.

That’s a former hedge fund guy talking to Wharton about a new venture of his, whereby companies can more easily determine “lifetime customer value.”

If you read the quote, he’s basically saying “user personas are useless in the modern age, because we have actual transaction information that can inform how we think about people and the decisions they will make.”

In short, data and information killed user personas.

But won’t marketers still cling to user personas?

Of course. Change is hard, and we often do things the way we’ve always done them until something absolutely forces us to do them differently. That’s how the game works, and that’s unabashedly how work “works.” People go to meetings because that’s what we do. People hop on conference calls with no agenda or context because that’s how things are done. Acting without thinking is a hallmark of a lot of work, and user personas fit into that too.

Basically, it works like this:

  • “Hey, we have tons of information on our customers, people who left the funnel, and even more. Should we use it?”
  • “No time for this tomfoolery, Ben! We have a 10:30am stand-up on user personas!”

You see how dumb that conversation is? In the time since I began typing this post, I bet that exact convo has happened 156 times in America.

What else you got on user personas?

Ted Bauer


  1. In agreement with your commentary on User Personas. They persist because they are now common currency and easy for folks across the enterprise to understand, (not to mention, also makes it easier for marketers to show “value” and justify their roles). Pete Fader’s Lifetime Customer Value is promising, but is also cost prohibitive for most businesses and so adoption will occur slowly.

  2. Totally disagree with this. A hedge fund guy who is selling his newest (big data) project is not exactly what I’d call an unbiased source. Big data may make sense in about 20 years. Right now though, it is just a mess with no one really knowing how to connect the dots of all that data.

    You give no specific tangible examples of how big data is actually effectively being used by marketers and that is because~ it is very, very hard to do so. Multi-billion dollar companies are trying to figure it out and are still finding it ineffective. Some day, will they be using it for marketing? Probably. But if you are selling products today, (and not in 20 years) then for better or worse, personas are the best we have. Additionally, the quote you use regarding “lifetime customer value” equals “user personas suck” makes no sense. Lifetime consumer value is a stat about a consumers’ value that can be applied to both big data and user persona (and is used regularly, today).

    To get people to stop doing what they have been doing, you have to prove the new approach is better (with actual information, details, stats, etc) and you didn’t.

    Sorry you don’t alliterations. Sorry you think “campaigns” are ineffective. Sorry you seem to have a chip on your shoulder about marketing in general but this post was basically a rant with very little substantive insight about how/why big data is the way to go today.

    • I like the fire in this comment, although it feels like a potential spam dump. Yea?

      I agree marketing’s ROI is pretty tough, though. We’re aligned there.

      • He criticizes you for ranting without providing any solutions, yet he does the same thing in his comment. All hail the brave anonymous spamtroll!

  3. I look at this way: Personas are useful shortcuts for talking about a subset of your demographics. More specifically, a subset of needs and related behaviors. The formation of personas was always supposed to be data-driven. Pure guessing about them was of almost no value, right?

    I think the tools and volumes of data that we have available today improve our ability to define customer segments, but they don’t remove the need for abbreviated ways of talking about those subsets — the distilled learning.

    Products and systems are designed by people and people are easily confused when discussing complex subjects. Maybe we don’t need personas exactly, or not the previous incarnation of them. But we still need shortcuts — easy handles with which we can describe groups of people, their needs, and their anticipated behavior. And of course everyone loves a little alliteration. 🙂

  4. Personas aren’t perfect, but they do help marketing and product teams keep focused on the customer. (While customer-centric thinking seems so obvious, it is difficult for most organizations to view themselves from the outside, in.)

    Big Data may be notoriously difficult to master, but emerging leaders are using it to fuel competitive advantage.

    You can, and should, create data-driven personas. Marketing is slowly coming to this realization, as CX plays a larger role in their overall responsibilities.

  5. Wow…you miss the point of Personas completely. I couldn’t disagree more and the negative tone of this (your disclaimers considered) is a bummer. Maybe you shouldn’t consider another line of work?

  6. Very interesting perspective! I agree that data will allow businesses to define their audience. Personas though, are a clear way to present the findings (from data) to the stakeholders. The two work hand-in-hand. A merge between the two is required, keeping in mind that the personas must be signed-off by CMOs. In a way you have to present info they can relate to.

  7. Actually you need both. You sharpen your user personas based on big data. But let’s back up here for a moment: “behavioral analytics” and “big data” is a gross oversimplification. There are few who actually know how to accurately gather it and an even smaller number of those who actually know how to interpret it…Even smaller yet is the group of people who know how to execute on it.

    But aside from all that, yes big data is very useful. I’m a proponent of drawing conclusions from events and data and have worked with big data myself. I’m a programmer. I have built targeting tools and algorithms. I have ran hundreds of lines long map/reduce queries. I really have been in the weeds. I get it and it makes sense to me and I value it — yet I STILL question it and I will be to tell someone it’s not a perfect science.

    So to harp on user personas for not being as good or accurate is a bit silly. User personas are created very early on, but should be refined over time. Your big data isn’t accurate either at first. Remember that data isn’t always statistically relevant and that’s perhaps the biggest sin of those getting involved with data for the first time. They jump on it too soon without understanding because it sounds really good.

    Both big data and personas work together actually. Don’t forget user personas do more than just describe your audience. They are actually a framework for doing so. So when you apply data to refine them, you are iterating and explaining those findings through the personas. It adds a bit of a human element too, which is absolutely critical in understanding and convincing other humans.

    • I like this comment a lot. But here’s my question: do you think many marketing teams understand this? I’ve almost never worked with one who remotely “got” it.

      • I think there’s a lot of noise and approaches when it comes to marketing. It’s a lot like programming too. There are simply many, many, ways to solve a problem. Then adding in a dash (or heaping spoonful) of tech only makes matters more complicated. So I would certainly say not many marketing teams or marketers understand this, but perhaps through no fault of their own. It’s very complex. I’ve worked with marketing teams that did get it, but many on the team were quite technical and had programming experience. So analytics and big data were less of a hurdle. Super rare though, you are right.

  8. Seems to me, personas could still be a useful way to think about marketing, particularly any mass media marketing as opposed to one-on-one selling — but personas should be informed by data, not just dreamed up in a brainstorming session. Look for clusters of customers with like characteristics in your big data set, interview a few from each group, and base your personas based on something closer to reality. But you do it because it’s easier to target your marketing campaign at a persona than at thousands of individuals.

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