Adding a persona touch

Ask anyone at women’s apparel cataloger/retailer Appleseed’s to describe Kate, and they will tell you that Kate is a baby boomer, a mother — maybe even a grandmother — who is active in her community and likes having time to relax. She favors classic clothing that doesn’t make her feel as if she’s wearing a uniform.

But if you go to Appleseed’s Beverly, MA, headquarters, you won’t find Kate in a cubicle or an office. Rather, Kate is a persona, built from psychographic and demographic data, which describes who the Appleseed’s customer is.

Personae are models that marketers use to focus on the types of customers they want to target. In effect, personae help merchants understand their audiences in a more personalized manner and in a broader context.

Creating the Kate persona helped Appleseed’s learn more about its core customer and identify its most likely prospects, says senior vice president of marketing and retailClaire Spofford. “Before we developed Kate [in late 2004], we were trying to be everything to everyone,” Spofford says. “Now we are focused on who we are speaking to. That’s critical to having a connection to your customers and to having a product line that is consistent with the message you are trying to give.”

M.H. “Mac” McIntosh, president of North Kingstown, RI-based business-to-business marketing consultancy Mac McIntosh, sees persona marketing as a means of creating offers with specific groups in mind. By creating clusters of customers from your marketing database based on “human” attributes such as hobbies and shopping habits, he says, you get a more accurate ideal of how best to appeal to each group.

“Basing your offers only on customer recency, frequency, and monetary [RFM] values is not terribly effective,” McIntosh says. “For instance, who buys for babies? Theoretically it can be two or three different personas. If you just look at their purchase patterns, it’s not good enough.”

Using the baby example, McIntosh points out that most likely “mom” bought practical, easy-to-clean clothing for the baby, while “aunt” bought the baby the most stylish clothing, and “grandma” bought warm and cuddly items. If a marketer of baby clothes knew which members of its house file belonged to which group, it could modify the creative and offers of the catalogs and e-mails that it sends each of them.

That said, “persona marketing is far from A/B testing of catalog covers,” says David Rosen, senior vice president of Loyalty Lab, a San Francisco-based developer of customer loyalty programs. “It’s a rigorous approach to getting the right information about your customer to best speak to their language.”

Rosen gives an example of how one of his clients, a multichannel merchant of products for motorcycle enthusiasts, benefited from its recent foray into persona marketing. The merchant used to mail a big-book type of catalog that sold apparel, accessories, and aftermarket parts for both on-road and off-road cyclists. Customers included riders of Harley-Davidsons and motocross bikes, and bikers who purchased only items that were on sale.

A close look at the merchant’s customer database showed that its buyers generally could be categorized as one of four personae. So rather than sending all its customers the master catalog, the company began producing four smaller, more tightly focused catalogs, one for each persona.

“They were trying to get more sales at a better cost and showed across-the-board improvement,” Rosen says. “They spent less money on mailings and generated more sales.”

Tools of the trade

Elisa Krause, Ph.D., vice president of analytical services for Lafayette, CO-based co-op database Abacus, says that so far only a few merchants are using persona marketing. “But the ones that are buying into persona marketing are showing a form of sophistication,” Krause says. “They are moving away from RFM, which gives a nondescriptive view of their customers. Instead, RFM should be used to complement the personas.”

Krause believes that a lack of tools, such as a proper marketing database, is preventing more merchants from embracing persona marketing. “You need a marketing database to know which customers are driven by direct mail, which ones are driven by online offers, and what other attributes drive your customers,” Krause says. “Creating a persona requires all that data.”

To acquire the necessary information, chances are you’ll have to ask your customers some questions.

This is where merchants with a loyalty club have an advantage, Rosen says, because consumers usually have to answer a series of questions in exchange for membership. “You can ask your customers five to 10 questions that at least let you get your arms around the customer at a rudimentary level,” he says. “Some go as long as a 15- to 20-minute survey to create a real persona.”

How many questions are too many questions, Rosen says, hasn’t been determined. But he notes that he has seen a 91% completion rate of membership questionnaires with as many as 200 questions.

As for how many personae are too many personae, it depends largely on how specialized your product line is. In the case of a more targeted seller such as Appleseed’s, only one persona is needed. A general-merchandise marketer, however, “may want to have 10 or fewer buckets, give or take, depending on how massive the database is,” Krause says. “Having something like 20 or 30 would be too crazy. You also wouldn’t want to have one bucket with 2,000 households and another with just a handful.”

Bear in mind that you don’t have to create a persona for every customer. Rather you want to develop models of your best buyers.

And when it comes time to go beyond your buyers and find prospects who fit the personae, third-party databases and modeling tools such as demographic overlays can help, says Lou Mastria, chief privacy officer at Westminster, CO-based co-op database NextAction.

Let’s say Appleseed’s wants to promote its line of swimwear. Assuming it belongs to a co-op database, it could look there for consumers who best fit its Kate persona. It could also drill deeper into the co-op database to find out if these shoppers bought beach accessories within the past 12 months, have been on or recently booked a vacation to the Caribbean, or live in a warmer climate. Combining all these data, Mastria says, would enable Appleseed’s to pull a select list of names that would be more likely to respond to the offer instead of pulling a greater number of names that could deliver the same number of responses.

“It’s about taking your bucket and digging down further for a more targeted offer,” Mastria says. “It breaks out the mosaic of the customer.”

Persona marketing in a b-to-b environment

Persona marketing in a business-to-business environment can offer different challenges than in a business-to-consumer environment.

M.H. “Mac” McIntosh, president of marketing consultancy Mac McIntosh, offers this advice on getting started with personae in a b-to-b world:

  • Convene a group of employees who interact with your customers and prospects. Bring in lunch and a white board and ask them to help you build personae for your target customers.

  • Describe the target customer’s role in the company: Is he the CEO or a purchasing agent? An influencer or an end user?

  • Describe the kind of company each type of customer works for. What industry is it in? How big is it? How up-to-date is it? Does it have a lot of competition?

  • Give each persona a name, a title, and an age, and describe how he (or she) looks. How does he dress? What kind of car does she drive? What does he do in his free time? What kind of educational background does she have? Flesh out as many attributes as you need to give a full picture of who this person is.

  • Think about each persona’s problems and goals. What does this person’s daily calendar look like? What are his most pressing concerns? What product or service attributes would be most helpful in solving this person’s problems?

  • When formulating your marketing messages, think about what path this prospect or customer might pursue to solve this problem. Will he turn to white papers? Articles in trade publications? Websites? Would this persona seek input from a speaker at a networking group of their peers?

  • Let the personae steer the route; you can then pave the route with information to help your prospects and customers move forward in their consideration and buying process.