What the research says about marketing personas


brainThere’s no two ways about it: stereotypes and assumptions are constantly called upon in marketing planning and implementation. For each of the four ‘Ps’ (price, product, place and promotion), marketers make assumptions and tailor the appearance, price, location and methods of promotion of new products in order to tickle the fancies of prospective customers.

Marketers (or the good ones) convince us to buy things by playing on our natural human impulses, for things like water, shelter, and food as well as our less urgent desires for career fulfilment, the approval of fellow humans, and a happy home life. They create ‘personas’, that is, models of ideal customers or of individual people in the organisational buying cycle and their buying triggers, and create multilevel strategies designed to cajole each person in the chain towards a desired behaviour. When used expertly, everything from website design and navigation, to email marketing, to the language and tone of voice used on a sales call should reflect what works best for the personas being targeted.

So where do digital marketers get the information that makes up personas? We ought to use existing online browsing and buying data, market research specific to the target sector, and scientific studies of organisational buying behaviour.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of studies into buying behaviour dating back to the 1950s, and while no study is ever definitive, they act as a guidebook for marketers to test strategies based on what is known about how humans find information, compare alternatives, and make buying decisions.

Digital marketers are interested in the reaching as many people as they can, and have been using the study of individual differences in information gathering behaviour to achieve better message retention across their target audiences.

We already know that different people use the internet in different ways, but studies have revealed patterns in what drives us to behave the way we do online.

For example, several studies indicate that people tend to lean on one ‘information gathering’ sense (sight, sound, or touch/interaction) over the others, in the same way that people are left and right handed. While plain text and images might be perfect for one segment of your target audience, the rest might prefer to watch an explainer video with engaging visuals and audio. Marketers can’t know what mix of preferred senses their audience will have, but they can ensure that all pages cater to everyone, with explainer and case study videos, informative and clear text and a layout that’s easy to navigate in order to appeal to all customers, no matter their subconscious preference.

In a similar vein, research also suggests that our brains have a preferred stimulant and that our personality is influenced as a result. For example, someone who prefers Groupon restaurant deals, is driven by a different stimulant to those who choose restaurants based on friends’ recommendations. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher suggests that people are driven by a combination of testosterone, oestrogen, dopamine, and serotonin. Subjects can be profiled using an in-depth questionnaire that reveals their dominant neurological drivers.  While it would be nice to have this information, it’s extremely impractical for marketers to use a questionnaire on their target customers (for obvious reasons). With this in mind, it’s still valuable for marketers to understand what makes people tick, and which tactics will push buttons with specific personality types. Here are a few examples of marketing tactics that trigger different neurological archetypes.

Neurological driver

Personality traits

Marketing tactics



Explorers” are driven to seek thrills and novelty, and are bored by routines.

They are unafraid of risks and are creative and curious.


Limited time offers, e.g. Groupon

Twitter, Instagram, and new social media (Explorers are early adopters)


Engaging videos



Builders” like patterns, rules and information ordered by logic. They like consistency, processes and repetition.

Simple, clear website navigation

Consistency across all brand messaging

eBooks and “read more” options, with in-depth explanations and advice



Negotiators” are empathetic and are people managers and people pleasers. They like to make decisions that will benefit all members in a group and are socially influenced more than other neurological types.

Images of people smiling in marketing material

Third-party endorsement by influencers in the media, i.e. journalists

Case study videos on the website with happy customers



Directors” are competitive, problem solvers and decision makers. They like hard facts and evidence that will help them to make decisions.


Reports, surveys, and other evidence based marketing and sales

Twitter – Directors like the key facts in a brief

Email marketing

Take me for example. Despite being female and commonly put in the oestrogen pigeonhole, upon taking the questionnaire I fell into the Director and Explorer categories. It’s therefore not a good move to make assumptions about which categories people in your target audience fit into based on their age, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status. Rather, make assumptions based on data and existing knowledge about the preferences and behaviour of your customers. If your customers are CEOs, then it’s likely they are “Directors” who are natural problem solvers and decision makers (but you won’t know for sure until you’ve tested it). If 50 per cent of recipients snapped up a time-sensitive deal on your latest email marketing campaign, then chances are you have a high proportion of “Explorer” types.

Where marketing fails, on epic and unmitigated scales, is where personas are based on cultural bias rather than solid research.

Examples of poor stereotyping in digital marketing are littered all over the internet. Facebook will occasionally show you ads that are not only poorly targeted, but a bit insulting. Digital marketing is so personal and close to home now that organisations can’t afford to rub their customers the wrong way.

Sometimes it’s done so well that it’s spooky (for example, a friend recently noticed that two pairs of shoes already in her wardrobe and that had been bought in-store were showing up in ads on her Facebook profile). Other ads for diet pills, dating websites and cat beds, however, are targeted at me because I’m 24, female, and don’t have a relationship status listed.

The assumptions made about each persona targeted in the organisational buying cycle should be based on data you already have, or scientific research into behaviour. They must also incorporate the real differences that exist in any group of individuals. With the right mix of tactics, a wide, appealing net of information delivery on your website, and evidence-based personas, campaigns are much more likely to achieve results.

Would you like your marketing team to be more strategic and data-driven? You might be eligible for one of our free science of marketing seminars.

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