“The reason personas failed to achieve true personalization is that they were too simplistic to reflect the unique attributes that differentiate individual customers and prospects from the mass of other similar customers and prospects. And that is the essence of true personalization.”
In talking about donor identities, marketers will often say they’ve tried personas, and they haven’t worked like the marketer thought they would. Therefore, they aren’t going to invest more in seeking donor identities.
Donor identities and personas are fundamentally different. Personas are usually created from cluster analysis of demographic and transactional factors with psychological and attitudinal constructs mapped on top.
So, as a result, you may end up with:
“Anna and Ben are 32-year-old Millennials who are drawn to the advocacy portion of your mission. They live in a growing, hip, urban area (Seattle? Portland? Nashville? Austin?) and volunteer locally. They try to shop at local stores and are more likely to buy from companies that are socially responsible. When they give, they give in lower amounts, but want to see a concrete impact from their gift. They want their giving to be easy, likely online, and their nonprofit activities to be fun.”
The nice part of this is that you get a picture of Anna and Ben (and Ethel and James and the other eight personas you were given). They help you remember that you are not the donor and help you put yourself in another person’s shoes.
If you’ve done persona work, this persona may look familiar to you. If that’s the case, know that I generated this by taking one demographic variable (young) and extrapolating things that Millennials are more likely to do, as shown in survey data and stereotype.
In other words, I completely made up this persona in two minutes, while sitting on a park bench in Washington D.C., waiting for a meeting. If you have a persona that looks like this, the person who gave it to you made it up, too.
In case you think I’m exaggerating, here are three real descriptions of PRIZM social groups based on demographic data. While reading, think about what different approaches you would make in your messaging to one group over the other:
“Big Sky Families. Scattered in placid towns across the American heartland, Big Sky Families is a segment of young rural families who have turned high school educations and blue-collar jobs into busy, middle-class lifestyles. Residents like to play baseball, basketball and volleyball, besides going fishing, hunting and horseback riding. To entertain their sprawling families, they buy virtually every piece of sporting equipment on the market.”
“Mayberry-ville. Like the old “The Andy Griffith Show,” set in a quaint picturesque berg, Mayberry-ville harks back to an old-fashioned way of life. In these small towns, middle-class couples and families like to fish and hunt during the day, and stay home and watch TV at night. With lucrative blue-collar jobs and moderately priced housing, residents use their discretionary cash to purchase boats, campers, motorcycles and pickup trucks.”
“Blue Highways. On maps, blue highways are often two-lane roads that wind through remote stretches of the American landscape. Among lifestyles, Blue Highways is the standout for lower-middle-class couples and families who live in isolated towns and farmsteads. Here, Boomer men like to hunt and fish; the women enjoy sewing and crafts; and everyone looks forward to going out to a country music concert.”
Let me emphasize — these are different groups. Allegedly. It just intuitively feels right to ask a series of global questions on how people feel (e.g. about your cause and supporting charities, etc.) and then group them based on the responses. The primary challenge with these personas is the difference between the groups is not related to why they give to the charity.
Personas never go far enough to say why they support your specific charity and what that group (much less an individual person) needs, specifically, from your charity. For example, just because Group A is 17% more concerned with climate change than Group B, it doesn’t mean that you should focus on climate change for Group A — either or both groups may believe from a more persuasive messaging point.
More importantly, even if you know that Person A (vs. Group A) cares about climate change, it is not digging deep enough — we need to know why. This “why” — the one that sits below your brand, your messaging and your mission — is the centerpiece of being donor-centric; it is the supporter’s “why,” and, unless you dig that deep, you’ll forever be scratching the surface.
That’s the downside of personas. You are given a name and a cluster, but the data is all demographic and transactional. Those can tell you “what” and a bit about “who.” They can’t tell you why. This severely limits how you can use them in marketing, untethered as they are to giving behavior. So the costly persona binder gathers dust on a shelf.
But perhaps even worse than not using personas is trying to implement them. In “Technically Wrong,” Sara Wachter-Boettcher highlights some “When Personas Attack” scenarios, like Etsy asking women what they were going to get “him” for Valentine’s Day, when the recipient’s partner was a “her.” But one stuck out to me: She was working with a CMO to put names to personas, a common exercise to help create empathy for the user. He agreed with all their choices until:
“We reached the last persona, ‘Linda.’” A stock photo of a 40-ish black woman beamed at us from above her title: ‘CEO.’”
Our client put down his paper. “I just don’t think this is realistic,” he said. “The CEO would be an older white man.”
My colleague and I agreed that might often be the case, but explained that we wanted to focus more on Linda’s needs and motivations than how she looked.
“Sorry, it’s just not believable,” he insisted. “We need to change it.”
Back at the office, “Linda” became “Michael” — a suit-clad, salt-and-pepper-haired white guy.”
You could say, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” We should not throw out personas just because of one (expletive redacted). But there is no baby. Even if the persona had stayed “Linda,” it would have put everyone who had a set of needs into a demographic bucket. It is how Etsy “knew” its female users wanted to buy gifts for “Ben,” not “Betty.”
Identities are based on first-party data, not third-party data like personas. Identities are tied to why people give to you, not what they believe about life in general. Identities allow for specific messaging, while personas give you vague ideas of what a person in that cluster might be slightly more likely to want at best and unusable stereotypes at worst.
It is knowing the donor’s core reason(s) for giving that is key to getting the right donors and retaining them for the long-term. To do that, we must listen in all channels at all times, then work to customize to our donor’s desires.
Nick Ellinger joined the Moore, where he works to increase the automation and customization of fundraising as chief brand officer, in January 2020. Before that, he was DonorVoice’s vice president of marketing strategy, working with organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Share our Strength | No Kid Hungry, and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation to look at their fundraising with a different lens. He developed his direct fundraising muscle running Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s direct marketing program for a decade. He’s also the author of "The New Nonprofit" to challenge fundraising norms.