Chan Desai
Chan Desai

As a publicist, I see many clients using virtual personas as they target their marketing efforts. If you're unfamiliar with the trend, a persona is a fictional character based on a segment of your customer base. For example: "Madison is a white single mom raising two young children." Aside from demographics, the personas often contain such details as, "Madison stays home with her kids and has almost no free time to herself. When she gets a chance, she works out or meets friends for coffee."

When well-crafted, virtual personas give you a concrete way to think about your target audience. Ideally, they provide a connection to your customers and give you a chance to think through how your products and services can serve them better. Unfortunately, leaning too heavily on a virtual persona can create a disconnect between you and your audience.

Virtual personas can lead to inauthentic communication with your target audience

While virtual personas can be helpful marketing tools, they can also be dangerous. Their most significant flaw occurs when they are created with a focus on visual design, rather than on content.

Personas are intended to be life-like characters that help us understand our customers on a deeper level, primarily highlighting demographic details such as race, economic status, gender, or age. These personas promote a surface-level understanding of human behavior and can lead to perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Getting to know our target audience through a fixed, over-generalized belief about a group or class of people will never perpetuate genuine and authentic communication.

We all create stereotypes when we meet new people. It's a natural means of simplifying our social world. However, as we get to know someone, they grow from a two-dimensional stereotype into a tangible, unique and vibrant individual. This authentic process can never occur between you and your audience if you confine your interactions with them to virtual personas.

Even though stereotypes can be helpful, they are just as often completely off base, or even negative. People's behavior often depends much more on their role or situation than their demographic. Leaning solely on virtual personas instead of real human interaction can lead to assumptions that may cause a growing disconnect between you and your audience. User personas can be useful tools, but make sure to keep them focused on storytelling and details.

Communicating on a human-to-human level trumps talking at virtual personas

The goal of virtual personas is to give you a deeper understanding of your target audience. This understanding supposedly creates empathy, which then helps you solve your customer's problems.

The issue is that personas are a poor substitute for the real thing. A piece of paper with a stock image and random facts is unlikely to inspire real-world connections. Studying passive information won't often motivate a change in behavior or stir emotion—getting out into the real world and talking to real people does. Speaking with the people you want to serve on a regular basis creates an understanding that grows and evolves. This living link can't be faked with a virtual persona.

Reworking communication strategies to help our clients reach their real audience

Personas aren't designed on a whim. In fact, quite a bit of time and expense goes into each one. While there is value in pulling together those demographical insights and giving them a face, some of that time could be better spent investing in real-life conversations with customers.

If you spoke with more than one customer, or sent multiple team members out, you would end up with conflicting information concerning those customers' dreams, wants and needs. But while real-life is messy, that’s what makes it memorable.

Think about it — would you and your team be more likely to revisit those conversations in future decisions? Wouldn't you be more likely to bring up the problems mentioned by actual customers during staff meetings, or speak from the heart on a podcast when asked about your customers' pain points?

A virtual persona can make you feel safe in its finality. It may lead you to believe that, if you just cater to every fact on that sheet of paper, your work is done. In reality, however, personas are simply an accumulation of assumptions. Most people scan through and forget these vague and two-dimensional summaries.

If you really want to understand your customers and develop a true sense of empathy, having productive conversations with them is the key.

Building relationships and interacting with real people keep you and your brand authentic, and authenticity sells. If well-designed virtual personas help you strategize marketing goals or structure a campaign, use them. However, don't forget to keep in touch with your flesh-and-blood customers, too.


Chan Desai is an account manager and strategist at Otter PR.