User Personas vs. Demographics: Why Your Visitors Are Ignoring You (As Illustrated By Brad Pitt)

Brian Massey, the Conversion Scientist shares what are user personas and how to create them. He also unveils the reason your visitors are ignoring you as illustrated by Brad Pitt.

Your visitors are ignoring you because you are not talking to them.

Do you know who you are selling to?

Do you really know?

Lately, there has been a pretty intense debate over the importance of user personas, with many in the CRO community saying they are misleading or even unimportant.

In my experience, user personas can be incredibly powerful, but only when they are used in the correct manner.

What Are User Personas?

A user persona is a way to summarize and communicate everything you know about a specific customer segment in a way that allows you to make good design and copy decisions.

Personas are built from market research, directly observed data, and behavioral data. A persona will typically be depicted as a fictional individual who is described like a real person in an attempt to communicate the essence of the segment they represent.

Segments, on the other hand, are more frequently defined by their demographics: their age, income, gender, and geographic location. This is of little value when you want to create messages and experiences that persuade and convert.

When we can turn an intangible customer segment into something tangible, like a person, our team will tie our marketing and optimization efforts together to hit the mark.

The writers write for the same person. The design team designs for the same person. Fewer choices are made based on their personal preferences.

User personas are often presented as a one-page document, but it’s important to understand that like the fictional person embodying the persona, the document itself really doesn’t matter. What matters is our understanding of the segment.

User personas help the entire team work toward a similar goal and deliver a uniform user experience.

User personas help the entire team work toward a similar goal and deliver a uniform user experience.

So why are user personas popular in the first place? What are the benefits?

  1. Help us identify and understand their problem
  2. Help us identify and understand their behavior
  3. Help us use the right messaging
  4. Help us increase customer lifetime value (LTV)

User personas are primarily about understanding them during a visit to your website or mobile app.

We aren’t trying to understand them as a person. We want to understand them in the context of their visit to our site.

If we have a better picture of the challenges our prospects are dealing with and the pain they are experiencing, we can better inform, educate, and direct their attention to your brand’s solutions.

User personas are also about identifying and understanding behavior. As you collect data on your target audience and start segmenting it into groups, you begin to develop a better understanding of how and where each segment spends its time online.

This understanding allows for better targeting of marketing efforts like ads or content, and allows you to run significantly more efficient and effective marketing campaigns.

Speaking to a segment we aren’t a part of is challenging… if not impossible. We see missteps online every week, where “out of touch” agencies create ads that serve to actually alienate the group of users they’re trying to reach.

User personas help us speak the language that will resonate with the segments we are after, or to sometimes, hire copywriters from those segments who can create the right messaging when we can’t.

Finally, personas can hep us set up our expectations of and strategies for LTV. Defining user personas helps us better understand how to increase LTV for certain segments, but it also helps us identify which segments will tend to naturally have a higher LTV.

That all seems pretty great, so where do businesses go wrong with user personas?

The Brad Pitt Shuffle: How User Personas Save Us

The Brad Pitt Shuffle: we’d all like to think that our target market is pretty sexy. It’s good looking, it has money, it has style.

If you’d like to keep up this charade because it makes you feel better, by all means. But if you’re ready to figure out why your marketing campaign isn’t working, it’s time to remove yourself from this little dance and turn yourself into the Digital Dr. Frankenstein you really are.

Use all of the resources you have at your disposal to create the ideal fake customer – those archetypical users. You’ll realize that you can target users with your campaign in a way you didn’t think possible. Listen to Brian’s keynote summary to get an idea of what we mean.

When we design for everyone, we design for nobody. As we craft our copy and our ux design, we start off laser focused with targeted, effective messages. Then, our message becomes less specific, less targeted, less about anyone in particular.

Here’s how it happens.

When a business starts thinking user personas, they have an ideal customer in mind. I like to call this persona their Brad Pitt.

We imagine our visitors as perfect, like Brad Pitt.

We imagine our visitors as perfect, like Brad Pitt.

Brad is attractive. He’s young. He’s got lots of money. He’s going to come to our website and buy! We love this guy!

So we begin targeting Brad with our messaging.

“Because handsome is a choice.”

We hope our messaging will speak to our ideal customer segment.

“I can choose handsome by buying your clothes!”

But then something happens. The writers ask, “Are we ignoring females?” Based on the persona, the answer is, “Yes.” But the sales manager begins to think about women giving gifts.

Brad Pitt in a dress. We water down our buyer personas as we find more segments.

Strong positions get watered down when we don’t follow our personas.

Then the designer says, “All of our images are of warm places. Won’t some of our customers live in colder places?” The guidance of our persona says our products won’t appeal to cold weather.

But the Marketing Manager thinks, “People could be going to warmer places. Go ahead and design both for those living in the cold and those living in warm places.”

Our imagery gets diluted.

What if we want to speak specifically to a segment in a warmer climate?

Brad Pitt in a crazy setting. The picture we keep in our heads of our buyers becomes muddled.

The picture we keep in our heads of our buyers becomes muddled.

Basically, the target persona keeps expanding, and businesses keep attempting to try and speak to everyone at once, resulting in the mess you see above.

This is the big mistake.

Businesses are still trying to find Brad instead of realizing that there is no single Brad. There are multiple Brads.

Segmentation Is The Key To Successful User Personas

Just like the roles Brad plays, user persona Brad isn’t one person. Our job is to break this persona down into segments – aka real user personas – and market to each individually.

Break your perfect buyer persona into segments.

Is your website is designed for one mashup customer segment that doesn’t exist at all?

User Personas vs. Buyer Personas

Personas are a common part of most mature web design processes. However, “buyer personas” seek to understand prospects as they are.

User personas seek to understand a visitor to a website. They are personas addressing a specific time in a prospect’s life.

Here’s why this is important. The same person will come to your website with different personalities.

Take Jennifer, for example, a persona for a plumbing company. She is 35 years old and is remodeling her bathroom. She is in a high-income bracket and prefers modern design for her home. She works part time teaching painting at the local community college. She likes wine, live music and art galleries.

When researching plumbers for her remodel, she will be very methodical. She’ll want to understand the plumbing companies past successes, professionalism and their insurance coverage. She’ll want to know if they’ve done work for any of her neighbors. She’ll want to know if they work with the tile she ordered.

Now, take the same woman, Jennifer. She’s 35 years old and her sink is leaking, threatening her new wood floors. When researching plumbers to save her investment, she only needs to know two things: how quick can they come and what is their number.

Same buyer. Two user personas. Two very different design approaches.

Two different scenarios for the same buyer.

Two different scenarios for the same buyer.

In my opinion, buyer personas don’t provide enough information for me to design a persuasive online experience. We all have our own interpretations of them. User personas are designed to limit interpretation.

Here’s a story that illustrates that.

A copywriter is reviewing a buyer persona and reads that this visitor makes $175,000 per year. “Wow,” she thinks. “That is almost three times my salary.” She writes copy for a person that lives in a large house with an immaculate lawn, and drives an expensive car.

The executive who will be reviewing her work also reads the same persona. “Hmmm”, he thinks. “How can anyone own a home if they only make $175,000 per year?”

When the executive got the copywriter’s work, he rewrote it completely because he felt the copy was talking “above” the target buyers. The result did not persuade visitors to convert.

If we focus on some key components of the user persona, we can avoid these mistakes.

The Key Components of a User Persona

The user personas we use at Conversion Sciences are taken from the book Waiting for Your Cat to Bark? and Buyer Legends by Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg. These are the personas that will help us design high converting websites.

Here are the components of our user personas.

1. Demographics

Just a little, and only things that will influence messaging and persuasion. We like to include a name and a picture.

2. Description

The basics of what she does and her situation. Save the details for the Customer Commentary.

User Persona Example Part One: Basic description and demographics.

User Persona Part One: Basic description and demographics.

3. Mode of Persuasion

What mode of research is this user visiting us in? Waiting for Your Cat to Bark? provides four Modes of Persuasion that define how you should message this user persona.

How to layout a webpage for different modes of persuasion.

How to layout a webpage for different modes of persuasion.

Methodical: Will make decisions logically and deliberately on her visits. Needs the details, plans, and fine print.

Spontaneous: Will make decisions emotionally and quickly on his visits. Just needs a reason to act.

Competitive: Will make decisions logically and quickly on his visits. Likes to know what’s in it for him.

Humanist: Will make decisions emotionally and deliberately. Wants to know how she will feel if she takes action.

Here’s an example of the Methodical Mode of Persuasion.

Example of the Methodical Mode of Persuasion

Example of the Methodical Mode of Persuasion

4. Customer Commentary

When I write a customer commentary for one of our clients, they often want to put it right on the website. It is written from the perspective of the user persona, and really builds empathy for the segment.

Note that Buyer Legends recommends writing in third-person.

Example Customer Commentary

Our business runs on relationships, and there’s no better time to build relationships than at our annual “Meitex Meetup”. This is when our employees get to build relationships with partners and customers that will influence the business for the remainder of the year.

This is an important event and my company expects perfection. If I don’t have to twist arms and pull teeth to get that perfection, then all the better.

We are planning a conference, but what we want is an experience. We want our customers and partners to remember the experience, but we don’t want an environment that makes it difficult to talk and build relationships. We’re not considering Disneyland. I intend to provide a structured, professional and comfortable meeting environment with a few planned surprises, and NO unexpected surprises.

Here’s what it will look like:

Customer commentary example.

Customer commentary example.

5. Driving Points

This lists the things that made this user persona visit our website today. It can be anything:

  • A tip from a friend
  • A ad click
  • A search
  • Direct mail
  • TV Ad
  • Email

6. Funnel Points

Where will the visitor land on your website. Typically, this will be the home page, a landing page or blog content page.

7. Points of Resolution

This is where your copywriter and designer will spend their time. It lists the things that this user persona must uncover before she will take action. These are the things that must be on the site for you to persuade them.

As you might guess, this list is longer for the deliberate visitors: Methodicals and Humanists.

For our Methodical Penny Planner, it looks like this:

Points of resolution for our methodical user persona example.

Example points of resolution for our methodical user persona.

8. Conversion Beacons

How will you call this visitor to take action. Your calls to action will often be content that addresses the above points of resolution.

Map your offers and calls to action, which are called Conversion Beacons.

Map your offers and calls to action, which are called Conversion Beacons.

9. Current Baseline Metrics

It’s often helpful to summarize the current performance of your campaigns and website for this user persona. You can use this to measure the progress you make after you begin to optimize based on your work.

Baseline metrics and recommendations can be drawn from this kind of user persona.

Baseline metrics and recommendations can be drawn from this kind of user persona.

10. Get All This in One Document

Are you Methodical or Humanist

If you are reading this as one of our deliberate decision makers, you just might take advantage of our offer below. If you are a quick decision maker (Spontaneous or Competitive) you probably hate all of this work. You want to get started!

That’s OK. This article is for our Methodicals and Humanists. We have plenty for the rest of you.

This is how user personas work.

Brian Massey
8 replies
  1. Tom Bowen says:

    Great post Brian. I see meaningless personas that nobody uses all the time. But they should be so helpful! Buyer Legends and Waiting for Your Cat to Bark should be on every marketing person’s bookshelf.

  2. Duncan Connor says:

    Personas are too often crowdsourced in a room by marketers who aren’t a member of the actual target group. So what we end up with are stereotypes, not data-derived segments.
    Most of the time personas are a reflection of the unconscious biases of the people who created them rather than the audience they’re supposed to help creatives write to.

  3. Sonam Agarwal says:

    Hi, thanks for this post. It is difficult to understand individual visitor’s persona but instead of it you can try to make general idea of visitor’s and categorize them according to age groups, geographical region, business, requirement and many more. Keep sharing and keep rocking..

    • brianmassey says:

      Sonam, we use the “Modes of Persuasion” from the Eisenberg Brothers’ book “Waiting for Your Cat to Bark” as more simple personas. I also recommend their book “Buyer Legends” for quick persona development. Thanks for the comment.


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