Amazon’s Persona Philosophy

Amazon managers told students in a recent meeting that personas were not used, let alone considered at the mammoth online retailer. That sentiment seems to be growing with increasing numbers of critics bashing personas — a marketing method for segmenting audiences.

They told the students that personas are useless, at least to the Amazon business model, since the company “targets everyone.”  Yet there’s no question in my mind that Amazon targets specific markets — no matter what they say. The $233 billion company operates three global market segments, offering services for an array of businesses, reselling consumer merchandise, and manufacturing and selling its own products online, in stores, and at pick-up locations. To make my point clear, it only takes going onto their main site, and diving into any one of their online businesses to see how services are positioned.

Regardless of whether Amazon’s philosophy is put in place to get in line with contemporary critics, or that their approach is a symptom of being uniform, it’s mystifying as to why personas are getting a bad rap.

The Underlying Message

Maybe it’s because twenty years after Alan Cooper turned us on to personas in his best-seller The Inmates are Running the Asylum, that sales and marketing execs are looking – and haven’t found – the next sexy tool. Their underlying message may be something like: it’s time to move on with something new. But I know of no replacement.

Personas represent one or more characteristics shared in common with a target audience, such as demographics, attitudes, behaviors, income, geography and more. Businesses use them for identifying needs of ideal customers, and building strategies to satisfy them, which inevitably leads to revenue. 

On the Contrary

But critics are not convinced, even though I would argue many of their arguments make little sense, and at worst, are ill-informed.

• Personas are passe. “Whereas personas were once a good starting point to identify “buckets” of customers, the limitations of persona-based marketing have become apparent . . . because a user journey is (no longer) a predictable linear path,” UX researcher Ernan Roman said.

• Personas are too complicated.  “Many organizations just don’t have a need for personas to drive design decisions because most of their design needs just aren’t that complex,” Kristina Bjoran wrote.

• Personas are too simplistic. “Traditional personas tell you very little because they are based on simplistic models and transactions,” Bridget Russo, said, CMO of luxury brand Shinola. “They cannot help you understand why customers bought, what motivated them to buy, etc. Cookie-cutter persona-based marketing will not work for today’s savvy buyers.”

• Personas can’t achieve humanization.  “We recently analyzed the personas we had been using and found that the customer had changed dramatically,” Darin Smith said, senior director of PowerUp Rewards at GameStop.

Time for a Refresh

Obviously, it’s time to refresh—relook the definition, and remake the case for their relevancy.

Granted, most personas since the original don’t meet Cooper’s definition. But that’s for good reason, it was a narrow solution to a narrowly-defined software development problem. They really came into popular use after promotion by the advertising company Ogilvy. As they have evolved, the tool has migrated into other fields, including non-aesthetic design practices such as service design and product design, and design practices, including graphic design and UX design, and design thinking. Across the fields, personas are not just for defining target audiences, but also for capturing user journeys, developing loyalists, and for testing programs and services.

Developing Personas Using Data

What critics seem to miss is most that most of the data used to develop a persona already resides on their internal enterprise systems. And to improve on what’s available in-house, organizations should verify their personas using primary research—surveys and focus groups. To keep them current merely requires refreshing the data from time-to-time. If existing ones are no longer valid, well, it’s time for an update. Also, new and different personas can be created at any time. In other words, there’s no fixed type number of personas, or types of personas.  Moreover, they can also be thought of as a concept, if that helps.

Creating Relevancy and Loyalty Through Personas

While a designer may not know what to do with a persona, somewhere along the line, someone’s going to ask what the design is based on, what solution does it help solve. A persona is a valid answer.

Personas have never been used to inform executives about individual consumers, that I know of.  Rather, they are valued for their shorthand reference to an intended target audience—that’s the part Cooper would recognize. Nor are personas profiles. However, I know of no other tool that can help determine what wording to use and messages to convey to a target audience, and, when and how to deliver those messages. As for user journeys and journey maps, personas help me identify patterns among users, as a means to analyze results.

Personas are also used to identify loyalists and strategize ways to bolster their numbers. A Net Promoter Score, used by the most recognizable consumer companies, helps identify loyalists. But then what? Without a persona, I can think of few other ways to manage the results and strategize ways to grow more loyalists.

My advice to the students meeting with Amazon: Don’t give in. Without a persona, there are no other tools I’m aware of, for uncovering and satisfying ideal target market needs, for testing solutions, and for growing loyalists; and by all means, call it anything you want, just don’t tell Amazon it’s a persona.