3 Ways Not Having Detailed Personas Can Cause Trouble

November 03, 2020

Imagine signing up for an online matchmaking site and stumbling upon someone whose profile is blank except for an attractive picture. But there’s no description, no “must love” requirements, not a hint of “long walks on the beach.” 

You wouldn’t reach out, would you?

You have nothing to base a conversation on so you’re not sure if you’re their type, and on the flip side, maybe they aren’t right for you.

Now let’s reverse it. Pretend you’re the one who has a great selfie but an empty description. Chances are no one will reach out to you, and if they did, based solely on your picture, you’d probably think, oh hey, creeper.

So let’s add some details to your profile: loves to fly fish, binge podcasts, and cook Italian food. Next thing you know, someone’s messaging you about the best bait for trout, Serial season 1, and their nonna’s arancini recipe. Boom. Connection. You’re intrigued.

The obvious plotline here is that the more you know about someone, the better your conversation will likely be. And that’s always true when it comes to marketing, especially in higher education; Gen Z, they know what’s up. They know when they’re being treated like just another person in their age range, and when someone is actually interested in them.

So Let’s Talk About Personas

We know a lot of people who breeze past personas. It’s one of those “if we have time” strategies within a strategy that may or may not help them achieve their goals. Or, some people we hear from think they have personas because they’ve whipped up a few names like Junior Jen or Parent Pete and attached them to broad descriptors, like age ranges or geographic location.

But what about Jen’s motivations, Pete’s hesitations, or the fact that Military Megan really wishes you wouldn’t assume she was on the front lines?

One of the first things we ask our client partners when we’re getting to know their audiences is if they already have detailed personas that we can study. If they’re at all like the basic ones described above (or perhaps they don’t have any), we politely beg to help out. Personas should have depth and authenticity, derived from qualitative and quantitative research—no matter how exhausting that may sound. 

Why? Because an expertly crafted persona can lead to 1) trust, 2) interest, and 3) more leads. On the other hand, not knowing your audience well can lead to 1) backlash, 2) confusion, and 3) fewer conversions.

Here’s what we mean.

1. Backlash.

One reason it pays to hire a small agency likes ours, with journalists and media specialists and strategists who have the time to research and ask questions, is because the last thing you want to do is make assumptions and insult your audience. (And end up in a subreddit about advertising fails.)

Here’s one quick example. 

A few years ago, we were tasked with marketing a Master of Education program with 17 different concentrations. Naturally, we needed to know why teachers would want each of the concentrations and what made this program distinct from others, but even more so, we needed to know teachers. What annoys them, what inspires them, and where other marketers have gone wrong before.

That’s when we found a Facebook ad from a prominent university promoting their MEd program, with copy that read along the lines of: “Become a great [or better] teacher with our MEd.” Seems harmless, right? 

Not if you’re a teacher who’s already doing the world’s most thankless job. A slew of comments poured in, like “Think I’m already a pretty good teacher, thanks” and “So I’m not great at it already?”

Lesson learned for that university: Teachers are already unsung, underpaid heroes. Don’t tell them they can be great or get better; hit on their motivations for earning an MEd—which might be to understand the effects of trauma, or to work with more diverse populations. Maybe to step up to a leadership position.

The takeaway: By not spending time on a few really strong detailed personas (start with 4-6), you risk turning away new leads and even causing your current brand believers to be disappointed.

2. Wasted budget.

To work in higher ed is to know that budgets are precious. Something we always say at CCA is that we are pretty awesome stewards of our clients’ budgets because if the money you’re spending isn’t generating leads and revenue in return, we didn’t do our jobs. What’s that have to do with personas? The better we know your audience, the better our content, print, digital, experiential marketing efforts will perform.

You probably already know this when it comes to messaging.

But did you know how it affects your media buys?

The beauty of social platforms like Facebook and Instagram is just how TARGETED in your advertising you can get.

For one of our colleges that attracts outdoorsy students, we layered interest targeting tactics into their media campaign, impressing on people who expressed interest in hiking trails, trekking/hiking/walking, camping, snowshoeing, outdoor recreation, outdoor life, and being an outdoor enthusiast.

For an MPH program we promoted, our tactics included targeting specific job titles, job skills, and industries.

And do these targeting tactics pay off? Absolutely. Check out our case study on this MPH program here.

The takeaway: It’s not enough to say you’ll use your media dollars to attract people ages 16 to 25 and call it a day. As our EVP, Darcy Sokolewicz, always says, “that’s so much waste.” Create personas that include interests, aspirations, hesitations, professional experience. Anything you can get that’ll help you narrow your targeting tactics, personalize your messaging, and meet your audiences where they are.

3. Missed conversions.

This one’s pretty obvious, but it’s worth mentioning what could happen when you don’t really know your audience.

You might use words that you think describe them but actually steer them away—like using “decorator” instead of “interior designer.” Serious interior designers would scroll right an ad for decorators; they’re different. 

You might be explaining to them a graduate degree they already know they need, when really they just want to know where they can get it the cheapest. By not addressing their main questions or hesitations first, you could lose their attention in a split second. 

Another reason your audience, namely Gen Z, might swipe right on by? Your messaging might be incorporating slang they don’t use anymore—like “on fleek”—instead of current Gen Z slang, like “fire,” “big yikes,” and “spill the tea.” Outdated language = outdated ad = no conversions. 

So where do you begin with personas?

Choose 4-6 personas that make sense for your college or university. Refer to previous qualitative or quantitative research—or embark on a new research project. Listen in on social. Host focus groups. 

Get to know the people you need to believe in your brand, and create a one-pager for each that your internal team can always refer to.

We’re happy to help

Want some more tips? Check out 5 Ways You’re Ruining Your Content Marketing.


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