Marketing Personas vs Social Data Insights: Understanding the difference (and why you don’t want to get left behind)

To create places people love and feel connected to, the critical factor is understanding who the place is for - the target audience. This could be an existing community, a new community, a trade area catchment for town centre or a main street. 

For decades, Marketing Personas have been standard practice for understanding, targeting and selling to a specific customer. Originally designed to map buyer behaviour by analysing and empathising with their state, values, psychology, wants and needs, and their position in the purchase decision making process, marketing personas were rapidly adopted as a way of gaining an important understanding of who you are selling to, how to speak with them, and where to access them.

Today, however, many marketers, asset managers, and property developers are finding this approach is falling short of understanding the changing and nuanced needs of modern lifestyles, and the increasing diversity of communities.

As a result, place leaders are looking to new data, and new insights, to find a new way of understanding user behaviour in relation to place.

What’s so wrong with marketing personas?

While marketing personas have often been based on data; both qualitative and quantitative (including census data, place assessments, psychographic interviews, focus groups, and community surveys) the approach is aimed at segmenting groups for targeting and therefore inherently seeks to reduce behaviors into a simpler set of patterns representing the few, rather than seeking to understand the diversity and uniqueness of the many. 

Today, this is problematic. Diverse, modern lifestyles no longer fit so neatly into groupings, and what’s more, they are no longer correlated with demographic divisions, so much as with beliefs, values, and interests.

Diverse, modern lifestyles no longer fit so neatly into groupings, limiting their insight and usefulness .

Diverse, modern lifestyles no longer fit so neatly into groupings, limiting their insight and usefulness.

The Assumption Problem

This can lead to a narrowed usefulness due to The Assumption Problem, which happens when we segment the market on the basis of demographics, as well as an over-reliance on self-reported behaviour, rather than looking at the data on actual behaviour.
While this might be ok for selling toothbrushes, the needs of homes, apartments, retail centres, parks and neighbourhoods have a lot more variables. Locations also change over time, something that traditional marketing personas often neglect to account for, especially when it comes to community infrastructure and place planning

For example, many greenfield suburbs are marketed to young families where masterplanned neighbourhoods include play spaces and parents clubs. Yet not surprisingly, children grow up. Now research from Melbourne is showing higher concentrations of disengaged youth on the fringes of the city, notably in the south-eastern, western and northern suburbs, as they are living in areas that were never designed for the needs, wants, and behaviours of teenagers.

It’s clear that while marketing personas have temporary use in terms of sales and attraction, the inherent restrictiveness of the technique no longer encapsulate the diverse needs of modern place planning in ever-evolving communities over time.

Social data as an alternative to marketing personas

So, what is the alternative? We must consider how can we harness new technology and new data sets available to us in order to gain a dynamic understanding of place and place users.

Marketing Personas vs Social Data Insights: Understanding the difference.

Marketing Personas vs Social Data Insights: Understanding the difference.

The alternative to marketing personas is to look place activity instead, and geo-tagged online activity leaves a measurable footprint everyday.

In animal behavior, you can look at how the herd behaves to predict how it will act; if you can map this over time, even better. Not surprisingly, it’s similar for humans, except that instead of tracking footprints on the ground, we can now track the digital footprint that millions of us leave online everyday.

60% of Australians use the internet more than five times a day and we own an average of 3.5 internet-enabled devices, according to the Yellow Social Media 2018 Report. The social data we share during these sessions is now being used by Neighbourlytics to create place-specific data reports with real-time insights into how people authentically use and feel connected to a place.

Deeper, diverse insights lead to deeper, diverse understanding of place

The best neighbourhoods are vibrant and dynamic, not one dimensional.
To understand how places work, we don’t need to understand if people are female, 35 and like cycling. Instead we need to analyse patterns of everyday human experience - where people spend time and what’s valued. It’s more important to understand if people regularly cycle to work, than it is to know how likely they are to buy a new bike.

A digital footprint of our actual behaviour and daily human experience, provides greater location insights than a user profile detailing a person’s likelihood to buy.

A digital footprint of our actual behaviour and daily human experience, provides greater location insights than a user profile detailing a person’s likelihood to buy.

If we understand the dominant uses and experiences of a place at a population level, we can understand it’s strengths, gaps and opportunities. This has been proven by decades of research from MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab which has shown our behavior is more accurately determined by where we spend our time, not just by what we say we do.

Place data makes it easier for marketers, property developers and asset managers to do their job by cutting through the noise and seeing authentic patterns of human behaviour in relation to a specific place. This in turn unlocks a new mindset for place development, planning and management, that is powerful enough to measure modern intersecting lifestyles, and dynamic enough to be useful over longer stretches of time.

Lucinda Hartley

I’m an urban designer and social entrepreneur who has spent the past decade pioneering innovative methods to improve the social sustainability of cities, now being implemented around the world. 

As a co-founder at Neighbourlytics, I bring my social innovation and entrepreneurship strengths to harness big data, and deliver community insights that inform evidence-based urban development decisions. Neighbourlytics is backed by BlueChilli Group’s highly competitive She Starts program.