Is Web Persona-fying Better Than Personalization?

Andrew Peterson knows pretty much everything there is to know about a select group of customers at Sovereign Bank. “We have their age, location and education level,” he says. “We know their personality types.” In fact, Peterson, vice president for the Internet and emerging technology at Sovereign, a Philadelphia-based financial services company with $59 billion in assets, even has access to photos and psychographic profiles on each one of the customers.

Peterson knows, for instance, about the stresses on Anna C., a single mom with too much to do and not enough time to do it in. He’s up on the latest news from Robert and Holly, a young married couple who are working hard to build a stable financial future. And he keeps tabs on Yin, a fun-loving student at Brown University, and on Richard and Debra, who have kids in college and are looking for ways to maintain their affluent lifestyle into retirement. “We know their relationships with Sovereign and with the Internet, what they want from the site and how we can help them reach their goals,” says Peterson. “And we use that knowledge to tailor the functionality and content of our site.”

Sovereign, it seems, has realized the long-promised goal of personalized marketing, establishing one-to-one relationships with its customers over the Web. Except it’s all unreal. None of these customers exist. They are characters, called personas (the marketing trade’s term of art for such imaginary people), created by Sovereign and marketing firm Ltd., in order to make the bank’s Web sites more accessible and productive for actual people—and more profitable for the company.

Each persona is a stand-in for some segment of Sovereign’s customer base, a composite drawn from hours of research and carefully crafted to create what Peterson calls “an empathetic view of the customer.” Products likely to appeal to an established family like Richard and Debra’s, for example, are pitched and positioned differently than the starter accounts that are more suitable for Yin, the college student. “Decisions on imagery, fonts, language and navigation are geared to those particular individuals,” says Peterson.

These personas are key tools in a sophisticated kind of market segmentation that makes use of the Web’s depth and breadth to refine the customer experience. But the approach is a far cry from the kind of personalization touted just a few years ago by software vendors and consultants—and pursued by companies to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. The next big thing in personalization is less, well, personal than yesterday’s overhyped one-to-one methods. But this time it seems to work.

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