The illogical art of writing a consumer profile

The weather in Dublin was unseasonably splendid last weekend. Taking the DART to Bray, which becomes ever more scenic as the carriages trundle past Dalkey, I dipped back into Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, and Slow.

I read about a series of fascinating experiments by Kahneman that aimed to pit logic against emotion.

The experiments had to do with how people (erroneously) thought about the probability of things, and set theory. It’s best to read the chapter, but in short: the experiment showed that it is far less probable, in Berkley College in the 1970s, that a women would be a librarian and a militant feminist than solely a librarian.

But, contrary to both logic and probability, the experiment showed that people tended to believe more in the least probable option.

In other words, richer descriptions feel more true.

On one level, this highlighted the power of stereotypes. The profile written for Kahneman’s experiment described a particular kind of woman without any reference to profession – it was only the options that suggested these – yet, despite no evidence being provided for it, most people tended to choose the more detailed option because it seemed to confirm their stereotypes.

Interestingly, the experiments also revealed that when stereotypes are deployed this way, we become especially confused between probability and plausibility.

Probability is numeric – it can be calculated. For example, for a project, I once asked one of my data science colleagues the probability of being on a bus with a person who had experienced domestic or sexual abuse – the answer was shocking.

But plausibility is different – this is how most people think about probability, which means we call on other sources of information and cognitive biases to reach a more believable conclusion.

The learning is this: believability is additive. Our cognitive biases impel us to believe more in conjunctions that reinforce pre-conceived associations – in this case, we see being a librarian and a feminist as more likely because the richer description makes it easier for us to picture that person. Due to ‘availability bias’, the fact that we apply more truth value to richer information that’s easier to recall, or feels familiar, is self-reinforcing.

The use and misuse of consumer personas

The chapter made me think about the ‘consumer personas’ we so often write in this industry.

A marketer’s goal in writing them is to give as rich and vibrant a description of a ‘typical’ or ‘ideal’ person shopping for a brand’s product. Personas are indented as stimulus to give direction in marketing and advertising campaigns. They attempt to crystallise our mountains of information, data and intuitions into a digestible form that can be used.

But how accurate or useful are they, really? How data-driven are they? How statistically representative are they, and does it matter? Marketing positivist, Bryon Sharp, insists segmentation and personas are bullshit.

But aren’t consumer personas just the same thing as our librarian feminist?

Don’t consumer personas developed by marketers themselves confuse plausibility for likelihood?

Personas may indeed be useful and powerful and convincing exactly because they exploit our cognitive biases, but they can cause problems if too narrow.

From experience, every marketer is taught that the more detail you can bring to a persona, the more ‘alive’ they are and, therefore, the more helpful they are in developing creative and media strategies.

This shouldn’t be a problem. We all enjoy a good story, we identify with fictional characters as if they were real. It’s a basic, human trait – we’re a species programmed for storytelling. Yet apart from the logical and epistemological conundrum the experiments expose, it can also be a problem for business.

So much of business is about numbers – trends, data, profit/loss – placing a bet on a consumer profile that feels convincing but isn’t backed up by research and data can be a serious problem.

At the same time, data-driven segments can be incredibly uninspiring if not themselves injected with a good dose of creativity.

Provided we are aware of our biases and tread carefully when conjuring ‘consumers’ out of the mist of evidence, albeit intuitively tempered by experience, hopefully we can strike the right balance.

Because: if the personas we create neither link with business reality nor inspire ourselves and business to bring campaigns to life, the world of marketing would be a very boring place.

What can Corbyn teach brands about influencers?

It’s often said politics is the art of the possible, and advertising the art of persuasion.

Taken together, the UK general election has given us some useful fodder for thinking about the role of influencers in social media campaigns.

Since the wobbly launch of the Labour Party’s election manifesto last month, there has been a massive swing in support for them. This has in no small part been driven by their social media campaign, which has outspent and outperformed their rivals.

Recent episodes like PewDiePie being accused of anti-semitism, and the disastrous celebrity-endorsed Fyre festival have definitely forced marketers to ask how influence works, what influencers really are, and the benefits and risks working with them can bring.

So, what could brands learn from the apparent success of the Labour’s social media influencer campaign?

It seems their influencer campaign is working because it follows five key strategic principles, essential for any brand strategy or campaign.

Have a clear strategy and objective

Any social media influencer campaign needs to be built on a clear strategic objective. Political strategist Benedict Pringle believes Labour’s primary campaign goal is not to win the most seats in parliament, it’s to massively increase their overall share of the popular vote to strengthen the party and Jeremy Corbyn post-election. To do that, they need to get more people to register and vote for them – in effect, a penetration strategy. Everything else flows from this.

Identify who can help you achieve that

The next step is to clarify what role your audiences will play in achieving your objective. Much of Labour’s surge in appeal is coming from new voters under-25, so they have focused on seizing this growth opportunity. Since their campaign began, 1.5 million young people have signed up to vote, with 246,000 people under-25 signing-up to vote on the last day of registration, and polls suggest most of these new, young voters favour Labour. Any successful strategy, whether in business or politics, needs to be clear about whether their growth growth (votes, sales, etc.) will come from.

Understand your audience’s values, motivations and culture

Once you know who you are trying to reach, and why, you have to ask yourself: why should anyone listen? Are you saying something your audience wants to hear, in the way they want to hear it? In the case of the Labour Party’s social media campaign, they seem to have understood their young audience’s values, concerns and passions better than the other parties. By focusing on issues salient to younger people like scrapping end college fees, Labour’s messages have resonated strongly. Of course, it helps that Jeremy Corbyn is a ‘real person’ and not a ‘lizard‘ in the eyes of young voters – Jeremy Corbyn’s fashion sense has been a talking point, and Labour’s, association with the UK’s grime scene is well Brands must know their audience their audience inside-out if they are to stand any chance of creating a credible, and effective influencer campaign.

Find someone with a genuine connection to you and your audience

It’s only at this point should you identify who those influencers might be. Done well, influencers can generate talkability, credibility and deepen the connection with your audience in the hope that it influences people’s behaviour in your favour. It can be wasteful, or worse. Labour’s influencer campaign has been working because they have linked in with musical artists whose values closely overlap with Labour’s and their audiences, like JME, placing their messages in trusted media like like Fact magazine, and at gigs, generating relevance and conversation about the issues they raise.

But we need to dispel a myth at this point, that ‘influencers’ are those rare people with superhuman powers of persuasion. They’re not. Research has shown that word-of-mouth marketing really works at the level of small, primarily offline, social networks and is amplified by social media. Well-chosen, culturally influential celebrities can help generate talkability and shift brand perceptions, but persuasion, linked to behaviour, occurs most powerfully at the micro-level. So, any influencer strategy is really about leveraging credible celebrities to build an army of ‘influencers next-door’ – individuals who are looked to by their peers as passionate experts, whose opinions they value, and who sway their actions.

Slip into conversations, don’t dominate them

The aim of campaigns, and influencer campaigns, is to generate talkability, but people don’t talk to others about brands they way brands might think they do. People won’t tell a friend about the great ‘brand benefits’ or a party’s manifesto’s detailed expenditure plans – that’s boring. People want to talk about things that are important or interesting to them and worth sharing. It’s better to aim to have your party or brand come up in conversation when it’s relevant.

By connecting with culturally relevant influencers, Labour’s social media campaign seems to be succeeding in fitting their messages more organically in younger people’s conversations around politics and the general election. This is much better than attempting to barge into people’s conversations with bland, formulaic mantras, whether you’re a political party or a brand. As research has shown, in this way, word-of-mouth’s lower reach is more than made up for by its greater depth and impact.

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