There’s an interesting piece at CMO.com called “Don’t Take It Personally, But Innovators Are Done With Personas.”  In essence, leading for-profit CMOs are saying the same thing: giving a set of demographic and weak psychographic viewpoints a name and endeavoring toward it doesn’t work:

  • “Traditional personas tell you very little because they are based on simplistic models and transactions. They cannot help understand why customers bought, what motivated them to buy, etc.” – Shinola CMO Bridget Russo
  • “The reason personas failed to achieve true personalization is that they were too simplistic to reflect the unique attributes that differentiate individual customers and prospects from the mass of other similar customers and prospects. And that is the essence of true personalization.” – TIAA CMO Connie Weaver
  • “We recently analyzed the personas we had been using and found that the customer had changed dramatically. We are now rethinking the real-world, human differences, versus just transactional differences, among our individual customers and formulating a plan to engage with them as individual gamers versus superficial aggregates of different gamer personas.” – Darin Smith GameStop senior director

They conclude that traditional personas from implicit data don’t increase response rates; you need explicit data that people tell you about themselves.

I haven’t used formal personas in the past, but I’ve used proxies: things like trying to figure out what the difference is among “Red, White, and Blues,” “Heartlanders,” and “Blue Highways” (three real segments from PRIZM social groups), looking at the love child of transactional data and cooperative data that is Target Analytics Loyalty Insights), or my own anthropomorphization of a demographic profile (I often thought of “writing for Ethel,” a nice 67-year-old grandmother when writing copy).

These are helpful in helping remember “I am not the donor; the donor will not necessarily like what I like.” But beyond that, you are looking for some level of predictive value and these simply don’t deliver.
Moreover, a heavy-handed persona or segment can make a donor feel like they are little more than the box that you’ve put them in. One person in the CMO piece said:

“When I receive generic emails, it is obvious that you do not care enough to understand my individual needs. Instead, you are trying distill my complex needs into simple generalities to make your email blast easier for you … and useless to me!”


But we need to segment. We need something to differentiate among different groups of people. So if it isn’t demographics, personas, or RFM, what is it?

The for-profits also have a guide for this – understanding why, at a basic level, people give. In the article Dennis Kopitz, Shinola’s director of ecommerce said:

“To achieve and scale true personalization, we need to obtain deep human insights regarding who buys which category of our products, why they buy, what their needs and expectations are, and what they want next from us. This will take us to a far deeper level of understanding than traditional personas.”

We know that for disease charities, for example, people who give because they personally have the disease are far more like each other in their giving behavior than:

  • A 70-year-old woman is like another a 70-year-old woman
  • A 4-6 month, $20-$24.99 multigiver is like another a 4-6 month, $20-$24.99 multigiver
  • A Tipper is like another Tipper
  • Or a mail donor is like another mail donor

In other words, demographics, RFM, model, and channel preference all pale compared to a deeper understanding of donor identity in terms of predictive power and customization opportunities.

And every nonprofit has these key differentiates. It could be cat v dog people (or, like one DonorVoice partner, birders versus general nature people). It could be people who give to you because of your advocacy versus your services. Or another partner who found that there was a segment of people giving to live vicariously through the exploits and adventures of their volunteers versus another who was giving so that someone else would take care of the field work.

We’d love to help find this differentiator with you, but it’s more important that you find it, because finding out why different people give to you, beyond a one-size-fits-all answer is the key to not just messaging but audience.