Building dynamic personas for personalization

We have to work harder to address the changing needs and swinging moods that fall outside of current, flat personas which can make or break an online purchase.

Product Manager,

Web personalization is based on a set of rules and algorithmic laws that drive each visitor’s experience. To deliver engaging online experiences, it must be effective enough to recreate the one-on-one interaction available in a brick and mortar store.

So, we create thousands of variations to tailor recommendations out of vast product catalogs, relying on sophisticated algorithms and machine learning to take into account a visitor’s historical product preferences, behavior, and numerous other data-points.

However, when we need to program a personalized experience among a few authored variations, such as determining the number of products to display on category pages, we tend to conjure up and fall back on “personas.”

These various fictional and over-generalized human prototypes represent types of shoppers. For example:

  • Working mom, parent-of-three, age 35-40, suburban, into Yoga, or
  • Wall Street professional, age 25-35, single, foodie, posts on Instagram, etc

But, while a website or an app might be able to automate environments managed by machines, the shopper sitting on the other end is fully human. Thus, we have to work harder to address the changing needs and swinging moods that fall outside of these flat personas which can make or break an online purchase.

Static vs. dynamic personas

As we see them today, personas succeed at a few jobs:

  1. They provide an understanding of different buyer demographics and
  2. Help curate the types of content in which they might be interested

Other than that, the static and constant nature of these personas quickly becomes limited when seeking to tap into and impact the buyers’ decision-making process. The buyer persona is dynamic and dependent on several real-time factors:

  • The type of purchase/product (e.g. “emotional” purchase of clothing vs. “rational” purchase a financial loan)
  • Level of knowledge the visitor has on the product and its alternatives
  • Whether the visitor knows exactly what s/he is looking for (goal-oriented vs. window shopping)
  • How the visitor deals with selection (the paradox of choice – maximizer vs. satisficer)
  • Other transient constraints, such as time, availability, budget, etc.

The persona must be adapted to include these in-the-moment data points. Additionally, it should fluctuate based on changes in attitude and intent, allowing it to encapsulate a more comprehensive picture of the person(a) who actually makes the purchase.

That being, the decision-making persona.

Personalizing like a sales assistant

Following best practices, brick and mortar sales assistants are ordinarily trained to adapt their approach and level of service to the shopper’s needs, preferences, and decision-making process.

In situations where they do not have prior familiarity with a shopper’s background and preferences, these “personalization” skills become critical and must be honed around their ad-hoc needs, mood, and time considerations in that moment.

Considering a few separate scenarios, let’s identify and define a few of these ad-hoc personas, extracting key differentiators, and providing a few examples of how you can target them with an appropriate experience in real-time.

Scenario 1

On Sunday morning, a shopper sets out to the streets of Manhattan to buy a pair of running shoes. Not a big shopper, she finds the task of identifying the right product and making the purchasing decision quite daunting. As such, she wants to be left alone to examine the goods until she finds a suitable pair, not wanting to be pressured by salespeople.

Unfortunately, within the first five minutes in the shoe store, three different sales assistants approach to offer their expertise; volunteering information about new footwear collections, hovering around as the shopper sifts through price tags. Becoming irritated, she decides to leave and go online to browse quietly without interruptions.

The Exploratory  and/or Satisficer Buyer

A persona who is open to new ideas and concepts currently unaware of.

Type Definition Identify online by Recommended real-time experience personalization
The Explorers Are open to new ideas and concepts currently unaware of; often passively consume content.
  • Arrive directly or via a very broad search query
  • Slow browser of category pages; doesn’t search but instead clicks on products (or opens them in new tabs), returning to the category page to continue browsing.
  • Consumes promoted content.
  • Employ visual cues, enticing language, and tempting promotions that draw attention to specific products.
Satisficers Are not a hard sell once they encounter a good enough product that meets their criteria.
  • Navigate linearly, without revisiting pages already visited during the session.
  • Employ product recommendations.
  • Guide them through your catalog with infinite-scroll to keep the products flowing.
  • Study their preferences (color, style, price range, etc.) for conversion optimization.

Scenario 2

A wife sends her husband out to buy a printer with a budget of $100, a preference for the HP brand name, and one requirement being that of photocopying capabilities. This shopper wanted to be efficient and waste as little time as possible exploring all of the available options, and was therefore eager to receive assistance the moment he walked into the store.

In need of a sales rep who could show him the relevant models matching his criteria as well as explain the pros and cons of each to help facilitate his decision amongst a variety of options, the first two reps knew very little about this type of product and seemed to ignore the shopper’s questions. By the time the third rep arrived, he was so disappointed with the in-store experience, he decided to visit HP’s website and buy the printer online.

The Goal-oriented and/or maximizer buyer

A persona who has a good idea of what they want yet needs assistance finding it.

Type Definition Identify online by Recommended real-time experience personalization
Goal Oriented Visitors Have a good idea of what they want, but may need assistance finding it
  • Arrive by organic or paid search, use site-search, and tend to land directly on category or product pages
  • Uses advanced filters (price, brand, capabilities) to quickly narrow down selection
  • Look for intuitive navigation, on-demand ‘need help?’ buttons, as well as additional tools such as ‘compare’ and ‘sort by.’
  • May be limited by time and will therefore immediately close any interrupting popup.
  • Provide a refined search engine
  • Advanced filters on category pages
  • Avoid disruptions such as popups, newsletter registration modals, requests for feedback, or surveys and instead highlight a ‘need help?’ button.
  • Proactive interruptions are more suitable on the purchase Thank You page or via email
Maximizers Need to feel in control and aren’t confident until they’ve explored every possible option, often paralyzing them and inhibiting their decision making capabilities
  • Above average product views and time spent on category and product pages, often followed by abandonment
  • Return products chronically
  • Sporadic scrolling up and down category pages, erratic navigation back and forth.
  • Narrow down selections by highlighting filters and making them ‘sticky’ (they should scroll down with the visitor).
  • Incorporate pagination in list pages (infinite scroll is detrimental), and always state the # of results.

Whatever the scenario, personas must evolve to match the ever-demanding needs of consumers, be it in-store or on the web. That will only happen when marketers adapt their strategies and tune into real-time signals, mapping experiences beyond basic demographics and pre-defined sets of rules to what really gives shoppers substance — their preferences, behaviors, and habits in the moment. That’s where the decision making happens.