In marketing terminology, segments and personas have a lot in common. They’re both tools for market research and customer insights, and they can even inform each other. But they’re decidedly not the same. So it’s easy to find yourself wondering: Segmentation vs personas—what’s the difference between the two?
Segments and personas are similar concepts that serve very different purposes. Both are ways to break down your company’s market into groups that share certain characteristics. Typically, each group has a significant or unique way of relating to your product: maybe they use it a certain way, or for a certain purpose, or they need specific features from it.
Segments and personas help you clarify, as a marketer, what your customers expect from you, and give you insights on how to talk to them effectively.
Segmentation vs personas: terms defined.
When you’re trying to sell a product, it becomes clear pretty quickly that there are a lot of ways to answer the question of “Who are we trying to reach?”
The broadest possible answer to that question is your total addressable market, or TAM. It can be defined as the full scope of anyone who might want what you’re offering. But of course, the reality is that in most industries, not every customer will be available for you to win their business.
Some of them may have already chosen a competing product. Or, it’s possible that you wouldn’t be able to get their attention due to a language barrier, or you would have no way to distribute the product in their region.
The realities of sales and logistics mean that the share of the market you could realistically hope to win is usually smaller than your TAM. It’s referred to as SAM, serviceable available market—the customers you could feasibly serve.
Within that market, different groups of customers will want or need different things from a product like yours. These are your segments, grouped by the unifying characteristics that shape their relationship to your product.
For example: let’s say you make latex gloves. One segment of your market might be medical professionals, who go through multiple sets a day and need a bulk, affordable option. Another might be artists, who are more concerned about the gloves being comfortable and not restrictive, while also protecting their hands from harsh chemicals.
Odds are that one of these segments aligns better with the direction of your company and the type of product you’re trying to make than the other one does. Your product is a better fit for that segment, and so you want to market to them more effectively. For that, it helps to have a persona.
Personas are fictionalized characters based on real customer information. They often include a name, a description, and sometimes even a photo. The purpose of a persona is to embody the needs and pain points of a particular customer segment in a way that humanizes them.
A persona makes it easier for designers, marketers, and anyone else who might have a stake in the process to put themselves in the customer’s shoes. Understanding the customer’s perspective helps you speak to their experiences, and win them over with a product that fits into their lives.
In the question of segmentation vs personas, usually, a persona comes after segmentation. Once you’ve broken out your market and decided which segments are the best fit for your business, you’ll begin creating personas for those segments as a way to guide your marketing and sales strategies.
Types of segments.
Segmentation can be based on just about any characteristic of your customers that you find relevant. Because of that, there are as many ways to segment your market as there are customers.
But the information that you have about your customers tends to fall along certain lines: demographic, technographic, psychographic. These categories are common models for customer segmentation, because they’re the details that are most likely to be useful during the marketing and sales processes.
Here are a few examples of segmentation models:
Demographic. Based on an individual’s traits, like age, gender, income, whether they have children, or education level.
Psychographic. This model separates your customers based on their values, attitudes, personality, or interests.
Firmographic. Used in B2B marketing, firmographic segmentation is like demographics, but for companies. Firmographics covers a company’s size, location, ownership structure, revenue, and other identifying characteristics.
Technographic. Relevant on both a B2B and B2C level, technographic segmentation looks at a potential customer’s technology stack. That can include everything from what kind of computer hardware an individual uses, all the way up to which enterprise applications a company’s employees work with.
Needs-based segmentation. It can make a lot of sense to segment your customers according to what they need from your product. This segmentation model lets you see how widespread specific needs are, and can help you prioritize initiatives based on feature importance and popularity.
Value-based segmentation. This model segments customers on the basis of the value they can bring to your business. Value-based segmentation is especially relevant when you’re developing an ideal customer profile, as it helps you identify and prioritize the customer segments that you can build growth strategies around.
Types of personas.
Personas can have multiple purposes. There are plenty of departments in a company that can benefit from a deeper understanding of customer needs, and depending on who the personas are designed for, they may emphasize different characteristics.
The Nielsen Norman Group also divides personas into three different types: lightweight or “proto” personas, qualitative personas, and statistical personas. These varieties go into different degrees of detail and draw on different sources of information to suit the needs of the people using them.
When considering segmentation vs personas, we can see that it’s possible to have multiple personas for the same customer segment—particularly if you’re examining different points along the customer journey. Many businesses have separate marketing, buyer, and user personas.
Because customers are interacting with the product in a different way at each of these stages, they will have different needs and priorities—making targeted personas helpful for the different teams supporting them.
As an example, a marketing team may want to understand what features a customer needs most from their product. A sales team member will benefit more from understanding a customer’s financial resources and constraints. And a customer service team will place a lot more importance on knowing a customer’s expectations around response times.
Here’s a rundown of these journey-based persona categories:
These personas are designed to aid a marketing department by highlighting the ways a product can fill a need for certain customer segments. They might focus on the features or capabilities that drive the greatest interest, or that customers value the most.
Buyer personas can overlap quite a bit with marketing personas. But personas focused on sales conversions might also include information about a buyer’s decision-making process, their financial information, or specific pain points they’re looking to solve for.
User personas help to guide a lot of design strategies. Good product and UX design as well as high-quality customer experience strategy all rely on a deep understanding of your customers’ needs and preferences. These personas might focus on users’ goals for the product, or touchpoints along the customer journey.
Comparing segmentation vs personas, the concepts are best suited to different scenarios. Personas, like segments, can be helpful in a wide variety of situations, which may require different amounts of speed and rigor.
If a large multinational company is creating a costly marketing strategy, they may want to use personas created from plenty of data collected through customer surveys. A small design team, on the other hand, may be able to sit down together and craft a workable persona based on their own understanding of their customers.
The different types of personas, as defined by the Nielsen Norman Group, are:
These lightweight personas come together quickly, through conversations with internal stakeholders in the company. They’re based on existing knowledge of your customers, so they run the risk of reinforcing incorrect assumptions or failing to surface new information. That said, if you’re just looking to align everyone quickly to the same priorities, a proto persona absolutely does the job.
The Nielsen Norman Group characterizes qualitative personas as the best type for most business situations, because it provides the greatest utility for the investment of time and energy that it takes to create.
These personas are developed from interviews with selected customers. Because the goal isn’t to achieve large sample sizes, the information can be collected and interpreted fairly quickly. The drawback to this approach, though, is that it’s more difficult to determine how widespread any given attitude or need is within your market.
This type essentially requires all the work of the qualitative persona, but then turns around and uses the information to gather even more data. Information collected from interviews helps you determine the most important questions to ask your customer base. Then, you send out surveys to large samples to collect feedback.
Once you’ve collected your data, you can use sophisticated statistical analysis to group users and develop personas. You’ll have a clearer picture of the frequency of different personas within your customer base, and you’ll be less likely to miss a small segment. But the process is expensive, requires a great deal of time and effort, and is usually overkill for most scenarios.
Segmentation and personas both contribute to a strong marketing strategy.
“Segmentation vs personas” isn’t really the question; the two are different, but they serve complementary purposes. The data from segmentation and the insights from personas both help marketing and sales teams. Using them together, you can refine your company’s strategies and grow your business.
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