Many marketers have adopted the idea of marketing personas — or cohorts, or profiles — as a way to better understand their audiences. And that's a good thing. Any action we can take to achieve more understanding of, and empathy with, the people our products and services are intended to help means both our products and marketing will be more useful and effective.
But far too often we're finding that the process of building personas is becoming the focus, rather than the resulting knowledge. That leads to some artfully crafted personas that no one will, or can, actually use. You've probably seen what I'm talking about:
Much of that information is useful. It helps define segmentation criteria, with which we can buy ads that will hopefully reach an audience better (aka targeting), rather than simply putting our ads everywhere. But that information doesn’t go very far in helping us gain true understanding of who our audience is and what they care about. It doesn’t define the value they are desperately seeking, whether they find it in our product or not. And it definitely hasn’t helped us gain empathy with their very specific, very real-world situations.
So if what we’ve been collecting and collating is actually segmentation information for better targeting, then what, really, is a persona?
Here’s my definition:
A persona is a character representing the potential thoughts and actions of a specific person. By exploring individuals’ goals and behaviors, a persona illuminates the values and needs of an audience. It allows us to identify the stories that will be most appealing and useful to an audience of similar interests.
A persona should be focused on goals, needs, intent and actions in order to understand the stories that will resonate most with an audience. Ideally, those will also help us identify common values between audience and brand.
Segmentation, on the other hand, is focused on dividing groups by demographics such as age, gender, role, etc. for targeting — which ensures that when you buy an ad or place your content, you’re most likely to get it in front of the right audience based on things advertisers and site managers can measure.
Now that we have a common definition, let’s explore three big reasons you're not getting the most out of your personas.
1. You’re Not Quite Sure Why to Create Marketing Personas in the First Place
The idea of personas carries with it an inherent understanding that it’s all about defining your audience. But that’s more about “what” rather than “why.” And, as alluded to above, that can lead you down the path of collecting all the wrong information.
The “why” is this: Empathy. The ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Knowing the role, age or gender of your audience will never allow you to inherently understand your audience’s desires. Only by documenting, in detail, those desires, needs and emotions can you hope to infuse your marketing with stories that appeal to those desires.
Once you have that frame of mind, the point of creating personas becomes crystal clear: They are a simplified, touchstone to constantly check your marketing from the point of view of your audience. Personas should allow your entire team and agencies to easily get in the frame of mind of your audience as well, regardless of whether they were a part of collecting the intelligence.
What should you do to instill some purpose?
Change the questions you’re asking at the start of the persona building process from “Who would be interested in buying our product?” to “What value do we provide?” and “What people are focused on similar value?” By doing so, the exercise of building personas becomes about finding common ground between brand and audience instead of defining an audience by generic attributes you hope are representative of people with whom you might share common ground.
One way to achieve that point of view with clients is by starting the process with some digital ethnography. Dig into the social media of some customers — or even better, fans — of a brand, looking for artifacts of life beyond the brand’s product. What are those folks talking about? What other products are they exploring? What language are they using? What is the life context of your audience?
By starting the process of building personas around this level of audience research, you can remain focused on the people you’re interested in talking to rather than the product or service you’re interested in selling. The goal is to start to see things through their eyes instead of our own.
2. You’re Creating Over-engineered Personas
This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is possible to put too much detail into your personas.
What that means — what’s too much detail and what’s not enough — is going to vary based on the complexity of your offering, your audience and the journey. But here’s a rule of thumb: If you find it possible to write only one story over and over based on what you think you’re audience is looking for and will respond to, you’ve worked too hard to nail down specifics of your personas.
People are complex, and your brand or product is never the center of their universe. To keep from painting yourself into the corner described above, purposefully try to document some of the tangential things the individuals in your audience might care about.
Watching TV as a kid, I used to run to the bathroom during the shows so I could make it back for the commercials. Those days launched me down a path that included layout and writing for the college paper; communications strategy for political campaigns; marketing strategy and graphic design for Gensler (a global design and architecture firm); and the implementation of new programming, animation and design techniques for Centerline.
Today I specialize in content marketing strategy and building digital deliverables to execute those strategies. But it’s about more than just creating killer digital content. At Centerline, we help clients succeed in the digital marketplace using a three-pronged approach: strategic (message creation, brand strategy), tactical (design, development), and analytical (measurement and adaptation). This experience-tested approach allows me to build campaigns that are both well-designed and effective for clients like IBM, GE and Quintiles.