Personas for Marketing: Worthwhile or Waste of Time?
Oct 31, 2016
I gave a talk about content, context and connections earlier this month at the American Marketing Association Annual Conference, and I concentrated quite a bit on creating better understanding of audience through a rapid and iterative persona building process.
We’re finding that most persona building leads to an understanding of an audience that doesn’t really exist, and therefore leads to bad content. More specifically: It leads to creation of content that connects with—impacts and motivates—no one.
You can learn more about why this happens by downloading the presentation with speaker’s notes and exploring the first few slides. But, in short:
The currently accepted form of persona building is focused on narrowing our audiences into averages. We (agencies and clients) take a lot of up-front marketing time to study our audiences (let’s assume thousands of people) in depth. Then we start to find commonalities amongst the data collected from those individuals so that we can focus on just a handful of groups with common traits (let’s say 5, for arguments sake). Then we start to ask ourselves: What content would appeal to these groups? What channels are they active in? How do we connect?
The big flaw in this, however, is that the individuals of our audience don’t equate to the homogenized groups we create. We create “average consumers” and there’s really no such thing. Don’t believe me? Listen to this great podcast to hear how less that 1% of people will actually equate to the average of 10,000 people in any given physical traits. The same thing applies to their cognitive, emotional and logical traits – those hidden thought processes that actually drive why people connect with information or buy your product and service.
So back to the presentation…
I detailed a plan for building better personas through an iterative process. I made the argument that by spending less time up front in the process, you can actually create better understanding of the actual humans in your audience, rather than averages. And that through action—actual marketing with content and experiences and interactions—you will be able to understand your audience better over time, and therefore connect better. (You can read more about that here, and here and here.)
I’ve given this presentation several times, actually, and it always sparks great conversation about stereotypes (“Are we trading one kind for another?”), how to best gain audience insights based on content interactions (“How do we really know what people think?”) and so on. But at the AMA conference, perhaps the best question of all was asked. It was simply this:
“Does this mean you’re ‘anti-persona’? And should my organization be that way as well?”
Well, if that doesn’t cut right to the core, I don’t know what does. (Thank you for asking, Stephanie!)
My short answer is: No, I’m not anti-persona.
But I do think we’re* doing it wrong. (*Marketers applying a commonly accepted idea of personas with very similar process of creating them.)
To re-state, I think we currently frontload the persona building process far too much. We’re wrong to think we can understand our audience, in groups of averages, without the context of seeing how individuals act in response to, or because of, our interactions.
I think we tend to create personas and then treat them as objects not to be touched or questioned or meddled with, rather than treating them as living documents. As people change daily, our understanding of personas cannot remain static.
And I think we get so specific with information in regard to personas, we leave ourselves nowhere interesting to go with marketing. The amalgamations of audiences we create mean we try to create content that appeals to everyone, which more often than not connects with no one.
So the persona ideal and process is ripe for a change.
Here’s a new process:
1. Actually have real people in mind when creating personas – rather than trying to document our perception of those people.
To do this, we often like to start with an exercise we call “Four Objects.” (You can find that exercise, along with a couple more, in this workbook made to help you develop better content programs.) We mine the social profiles of the brand’s audience, looking for clues as to who they are as people. We’re looking for actual things, rather than projections. For example, if someone is talking about how much they love Broadway plays, or Canadian League football, then we’re finding the right types of things. They’re specific. Probably unique to some (a handful, or even one) of our audience, but not projectable to all.
Then we get physical objects to represent that information; and we bring marketers for the brand together and break them into teams to build understanding of these people based on the objects. The debate that invariable ensues between the groups is a discussion about people rather than averages. And it means we’re thinking like humans. Instead of agreeing upon an arbitrary commonality, we document the unique attributes within our audience.
2. Purposefully skinny down the initial persona information.
We use a worksheet for the Four Objects exercise that minimizes the number of details you can document. Boxes for industry, demographics, interests and communication preferences are decidedly small; they all four fit on less than one-half of a sheet of paper.
The other half of the sheet is for questions. As teams document all the questions that these objects leads to, we are setting ourselves up to be seeking information through marketing as much as we deliver information. The point is this: Based on this thin-but-real, human information: What marketing actions can you already start to take? We guarantee you’ve got enough information to work with to create powerful content and exercises.
3. Get to marketing action faster – and plan to adjust personas based on response to that action.
All of your marketing should be considered market research. In other words, you should be communicating with intent to learn as much as you are attempting to engage, educate or entertain. When you only do the later, you’ll measure content efficacy. And you’ll start to learn, “this worked better than that” and you’ll hone in on certain types of marketing and messaging over others.
If you do the former—market with intent to learn more about your audience—you’ll measure and understand efficacy information as well. But you’ll learn volumes about the “why” things worked. Which is far more important. You’ll be honing your marketing based on what the market wants. More so – who the market really is!
4. Iterate. Often.
Remember the questions we documented? You’ll only know if you answered them if you’re constantly reviewing them and asking: “Do I know this answer yet?” If you do, then update your persona. If you don’t, how will you create content that will help you answer those questions next time?
And what new questions have been sparked based on the reaction to content? To how your audience used it? Shared it? (Or not.) Throw out the PowerPoint slide and pick up a pencil. One with an eraser. And use it a lot. Perhaps after every marketing action. Or at least after every campaign.
And here’s how to kick yourself into action:
Ask yourself, “How old are our personas (assuming you have some)? When’s the last time we changed anything on them?” If it’s been more than three months, it’s a good time re-visit them with intent to change, or start over.
Download my presentation from the AMA Annual Conference and learn more about modern marketing and rapid persona building.
Thoughts? Questions? Other opinions? I’d love to talk about more! Hit me up on Twitter: @johnvlane
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 National Instruments.