Iterative Persona Building: A Conversation with Andrea Fryrear and John Lane
Jan 19, 2017
This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of Chief Content Officer Magazine and is a guest post by Andrea Fryrear. Fryrear is a content strategist and the editor in chief of TheAgileMarketer.net. She tweets about content and agility @andreafryrear.
Creating Adaptable Personas
Most marketers are familiar with the basics of defining marketing personas to guide content creation and distribution, but too often they are developed and shelved for months or even years. It’s time to consider a new, more iterative approach.
When marketers discuss personas, we’re often talking about static, pristine, hyper-detailed profiles that we approach with reverence, eyes averted. These are marketing artifacts that should be seen, but not touched. After all, when you invest dozens (or hundreds) of hours into creating something, you don’t want somebody coming along and getting their fingerprints all over it.
The problem with the persona-as-artifact approach is that our audience members aren’t static, unchanging automatons. They’re real people, and real people change. If we don’t change with them, our content will soon find itself on the road to irrelevance.
One of the best ways to keep up is to stop thinking of our personas as finished works of art. Instead we need to adopt an iterative approach to persona creation, one that embraces and compliments the agile nature of modern marketing.
Marketing as Market Research
Iterative personas sound complex, but they’re actually based on a simple idea: each and every piece of marketing content we release is an opportunity to learn something new about our audience.
Our marketing isn’t just a way to add value or sell a product; it’s also guerrilla market research.
Teams using iterative personas start with a core value they know is important to a segment of their audience. Then they create content that focuses on that core, expanding and adding to their personas based on what really happens when real people consume real content.
IBM’s Iterative Persona Success Story
For Centerline’s chief strategy officer John Lane, creating personas isn’t a matter of just filling out all the fields and checking all the boxes. After all, when you meet someone new you don’t assume you know everything there is to know about them during your first conversation. It takes time (and a willingness to actually listen) to flesh out the finer points of someone’s personality.
Traditional, fixed personas often make the assumption that we can know everything about our audience up front—a way of thinking that can impose limits on your content’s potential.
When Centerline partnered with IBM on its new brand LinuxONE, the rapid launch schedule made a typical weeks-long persona research project untenable. Instead, it drew on IBM’s existing persona database as a starting point.
Among the most important groups for IBM to reach were open-source evangelists who had long been stalwart Linux advocates and important thought leaders in the space.
During the first phase of the brand launch, Centerline monitored which content generated buzz with open-source evangelists, listened to the words they used to talk about the content, and continued to hone in on the specific characteristics of the persona.
Based on how the open-source evangelists were responding to the content, the IBM team decided to target Wired.com for content distribution, a channel that was definitely outside the box for LinuxONE.
IBM did a site-wide takeover of Wired.com, which included homepage and section native ads, custom announcement content and a livestream webcast event. Centerline took point on producing content for IBM that would speak to Wired’s audience. Initial estimates were that the campaign would bring in about 150 qualified leads; the final count was 417.
Less than six months after the Wired campaign, LinuxONE had 1.2 million views on YouTube, 31,300 Twitter mentions, and over 350 full-length media articles, including coverage by The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Forbes and The New York Times.
All thanks to taking an agile, iterative approach to learning about their audience.
Small Moments of Reflection
Lane believes iterative personas simply need to be part of a team’s mentality: “For every action we take, there has to be a small moment of reflection of not just, ‘Did it work?’ but also, ‘What does that mean for our persona?’”
These small moments add up quickly, creating a picture of real people who have real reactions to content we produce. Since agile marketing teams already use retrospectives as opportunities for this kind of introspection, they “get” iterative personas much more quickly.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the concept, retrospective meetings occur at the end of each sprint or marketing iteration. These typically last two to three weeks.
During a retrospective the agile team members discuss what went well, what went poorly and what they as a group can do to improve their process next time. When agile teams use iterative personas, they can also include a review of what they learned about each audience segment.
In this way the new characteristics of the personas become institutional knowledge that the whole team can use to connect more effectively with their audience.
Agile teams may find implementing iterative personas easier, but even traditional marketing teams can speed up their responsiveness by taking time to examine how their personas really interact with their content. They’ll just have to work a little harder to make space in their processes to pause and listen.
Not the Answer
When creating personas, there’s a strong temptation to look for The Answer. We want to get check, “make persona” off our to-do list so we can move on to the next thing.
But, instead of checking off boxes and locking down our personas, let’s base them on questions: What don’t we know? What don’t we have enough information about?
When you ask insightful questions, and really listen to the answers, there’s no limit to what you can learn.
Iterative Personas Made Easy
If you’re curious about how to replicate IBM’s success, follow Centerline’s John Lane’s step-by-step guide to getting your own iterative personas up and running.
Step 1: Create a “skinny” persona.
Start with the basics, and nothing more. Lane suggests four characteristics with no more than a couple of sentences of description. Be sure to include questions or gaps in your understanding, like knowing your audience uses social media, but being unsure about which channels they prefer.
The goal here is to have just enough of an outline to drive the creation of your first piece of content.
Step 2: Release content around the topic.
Save the big pieces of anchor content like e-books for later when you’ve dialed in your personas. Early content should be what Lane calls “ad hoc.” These are bite-sized pieces like blog posts and social media postings that you create in near real time and inject into conversations around your personas’ interests.
Step 3: Monitor the content closely.
Keep a close eye on what your audience does with your content. Where did your content perform the best? What kinds of words did people use when they talked about it? Did it migrate to channels you hadn’t anticipated?
Above all, what did this outcome teach you about your audience?
Step 4: Move from ad hoc to anchor.
As you release more and more pieces of ad-hoc content, you should build up to the release of something much larger, known as anchor content. This is a bigger bet, one that requires significant investment and therefore presents a bigger risk.
Ultimately, iterative personas and traditional ones require similar amounts of work. But, iterative personas spread that work into small investments out over weeks or months, while traditional personas front load the effort into one large project.