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August 3, 2018   |   9 min read

Customer Core® Series Pt. 1 | Better Personas, Bigger Transformation

Personas: they’re one of the most well-known and widely used marketing tools. These fictional characters represent a specific customer that might use a site we’re creating, brand we’re developing or product we’re promoting (often all of these things at once). The problem? Standard personas just don’t work as hard as they should in today’s digital world—which is always-on and hyper-focused.

Personas have been around for 20 years, from inception in The Inmates Are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper, to their rooting in the psychological study of archetypes. Even with drastic transformations to the buyer journey over the last two decades, personas haven’t managed to evolve with them. They're still your standard, one-page document replete with: demographics, goals, pain-points and a less-than-original bio. We think they should be so much more.

Why don’t marketers update their personas?

When talking to other industry professionals, it's inevitable that personas will come up in conversation. The knee-jerk reaction is usually a subtle eye roll. When asked why they react that way, they say something along the lines of:

  • “They’re pointless.”
  • “They don't inform anything.”
  • “They get outdated too quick.”
  • “They’re not even a semblance of a real person.”
  • “They are based on what clients want, not who the customers are.”

Yikes—are you surprised?

I’m not. When I started working at Mindstream Interactive, one of the first things I worked on was improving these seemingly “useless” marketing artifacts. The first action I took was to update the agency’s understanding of what a persona truly means. That begs the question… what do they mean to us?

Personas have to be based around authentic human beings who think and feel.

You’re probably thinking isn't that the goal for everyone? Absolutely, every persona aspires to be a real human being; but in the past marketers were taught to keep personas simple, non-specific and based solely on the client’s wants and needs. We need to push ourselves further, because people aren’t that simple, and they don’t think in black and white.

Logic works for computer systems, but not so much for people

In the Origin of Personas, Cooper states, “I’m tempted to say that personas are counter-intuitive, but it would be more accurate to say that they are counter-logical.” I’ve talked about this before in Why B2B CX Trends Now Resemble B2C. Humans aren’t 100% logical. They don’t make decisions you can count on every single time. Their decisions are based primarily on emotions, with a touch of logic depending on the individual.

You’re probably thinking how do you create personas based around real, thinking, and feeling human beings then I’m glad you asked. Below are my absolutes for creating meaningful personas.

Learn the Top 5 non-negotiables when creating personas

1. You have to talk to real customers!

While I love the inherent value behind work sessions and stakeholder interviews, you can't stop there. Most of the time stakeholders within the company have a one-sided view of who the customers are and what they want. They also have a hard time getting into the mindset of what the customer does, instead of what they want them to do.

Invest in primary research; there are a myriad of qualitative and quantitative options that range from affordable to hearty investments. I find the most significant value in qualitative research. When you can talk one-on-one or in a group with real customers, you're able to understand them as people. Then you take those findings and validate them with some level of quantitative research. Asking real customers questions about their expectations, wants and needs is the first step in creating a realistic persona.

2. Don't forget to fill in the gaps.

Primary research will start to shape the persona, yet there are often gaps that still need more research. Is this person married? Where do they live? What else do they like to do? What do they do for a living? The questions can go on and on. Don’t just make things up! Supplement your primary research with secondary research and third-party research. Panel platforms, like MRI and ComScore, are a great place to start. The same can be said for studies done by major consultancies and/or niche research firms.

3. It’s all in the details.

Part of the magic to making personas feel like real people is the details. The catch is that you have to look into every detail that you add, basing them off of actual research and data. For example, once you know where your persona lives, make some educated decisions about the details—like area of the city, type of residence, etc. Make sure they can afford said city and home by looking up MLS values in the area, followed by contrasting that against their household income. 

The point of the details is to make it easier for the reader to understand who the person is, and why they make the decisions that they do. It also lays the groundwork for insights the company can use to start reaching that customer in other ways.

4. The spotlight isn’t just on the brand.

I mentioned this in the beginning as a leading pain point I hear from marketers about personas. Do you live your whole life focused on a single brand or product? Unless we are talking about me, and that brand is Starbucks, the answer is a resolute NO. Why then, would we create personas that only consider the interaction with the company? Instead, focus on the person instead of the brand. Over time this starts to reveal profound insights into opportunities for interaction that were previously unknown.

5. Lastly and hopefully obviously, you need to use your personas.

The biggest mistake a company can make after creating personas is to put them on a shelf. They’re tools that can inform marketing and customer experience decisions on a transformative level. The logical next step after creating personas is to expand upon them by creating other artifacts that aid in your understanding of the customer.

Something that comes with using them, is that they need to be updated on a regular basis. Don’t create them only to assume they will always be valid. Take the time as trends shift to look at your customer data. Do follow up research to make sure personas haven’t changed.


Turning personas into tools.

To get the most value out of personas, you must understand their role in other marketing artifacts. Personas, journey maps, and impact charts& are the collective building blocks for informing brand activities. Once a brand has all three pieces, they can use them to support anything from paid search and campaigns to CX strategies.

Next time, we cover journey maps and impact charts.

This article is a three-part series centered around our Customer Core® offering. Exclusive to Mindstream, this workshop creates actionable artifacts for your business to improve its customer experience. We will work with you to tailor Customer Core to your organization's needs. The exercise can be done in as little as 6-8 weeks depending on the research path we pursue.

Check back for more information on parts two and three of our Customer Core article series: journey maps and impact charts. If you’d rather learn more now, contact us for more information on how we can help your company decode its customers and the untapped opportunities with them.

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