Self-Portrait in the UndergroundDid you know most persona efforts fail as soon as the personas are completed? Teams create their personas, design slick posters to put on the walls, and say “these are our personas!”

Creating personas is really just the beginning. A persona is not a document — it is a clear understanding of a target customer that exists in the minds of your team. Personas evolve as your data around them evolves as well. Every test you do, every insight you gather should be designed to further understand your customer base and your personas.

Many companies we speak with have developed personas, yet only few see to have used them effectively. It is relatively easy to throw together a set of customer characteristics and call it a persona. It’s not so easy to create personas that are truly effective in helping you develop your content marketing and persuasive strategy.

What Personas are Good For

The principal value of personas developed for the persuasion process is scenario planning in order to understand how they approach the initiation of relationships, how they gather information, how they approach the decision-making process, what language they use, and how they prefer to obtain agreement and closure.

We’re not concerned with what an interface looks like at this point. We use personas to define how people will arrive at the site or store and what questions they have and to connect them to the content that helps them buy the way they want to and to provide the kind of customer experience that matters to them.

Personas at their best evoke empathy in a process that’s easily hijacked by technical imperatives and self-serving, company-focused needs. A design and content team must work with personas that seem like real people, people that can be conversed with, ideas bounced off of, joked with, related to. One way to determine if you are on track with your personas is to share them with your top sales team members and customer service members and if they aren’t telling you they spoke to someone just like that the day earlier you may be off in your persona efforts.

Start With Persona Traits

If your brand was a person, what 3-5 character traits would define its personality? Be honest.  Don’t tell us aspirational qualities.  Even though you may be blind to this, make sure it is defined from your customers’ point of view.  List the good and the bad.  People are a mixture of positive and negative qualities.  A brand is no different.

Now do the same thing for your customers. Invite members from various teams including product, marketing, sales and customer service into a room and start coming up with the traits that characterize your customers. As you list these traits have someone who can organize them on a whiteboard on a 2×2 grid. The axis will be from logical to emotional and the other axis will be from quick to make a decision to deliberate. Once you understand what people do on your website and why you’ll want to plot your personas this way.

You will end up with a list that looks something like:

persona attributes raw

Map Out the Different Personas

Once all the attributes are listed we add color shapes over attributes that may appear in the same people. For example, we usually don’t find many data driven people who are also nurturing, consensus builders. That indicates that this is likely two different personas. You will end up with something that now looks like:

persona attributes

The usual number of necessary personas is “a handful.” Too few is as bad as too many. Even in the most complex content planning meetings, we’ve never seen a need for fewer than three or more than seven personas per business line.

Ultimately, the number of personas should reflect the number of primary motivations to purchase your product/service that exist within your customer base. Sometimes, personas have identical motivations but dramatically different needs. Personas are complex creatures, like your customers. Don’t get fooled into wrapping them up into a single or primary “average” user (unless, of course, you’re the only company in the world with average customers). Next time, we’ll talk how to take these list of attributes and use a technique to turn them from your typical persona stereotype (soccer mom, techno geek) into characters that ensure deep understanding and empathy.


Please share if you think others would benefit.