Personas: What Are They and Should You Use Them?

A few years back, I got my first introduction to the concept of personas. I walked into my workplace’s common area and found myriad 8×10 feet posters of very attractive people with names and bullet points on them. Naturally, we were curious. (In an eye-rolling sort of way — these were obviously big buck items and we were firing people regularly.)

Persona

Turns out the brand team had paid a reputedly very large sum to have an agency develop the personas of our target customers. Ah. We now knew that “The Millennials” (I will not use the trendy name they hung on him) who consumed (but did not buy) our tech wares valued authenticity. We are also informed that “IT Professionals” (Ditto; I won’t call them the nerdy, somewhat racially insensitive name they picked…) who bought our products craved respect and predictability.

Then last year, my personal comedy muse Stephen Colbert did a lovely skewering of personas on The Late Show when he showed how marketing people can lose touch with reality when doing this exercise. (I was so entertained, I blogged immediately.)

Personas, In A Nutshell

Yes, sometimes it is mocked. But in fact, creating personas of your target customers is a very valuable exercise. It’s one of the foundational steps of Hubspot’s Inbound Methodology. If you read my blogs, you know I’m a big fan of this. So:

  1. What is a persona?
  2. How do you use them?
  3. What are some pitfalls to watch out for?

Step 1 – Crafting Personas

A persona is, and I’m quoting Hubspot: “A buyer persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer based on market research and real data about your existing customers.”

The “how-to” is pretty simple. I use a template to capture information. (Feel free to borrow my copy or request an editable version from my SEO friends at Mediaholix.)

  • First: You give the persona a name — mostly for ease of use around your team.
  • Second: Capture details about their job role, challenges, aspirations. If you have research about the job role (which you can find on LinkedIn and other sources), start there. Then, add in salient examples from real life colleagues or acquaintances. If you are new to the job (see Step 2 below), find people in those roles and do some interviewing.

Other areas you can discuss is demographic and psychographic (how old, male or female, etc.). I personally do not find that terribly useful and can lead to biases and distractions that can hurt you in Step 3 below.

Step 2 – Using Personas

New to a job and/or industry? Crafting or updating existing personas is a great way to get up to speed on the key things your customer needs, their challenges, how they refer to things. If you’re in charge of any of the below, you need this.

  • Messaging
  • Keyword Strategy
  • Content or Campaign Development
  • Form Building (e.g., asking prospects to select their roles)

Without this information, you are making decisions based on assumptions. (Otherwise known as Institutional Knowledge.) Your choices may look good to your management but it could be based on old information. Personas should be revised quarterly and the results waterfalling into all the areas mentioned above. They are also useful for training new members to your team.

Step 3 – Pitfalls with Personas

Personas are representations — and being able to figure out the salient details is the art form. As mentioned above, the desire to add demographic and psychographic info is catnip for the creative types among us. But are these useful? As mentioned, you start with general industry research before adding personal bits from specific individuals. When you do add personal bits, make sure they’re not one-offs.

Witness the example from Colbert, where Qdoba, a fast-food burrito chain, has decided that their ideal customer is “Quentessa” — someone with refined aesthetic sensibilities. Qdoba now has artsy restrooms as a corporate objective. (Cue Colbert jokes about burritos and bathrooms.)

Seriously. Was there any research that pointed out that this was an opportunity for their segment? Were there any customer interviews that led to this conclusion? As fellow marketers… You can smell fluff. But there is such temptation to create rich characters that we go overboard and create details. 

In a nutshell, you want to describe your ideal customer, but not an imaginary one.

In Summary

Personas are a great way to keep your eye on your customers’ evolving needs, languages, trends. And they keep you focused on where your offering helps to solve pain points. So… focused, grounded = useful personas! Details for the sake of details = the path to eye roll!

Persona on!

About Suzy DeLine

Suzy DeLine is a digital marketing consultant specializing in both inbound and content marketing. She is a huge marketing geek and gets very excited when she sees things being done well, or innovative stuff being tried out. (She also loves beagles.) She hails from a Wisconsin dairy farm by way of Northwestern University (go Wildcats). View all posts by Suzy DeLine
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One Response to Personas: What Are They and Should You Use Them?

  1. Mike Sanchez says:

    Great article, Suzy. I, too, tend to do eye-rolling when I see colorful, detailed personas – and then quickly get skeptical about their accuracy or usefulness. When they’re used to bring data to life, tell a story, and humanize the customer, that’s great. As long as marketers remember customers are individual, complex organisms with dynamic motivations who have myriad brand experiences. And deeply and accurately understanding them is more art than science, perhaps.

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