In March 1999, software designer and programmer Alan Cooper published the book The Inmates are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity. In that book was a 25-page description of personas—a title for a description of a customer whose characteristics, needs, and knowledge were used in software design to enable designers to better understand who would use their product and how they would use it.
Cooper’s first use of personas included three typical users that he identified after he physically visited and interviewed potential clients for a software firm he was contracting with.
Oh how things have changed!
Over the past 20 years, the customer persona has evolved into a singular type of individual—often created without sufficient in-depth research—and then used to create entire targeted marketing programs. These customer personas fall far short of the original intent and can actually do a disservice to companies and customers.
Personas Can Represent Who We Want Our Ideal Customer to Be
When personas are created with little research and even less open-mindedness, they tend to be what the creator envisions as an ideal customer, not what the typical customer is like. As Steve Portigal says in his white paper Persona Non Grata:
“Personas are misused to maintain a “safe” distance from the people we design for, manifesting contempt over understanding, and creating the facade of user-centeredness while merely reinforcing who we want to be designing for and selling to.”
Every one of us comes with our own preformed ideas about others that are based on our upbringing, our experiences, our education, and who we spend the most time with. Left to our own devices to create personas and we’ll come up with versions of our own ideas (or worse, our biases). The result can be personas that are miles away from what our customers really want and how they behave.
If a customer read this persona, would they identify with it? What would they think? What would they feel? Hint, you should pressure test your personas with actual customers.
Personas as a Single Snapshot
A written summary of an individual presented as a persona tends to be a description that covers a single moment. The 34-year-old mother of two primary school children who loves yoga and lattes and earns $60,000 pa is only one small part of her life. If you haven’t been updating your personas, you may be missing the rest of her story. Perhaps she’s 37 now, has left her steady job to drive for a ride share because her kids are old enough to stay home alone, and she now prefers kickboxing to yoga. Marketing to her 34-year-old self would be entirely ineffective, even if she would still benefit from your product/service. “Once defined, personas must be updated, because culture is a moving target” (Portigal).
It’s not just personas that change and develop. Your business does, too. If Facebook was still relying on the college buddies of a young Mark Zuckerberg as a persona, they’d be missing most of their present day revenue stream.
Personas are Not Real
“Your users aren’t written personas. They’re people.” – Andre Theus, ProductPlan
Many companies pull stock photos off a database and to represent the face of their customers. This shrinks the persona down to an imaginary person who doesn’t represent real customers. While helpful to humanize the abstract, profiling real customers is significantly more effective and accurate, but importantly will help you realize that there is rarely a set of 1-3 on-size-fits-all personas and more accurately a spectrum of sub-segments and groups that are completely alienated by non-tailored or worse non-inclusive marketing.
Customers want authenticity from the companies they purchase from and interact with. Using a manufactured persona makes it very difficult to come across as authentic in marketing. It is a good first step, but should be upgraded as quickly as possible to a more nuanced set of profiles.
Talk to Real Customers
A 2016 Cintell survey found that “70% of companies who missed revenue and lead goals did not conduct qualitative persona interviews”. Conversely, high performing companies researched the drivers and motivations of their buyers, and understood customer fears and challenges (source).
Don’t ask other employees about the customers they interact with, or settle for a general persona that hasn’t been carefully researched. Find out for yourself by listening to your customers. Sit in on a support call. Listen to how they describe their problem with the product, and what they think of the company. Perhaps you’ll learn when they became a customer, why they became a customer, and what they were expecting from their product.
Participate in a sales call, and listen for what a potential customer/user’s objections are to the product and what questions they ask. What are they looking for? What are their assumptions and understanding about what your company does?
Occasionally send out a survey with carefully worded questions that will give insight into how people are using your product, what they like, and what they are still looking for.
Contact customers directly and ask if they’ll spend a few minutes talking to you. People love to give their opinions. “The only way to be sure you aren’t making assumptions or just including preferences in your persona development is to conduct interviews with your ideal customers” Jessica Vionas-Singer for SmartBug.
Schedule these customer investigations into your calendar on an ongoing basis. Make a point of always looking for information you can use to update customer personas.
“And understand that no tool, no method, and no shortcut, can substitute for real, in-person interactions. People are too wonderfully complicated to be reduced to plastic toys.” Portigal
As you listen to customers, be careful not to focus on one individual. Personas are a composite, not an individual description. Use multiple customers to build a persona. At the same time, avoid being generic. It would be nearly impossible to create a targeted campaign for someone ‘between 20 and 30 years old’. As Valentin Radu for Ecommerce Growth shares, “A highly detailed buyer persona is going to save you money, time, and it’s going to help you create a more efficient marketing strategy, focused on customers’ goals.” You can deep dive into Radu’s Buyer Persona Questions here.
The one-size-fits-all mentality simply doesn’t work for personas. Instead, create multiple personas that revolve around different goals. A health product company may have a number of personas for patients who use their products, and other personas for the HCPs who prescribe the products.
Other companies will need different personas for buyers and users. Users are the ones who will use the product, but the purchase may need approval from a different person. In most corporate settings, the buyer is the one who makes the final decision on a purchase, even though they may never use it themselves.
Learn the Customer Journey
The point of purchase can be a very small part of understanding a customer. Knowing what brought them to that point—and what happens after the purchase—provide priceless insight.
Here’s an example of a customer journey that KPI Agency charted for a medical device company.
There’s nothing here about age, occupation, or even gender. But what is here allowed us and the company to understand the customer experience long before they were introduced to the product, and how the entire journey must be part of the marketing plan. This customer journey also identified specific points where education and medical practitioners played key parts in the company’s messaging and sales. We used this to fill in critical marketing gaps and increased the targeted customer action year-over-year by 450%, and then almost doubled it again the next year.
After the customer journey is mapped, share it broadly. Companies sometimes make the mistake of sharing it with the creative director designing an ad campaign, but not with the media buyer handling ad placement. Getting placement right requires understanding the customer journey.
Follow the Feels
You might have noticed that we tracked the customer’s emotions as part of the journey example (above). Mapping emotions is an invaluable tool in connecting with a persona. “Customer experience metrics like NPS [Net Promoter Score] are great for identifying overall trends but they cannot identify how the customer truly feels during the experience and uncover the negative emotional points that could decide if this customer will return or not.” Martin Powton, How To Map The Emotional Journey Of Your Customer Experience.
In addition, understanding personal emotional states of mind that are related to the mindset they are coming into an interaction with, above and beyond just reactions to your interactions with them, will uncover hidden gems in how to connect with customers authentically and meaningfully.
Have employees that interact directly with customers look for emotions and note them as part of the customer experience. It can be as basic as: positive, neutral, negative, or more detailed: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, joy.
Using surveys to identify emotions, and listening in on customer support calls to connect emotions to specific pain points helps to place customer emotions along their journey. Look for the emotions that drive specific behaviors, and then use this information to build personas that are used to connect in the right ways at the right places.
Don’t Stop at the Entry
Personas need to cover the customer beyond their first purchase or first introduction to the company. Don’t stop when they walk out the door or click purchase. Customers rarely interact with a brand only one time. Find out what happens next.
Think of personas as an evolving resource that needs consistent updating. As your industry, company, and technology changes, so do personas.
Make Personas Matter
The most thorough, descriptive, and well-researched persona and customer journey becomes useless if people don’t buy in. Help all those involved (everyone from those in charge to those on the phones at the help desk) understand how the persona was developed and how to use the information to improve everything from product design to the customer experience as they navigate the website.
“After all, having personas and believing in them provides 90% of their value. Help your stakeholders understand the personas’ value, as well as giving them formal ways to use them on projects.” Kim Flaherty, Why Personas Fail for Nielsen Norman Group
Consumers today want personalization. Many only engage with offers that are personalized, they want brands to know them, and they are turned off by generic ad messages (source). Carefully compiled personas can direct campaigns that are personalized and attract conversions and long-term loyalty, provided you continue to adjust personas and campaigns as things change.
We need personas to help us understand our customers and meet their needs. We want them to feel connected to our brand, and valued as people. It’s too easy to look at a persona and reduce it to a two-dimensional description with boxes to check off.
Writing a story is a helpful way to include context and help employees connect with a persona. Take all the information that’s been so carefully acquired and turn it into an actual story. Storytelling isn’t just for brand-audience connection. It’s for persona connection, too. A buyer persona “must help you actually visualize your customer base, understand their needs, and then market your product/service properly to them” (Radu, Buyer persona examples)
Presenting personas as a story may identify any gaps in your information gathering. Once the story is complete, it provides an interesting medium to share with everyone who needs to understand your customer personas in order to do their job.
“Everyone in the company should know who your ideal customer looks like, how they make decisions, and what kind of interactions they expect from your company.” Noa Parsons, Bplans