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The Definitive Guide to Personas

This goal of this comprehensive guide is to go through “all you need to know” about personas. This includes addressing the following questions: (1) What is a persona? (2) Why should I use personas? (3) Who should use personas? (4) How should I use personas?

We consider different job roles when giving examples, including those of Sales Vice President (with the goal: Drive more sales), Marketing Executive (Goal: Optimize your marketing spend), Product Development Manager (Goal: Enhance product development efforts), and Content Creator (Goal: Create more appealing content), and discuss how personas can help with the goals of these job roles.

Without further ado, let us get started…

What is a persona?

A persona is an imaginary person that embodies the characteristics (i.e., attributes) of different market segments that matter for a company or organizations. In other words, these are user or customer types that represent e.g. the most loyal or most valuable (or most desirable) customer segments. In simpler terms, a persona represents a group of customers with similar behaviors and/or demographics — a group that is important for our business.

You can think of personas as mental shortcuts explaining the who, what, and why of your core customers.

For example, one persona may be “Bridget Johnson”, a key account executive who is the target for buying our products or services. To effectively sell to her, we would want to understand Bridget’s age, education, work experience, her likes and dislikes, his familiarity with the products in our category, and so on. The persona profile, based on data from real people, contains this information.

To address the information needs for making sound business decisions, personas can include a myriad of attributes, such as:

  • Picture and Name
  • Age and Gender
  • Location (country, city)
  • Topics of interest
  • Typical behavior
  • (See full list of potential information based on persona interviews.)

The behavior can relate to customers’ purchasing decisions, use of technology or products/services, lifestyle choices, content consumption, and so on. The more diverse your customer base is, the more useful personas are in making your core customers stand out from the confusing and complex raw data.

Why should I use personas?

Do you remember a time you have bought a gift for your friend, mother, or significant other? It is likely that you knew what to get for these important people in your life. Most likely, it was something that fits their personality or taste.

Personas work in the same way. By knowing what your customers want, you can provide offerings that they find valuable. Personas can help you define your organizational strategy, develop new products, and improve your operations in customer interface. There are many persona use cases. Now, ask yourself:

  • Do you really know who your customers are?
  • Do you understand why they are your customers?
  • How do you best communicate with your customer?

If you answered “No” or “Not sure”, it not likely you are getting the best results for your business. However, you are not the only one. Thousands of organizations all over the globe struggle with their marketing and product development efforts due to lack of customer insight. Most often, they are not able to understand or define their core customers.

To solve this problem, you need to dig deep into the numbers and gain a thorough understanding of your customer base. This is where personas can help you.

Personas help you identify who your core customers are, what matters to them, and where to find them. This is important because you, like most people, may not like working with too many numbers. Personas replace numbers with something that can intuitively be understood: another human being. As a result, using customer personas can help companies increase their customer insight and serve customers better.

How should I use personas?

Personas can and should be used across the entire organization. Customer insight is important at all levels, including strategic, operational, and tactical decision making. All departments, including product development, marketing, customer support, and sales department, should be customer driven.

Each department can use persona information. For example, product managers can use the information to design a product that meets the needs or desires of core customers, and marketing can use personas to craft messages that resonate. Executives can keep personas in mind while making strategic decisions. In fact, a persona can become a “silent member in the boardroom”.

Personas are also great for communication across departments. Sharing the persona work across divisions increases the chance for realization of benefits. Moreover, personas facilitate communication about users among team members and across divisions. While it is difficult to discuss a spreadsheet, it is much easier to communicate about a person. Therefore, personas make data communicable.

In practice, once the personas are generated, companies often create posters, pictures, and baseball cards of the personas, so they can be used over and over for decision making and discussion.

We encourage team members to share and discuss personas in their meetings, as the customer perspective is good to be present in all decision making taking place in the organization, so that you end up serving your customers in the best possible way. Holding personas within one business unit is the quickest way to lose the investment in a persona project, guaranteed!

Who should use personas?

The particular use cases for personas depend on your organization. Here are some ways personas could be leveraged:

  • Product development and design – How would our core customers use this?
  • Marketing planning – How can we better reach and communicate to our core customers?
  • Strategic decision making – How can we direct the company to a direction that serves our core customers better?

Still figuring out what this is about?

That is okay, we will provide more examples. Here are four ways of using personas, depending on where you work in the organization.

Sales Vice President: Drive more sales

This is straightforward: if you know what your customers are interested in, you can provide them with offerings that match their needs and wants.

Targeted offerings can help you convert more potential customers to subscribers, followers, and customers. You can also use persona description to tailor lead generation which is likely to improve your lead quality and satisfaction.

Here, you will benefit from your “human knowledge”. Try to put yourself in the shoes of your customer and approach them with empathy. Consider what objections arise for them during the sales pipeline. What might stop this customer from closing the deal? Then, brainstorm ways you can respond to these concerns. In the end, humans are psychological beings, not numbers.

Marketing Executive: Optimize your marketing spend

This can be achieved through better channel selection and communication.

First, when you understand where your core customers spend their time online, you can focus your marketing spend on these channels. For example, if the data shows that your core customers prefer YouTube over Facebook, you can increase your marketing spend in the former.

Second, think how you might describe your product for this person. For example, would Bridget better understand you as a “social media service” or as an “enterprise customer management tool”? By approaching your messages from a human perspective, you can create sales and marketing communication that is tailored to your core customers and, therefore, performs better.

Product Development Manager: Enhance product development efforts

Personas can be extremely helpful in product development. With the help of personas, you can more easily build the features that suit your customers’ needs. Consider the goals, desires, and limitations of your core customers in order to guide choices involving features, interfaces, and design. Forrester Research reports a 20% productivity improvement with teams that use personas.

Personas help product developers “get into character” and understand the circumstances of their users. They facilitate genuine understanding of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of core customers. Individuals have a natural tendency to relate to other humans, and it is important to tap into this trait when making design and product development choices.

Moreover, personas can help you find previously undetected tactical opportunities for your offering. Where does your product or service intersect with what Bridget does or what she cares about? Once discovered, these are very valuable insights that can be leveraged for product development and sales.

Finally, personas also apply to improving existing products. It is likely your customers will stay with you longer if your product and services are aligned with their needs, and consistently provide a competitive solution.

Content Creator: Create more appealing content

Content creators can leverage personas for delivery of content that will be most relevant and useful to their audience. When planning for content, we might ask “Would Bridget understand this?” or “Would Bridget be attracted by this?

Personas help you determine what kind of content is needed to resonate with core customers and in which tone or style to deliver the content. Naturally, customer analytics can be used to verify the results.

Finally, think of answering the following questions.

  • What are my customers’ needs, and how can I better solve them?
  • Am I creating content that appeals to my core customers?
  • Does my content cover every stage of the customer journey?
  • How can I personalize or retarget my content to reach my core customers better?
  • How can I personalize or retarget my content to reach my core customers better?

Tying it all together

Iterative Marketing, created by a consultancy Brilliant Metrics, is a roadmap for persona use that includes six actionable components.

The components are:

  1. Persona Discovery: Document the individuals involved in the purchase process in a way that allows decision makers to empathize with them in a consistent way.
  2. Brand Discovery: Uncover how your core customers feel about your product or service and how they rationalize the purchase decision.
  3. Journey Mapping: Plot the stages and paths of the persona lifecycle, documenting each persona’s unique state of mind, needs and concerns at each stage.
  4. Channel and Offering Alignment: Align every piece of offerings and marketing activity to a persona and purchase stage, identifying new channels and needs where opportunities exist.
  5. Experimentation and Optimization: Carry out well-thought experiments to produce statistically significant business insights and apply the results to optimize performance.
  6. Reporting and Feedback: Report and review data and insights to drive strategic decisions, as well as provide information to the organization as a whole.

Remember: to truly see any return on investment, your personas should be based on data-driven user research. The following personas are based on current, real customer data from your company.

About “Team APG”

The MISSION for automating persona generation

Our research project started out with the goal of taking difficulty out of analytics. Nowadays, behavioral, and demographic data on users of a product, service, or content can be rapidly and inexpensively collected from a variety of social platforms, opening new possibilities for automated analytics. We ended up creating technology that takes numbers, runs complex algorithms, and spits out personas that are intuitive and easy to understand by everyone in the organization; in a word, “gives faces to data”. We hope that by providing better, more accurate personas, our automated persona generation (APG) methodology and system can improve the decision making in your organization.

Benefits of automating persona creation

In traditional persona creation, personas are built by conducting one-on-one interviews with a wide demographic of the potential market. Patterns from the interviews begin to emerge after some 30 interviews for a typical project. Analysis is conducted over the course of one to two weeks, or more. The researchers identify patterns in self-reported customer behavior and group similar customers together. As can be understood, such a process is expensive and lengthy, while still yielding results that are based on self-reported customer behavior.

When conducted as a standalone project, the investment in persona creation ranges from $80,000 to $120,000. Moreover, the cost increases when there is a need to update the personas or build new ones. This is especially unconvenient for startups and growth companies, which re-evaluate their target markets several times during their first years of operation.

We have created APG specifically to solve these issues. Through automation and advanced computational techniques, we can provide several benefits over manual persona creation.

The main advantages of APG include:

  • Speed – automatic personas can be created in a matter of hours
  • Accuracy – automatic personas are based on quantitative data
  • Freshness – automatic personas are updated frequently

The resulting personas are more accurate because they are based on behavioral user data – all our personas are calculated by observing latent behavioral patterns (e.g., video viewing, clicking, downloading, buying…). This means that the personas are reflecting the current customer base of the company.

Moreover, personas should be updated frequently. Innovation and competition may significantly shift the attitudes and behaviors of customers. In order to keep personas current, companies should commit to maintaining the personas as “living and breathing documents”. Our system accomplishes this goal. Because automated personas are updated frequently based on real data, they are sensitive to shifts in the customer base over time. No need to re-do interviews; instead, we observe behavioral change in the data as it occurs.

Finally, our approach is more cost effective than manual methods and can scale to millions of customers without bottlenecks of data collection or analysis. Given we have access to customer data, we can collect and process it in near real-time.

How are automatic personas created?

Overview of automatic persona generation

We automatically analyze aggregated social media data from social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube channels, of client organizations. From these channels, we gather demographic data and topical interests, with the capacity to leverage hundreds of thousands of subscriber profiles and millions of user interactions, along with insights on users’ interests and viewpoints. We show that information-rich personas can be generated automatically, instead of being the result of a laborious, time-consuming development process.

Data collection and analysis

To automatically generate personas from the data, we first find a set of users who share the similar behavioral patterns. Then, we identify distinct demographic characteristics of those users to create the personas. Personas typically contain, along with behavioral characteristics, demographic information such as gender, age, and location, which can be captured from social media platforms. Social media analytics anonymously record user data (e.g., gender, age, country location) for each content.

We use this data to include demographic information into our automatic personas. We correlate the demographic aspects with topic classification of content. With the demographic data, we locate similar social media users, and derive non-behavioral aspects of the personas, specifically comments for the persona profiles.

Read more about personas

…still want to know more?

Check out the Automatic Persona Generation system.

Jansen, B. J., Salminen, J., and Jung, S.G. (2020) Data-Driven Personas for Enhanced User Understanding: Combining Empathy with Rationality for Better Insights to AnalyticsData and Information Management. 4(1), 1-17.  https://content.sciendo.com/view/journals/dim/4/1/article-p1.xml

By Joni Salminen

Dr. Joni Salminen works as a Scientist at Qatar Computing Research Institute, Hamad Bin Khalifa University, and as a Postdoctoral Researcher at Turku School of Economics, University of Turku. His research interests are heavily focused on personas, including topics such as automatic persona generation from social media data (YouTube, Facebook, Google Analytics), persona perceptions, biases in data-driven personas, optimal number of personas, etc.

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