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Persona creation: why many marketers are taking the wrong approach

Marketers create personas to better understand their target audience and what it looks like. If marketers can understand potential buyer behaviors, and where they spend their time online, then content can be targeted more effectively.

However, as Centerline Digital’s John Lane explains in this interview with ClickZ, there are problems with the traditional approach to persona creation, and has therefore developed an alternative method.

Q: There is a lot of talk about the pros and cons of personas. What’s your take?

I feel that we as marketers use the following approach to creating and using personas:

  • Learn all you can about the audience you’d like to reach through primary and secondary research.
  • Consolidate the information into groups of common traits – averages – of the people you’re studying.

We then document the commonalities, and try to market to that ideal target customer. These personas are used in Powerpoint presentations, they’re referenced at the beginning of campaigns, but often that’s as far as it goes.

In my view, this front-loaded process wastes time and essentially means that marketers are spending less time putting things into practice and learning from them.

At Centerline, we absolutely believe in the need for personas but advocate an iterative approach.

Q. Which begs the question, “what’s an iterative approach to persona creation?”

Ha! Well, since you asked… taking an iterative approach to persona building means:

  • Learn “just enough” about the audience you want to reach to get started putting content into the market.
  • Don’t be reductive, aiming for “average of audience as ideal,” and instead document some of the individual aspects of audience members that may lead to very personal connections.
  • Document the things you want to find out about your personas through the act of marketing, rather than only including the things you know or assume.
  • Think of marketing as market research, in which every action and reaction is thought of as both a measure of marketing success, and research about your audience.
  • Fill out the details of personas based on the qualitative and quantitative actions taken by your audience.

I spoke about this at the recent AMA Annual Conference and you can find my presentation here.

Q. How frequently should you revisit and revise the personas?

We produced a webinar recently and asked the audience when they last revised their personas after initially creating them. The majority said either never or more than a year!

In my view it should never be more than three months before review. As a human and consumer, I’m constantly changing, and so are most people. Personas created before campaigns are not likely to retain their relevance for more than three months.

After a campaign launches, marketers should be immediately reviewing personas, looking at the data and asking whether it changes anything.

Q. How much do you need to know about your target audience before creating content for them?

I think it’s about quality of insight over quantity. You may need to know very little, as long as you are taking the approach that the act of marketing helps you learn more about that audience, if you’re looking.

Through the process of telling stories and seeing how the audience reacts to, shares, or takes action based on those stories (or they don’t), we’ll learn more about our audience than if we choose to study them without context.

I love learning as much as possible about the Observer Effect and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and thinking about that in regard to marketing and market research.

Understanding that by studying something (or someone) and taking actions in their “world” is going to change it (or them) can be a good thing.

It means, as a marketer, we’re understanding that studying people in a vacuum can’t possibly give us the understanding we really need to make a formative connection.

For example, when targeting a tech company, many marketers will use job titles like CTOs and CIOs, but it can be more valuable to avoid titles and demographics and instead look at the problems they face in their roles and their communication preferences.

So, we may start our persona creation with three or four statements about the target audience, but the process doesn’t end there. Instead, we’re constantly learning more as we market to them, the specific forums and language they use for example, as well as the impact of the marketing we create.

Watching the interactions around content and brand are the best ways to find information about what people want, when they want it, and why they want it.

Q. Are there barriers to such an agile, fast approach to marketing? Sign-off from clients and stakeholders for example?

Yes! The brand (or organization) must have an agile mindset, and a process to support it, for iterative persona building — and near-real-time marketing — to work.

Much of the success in either is going to be determined by context, in the moment it happens. The only way to do this is with an agile mindset.

Marriott is a great example of this approach, and we love what they do around content. They chase stories like journalists, they experiment with ad hoc content (blogs, Instagram, etc.) which they learn from, and then carry that greater audience understanding into bigger, more formative (and more expensive) pieces of content.

It takes an organizational process and mindset to take this approach to simply putting it out then learn from what does and doesn’t work. Marriott also understands from this what content works where, so they adapt well to different channels.

Q: How does a more agile process work alongside editorial calendars? Do calendars still have a place?

We are big proponents of editorial calendars. We also think they shouldn’t be completely rigid; that there should be both specific time frames for certain pieces of anchor content, as well as plenty of room for context-driven — ad hoc — content and experience and action to take place.

So absolutely make the editorial calendar. Have regularly set editorial meeting as well, to discuss timely opportunities to tell great stories to be created and consumed rapidly, before the moment is gone.

Q: Can you explain the concept of storylines within content creation?

We’re fond of saying, “Taglines will lock you down; storylines will set you free.”

Taglines are commonplace in our business. But taglines, like rigid personas, don’t really leave much room for exploration in terms of marketing.

When working on iterative personas, we’re keeping in mind what stories are going to be of most interest and value to our audiences. If we can identify a story that’s of interest to our audience and that we (the brand) can take a unique approach to, we’ve found an idea (or many) with an inexhaustible amount of ways to tell new versions. Like a journalist working a beat.

Q: In practical terms, how do you assess customer engagement around a piece of content?

We set forth plans to measure content efficacy as both singular pieces and as part of an ecosystem of content; as both short term success (use) and long-term success (conversion / ROI).

So in the short term, we’ll look at quantitative things (“likes,” retweets, views, clicks, time on page, etc.) as well as qualitative things (language of the share, lack of shares, opinions and comments, etc.) to understand both the efficacy of the content and to learn more about our audience.

In the long-term we’re using some of the same metrics, but we’re focused on whether the content progressed people to other brand engagements, lead to registration or other “soft” conversion, or made a purchase (ROI).

More on this here: Measuring Content Performance.

Q: Content measurement is of course important, but it can take time in many organizations. How do you speed up the process of both measurement and putting the lessons into practice?

Establishing short-term and long-term measurement models will allow us to more rapidly think about content efficacy and adjustments to our understanding of audience and the “next” piece of content.

by Graham Charlton
source: ClickZ