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Understanding Personas: how they work, and when they fail

Persona exploration is a buzzy pastime for marketers. 

When done well, they can help brands thrive. When done poorly, they can result in inaccurate portrayals of your audience, or even customer caricatures.

I believe that personas succeed when they are used as a model and applied surgically toward your end goal.

Principles of the persona model 

Understanding personas starts with understanding them in principle. Instead of delving into the how of creating personas, I’m going to delve into the what

At Speero, we like to explore personas as a research question, thinking about things like:

  • Whose problem are we trying to solve?
  • Who are we speaking to?
  • Who is using our product?

You can’t just create personas out of a blank canvas. You need to be guided by both a clear goal and a research question that you’re attempting to answer.

Persona building

When you think about building a persona, picture three stages of the journey. 

  1. Data: first you start with a pile of data - most likely from user surveys.
  2. Analysis: then, you ingest that data to form information. This can take anywhere from a few hours to a week.
  3. Business case: finally, you take the information gained and apply it to the business case at hand. 

While simple in principle, personas often fail in practice. That's why personas have a bit of a stigma. When not informed by data, they can end up being misapplied as mere caricatures of your buyers - with information that has no real use to you business case or the problems you are trying to solve.

Persona pitfalls

To avoid ending up prey to persona pitfalls, let’s consider the most common issues;

1. No buy-in. Established brands may feel that they already have the pulse of their customers and know the type of users they are dealing with. This can negatively impact the persona research process, or may mean that even valid persona insights go unrecognized. 

2. Created in silos. Sometimes, personas are created in silos with a singular goal in mind. Without communication or larger buy-in, this can backfire as the personas are forced on team members outside of those silos, making them reluctant to use them. 

3. Using too much irrelevant data. In some cases, the data used isn’t pertinent to the goal at hand. I call this misused precision. The personas can look and feel powerful and sexy, but in practice, they just aren’t relevant.

4. Believing personas to be a perfect, unchanging representation of reality. Once a persona is created, sometimes brands hold them up as an unwavering beacon. But personas are only models, with means they are flexible and not static. They will change quite a bit as your market, audience, and sales environment changes. Take the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fact that people interact very differently with services today than in years past.  

5. No clear goal or planned action. This is the biggest root cause of persona failure - pursuing persona creation without a clear goal or planned action. The goal should be related to placing the persona in production, with the right strategy and an action plan, with a team that is going to apply it wisely.

Three persona categories

Most personas will fall broadly within three major categories. These categories are based on what you want to achieve by using the personas, as they answer different questions. The three categories are:

  1. User precision
  2. User type
  3. User perspective

Category 1: Level of precision

This persona category deals with scope of the persona, which will in turn impact the richness of its insights. 

A broad scope requires a shallow data set. This approach will yield high-level insights that can prove helpful to inform content categories, marketing tone, or broad acquisition channel strategy.

A narrow scope requires a deep data set that will yield a more detailed persona. The friend of UX teams, a narrow persona can help guide user interfaces and design initiatives. 

Category 2: type of personas

The type of persona you need will depend on the goal of using the personas in the first place. Common persona types and use cases include: 

  • The Buyer Persona: to help drive marketing strategy and sales enablement. 
  • The Visitor Persona: to help with web architecture, content, and design.
  • The User Persona: to help define user interface, product features, benefits, or supporting messaging.

The above types of persona can be either broad or narrow, depending on your needs. 

Category 3: What perspectives do we want to capture? 

This question gets to the heart of user intent, feelings, and meanings. The perspective of the user can be approached from four angles:

  • Goal-focused: the high-level touchpoints or “jobs” that potential users may be approaching the product/service with; where they want to go or what they want to know, do, or buy. 
  • Role-focused: based on a users job description or user role and how your product/service fits with that role.
  • Engaged: based on user intent and emotional, psychological needs and backgrounds.
  • Fictional: this is the caricature model. These delineate user needs through quick, coarse, heuristic-based experiences with users. 

These three categories offer a wealth of inspiration for setting up your personas, and can help you run quality personalization campaigns, create hypotheses for testing, and inform marketing, sales, design, and product decisions.

Quick persona wins

The three left columns are what I walked through above: the categories, persona type, and general goal of using each. 

But in the right-hand column, I've also added a sample research question that would pertain to creating the associated persona. 

When a client asks about personas, I sometimes first ask what question they are wanting to answer. Then, I map from that question to the type of data needed to create the specific persona type needed to answer the question. 

For example, to create a buyer persona - you might want to research how are different user groups evaluating your messaging and solution? For user personas, how are different groups of users leveraging your product or service differentially? 

These types of questions help you understand how you might use a given persona, and where you might want to direct your research efforts. 

While personas can certainly run awry when misapplied, they can succeed when used intentionally as a goal-oriented model. The insights unlocked all depend on how you build them, and what questions you build them to answer.

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