How to Create Personas Your Team Will Actually Use

Katie McKenna, Director of Agency Development
Advice On How to Create Personas

When you’re in the thick of trying to create content to promote your brand, it can be easy to forget that actual human beings are going to use what you create.

In marketing, we often call these human beings “users.” And we say things like, “We need to push users through the funnel with greater ease.” But what we’re actually trying to say is, “We need to create discoverable content that answers questions and solves problems for people that would likely benefit from our product, in an environment that is easy to navigate and understand.”

Although the term “users” allows us to talk about the people who use our websites, apps, and social media platforms in a way that is easily understood by our internal team and clients, it also causes us to inadvertently dehumanize the people with whom we most need to connect.

When you have a product or service that helps people solve a problem or adds value to their life and you’re armed with a clear picture of who these people are and how to talk to them, you’re on the path to success. But if you dive into content creation before you’ve done the critical work of customer alignment, this is where a lot of marketers get into trouble.

Don’t get into trouble! Instead, create personas.

A persona is a fictional representation of an ideal or typical customer. According to Smashing Magazine, personas were first developed by Alan Cooper, a software designer and programmer, to better understand the people who were going to use his software. Cooper interviewed several people among the intended audience and got to know them so well that he pretended to be them as a way of brainstorming and evaluating ideas from their perspective. Using this method-acting technique allowed him to put users at the front of his creative process.

Personas, if used correctly, should help you cultivate empathy for the people interacting with your website or app, and to keep that empathy strong throughout the creative process in product development, marketing, and beyond. They’ll help you avoid creating for no one, creating for everyone, or creating for yourself.

According to the Nielsen Norman Group,

“We need all product-team members to empathize with users and be willing to go the extra step to develop something that will work for the actual users. But if users are described in statistical terms and as broad profiles, that information will simply not lodge itself as deeply in team members’ brains as a distinct persona will.”

Ready to learn how to construct personas and how to use them post-creation? We’ll walk through the basic process here.

Conduct as Much Research as Possible

You can’t start writing your personas if you don’t understand your audience. And you can’t understand your audience without first conducting research.

Abby Covert puts it best in her book, How to Make Sense of Any Mess:

“When it comes to our use and interpretation of things, people are complex creatures. We’re full of contradictions. We’re known to exhibit strange behaviors. From how we use mobile phones to how we traverse grocery stores, none of us are exactly the same.”

People have different emotions and levels of experience. Their experiences can be broad or specific. They come from various backgrounds, and they arrive at your website or app from various contexts. So it’s important to conduct research in order to learn what makes your customers different and what makes them similar.

Being deliberate and consistent with this research allows you to identify and prove or disprove the assumptions you may have about your customers’ motivations, goals, and fears.

I understand that you might not have the budget to commission a giant survey, which is why I want to break down “Research” into what you can and should tackle when trying to learn more about your audience.

There are two major types of research you can conduct:

Qualitative: Exploratory research you use to understand your customers’ “why” and “how.”

Why are they searching for an answer or a better way to do something? What gets them out of bed in the morning, and how does that impact the products they choose?

How are they getting by today? What inadequate solutions are they using? How would they interact with a new product or solution?

Quantitative: Research that can be measured and written down in numbers, and asks how many and how much.

To get a well-rounded picture of your users, we recommend conducting both.

How much research you conduct can adjust based on your budget and the capabilities of your team, but here are few types of research we recommend to kick off your research process:

Interview humans

The best way to learn about your audience is to talk to living, breathing people.

In her book Just Enough Research, Erica Hall says:

“The goal of interviewing users is to learn about everything that might influence how the users might use what you’re creating. Good interviewing is a skill you develop with practice. The great myth is that you need to be a good talker. Conducting a good interview is actually about shutting up. This can be very hard, especially when you’re enthusiastic about the topic.

Remember, the people you’re interviewing want to be liked. They want to demonstrate their smarts. When you’re interviewing someone you know nothing. You’re learning a completely new and fascinating subject: that person.”

She goes on to describe how to prepare for your interview and create an interview guide:

Once you have established who you want to talk to and what you want to find out, create your interview guide. This is a document you should have with you while you’re interviewing to ensure that you stay on topic and get all of the information you need.

  1. The interview guide should contain:The brief description and goal of the study. This is for you to share with the participant and use to remind yourself to stay close to the topic.
  2. The basic factual or demographic questions for putting the participant’s answers in context. These will vary depending on the purpose of the interview, but often include name, gender, age, location, and job title or role.
  3. A couple of icebreakers or warm-up questions to get the participant talking. Most people know this as “small talk.” Feel free to improvise these based on the demographic information.
  4. The questions or topics that are the primary focus of the interview.
  5. You should also gather a bit of background information on the topic and people you’ll be discussing, particularly if the domain is unfamiliar to you. Talking to homeowners about how they selected their mortgage brokers? Read up on mortgages. Sitting down with the head of customer service? Review the support forums or frequently asked questions.

If you want more depth on how to get the most out of an interview, check out my blog post, “Improve Your Research by Improving Your Interview Skills.”

Run an empathy mapping exercise

The point of a persona is to understand your customer, and the best way to understand them is to put yourself in their shoes. An empathy map can help you do that more effectively by thinking about what your audience cares about (not what you care about) when creating content.

Caveat: You may want to save this exercise until after you’ve created the persona(s). But if you’re struggling to get inside the head of a customer, this can be a great way to do it. Empathy mapping can also be a shortcut if you truly don’t have the resources to do full persona development.

The goal is to figure out how to better connect with your customers by focusing on the messages they’re exposed to and what they think about in their day-to-day lives. Writing about what they care about is the best to capture and keep their attention.

You’ll get a lot more out of this exercise if you do it as a team. This provides both richer perspective now, as well as long term consensus by getting whole-team buy-in up front.

Grab a room with people from your office who work with your customers, and who bring different perspectives on who those customers are, and the real problems they have helped them solve. Next, answer questions such as, “What is this person feeling?,” “What are they seeing (media, events)?,” “What are they doing with their days, evenings, and weekends?.”

You’ll find areas of total agreement, some of disagreement, and if all goes as planned lots of new and rich topics that were locked up in the heads of the smart people with whom you already work. Note any anomalies, as well as areas of disagreement and then do more research to unpack those topics and understand why they’d be of interest to your customers.

If you want help kickstarting this exercise, we have a worksheet in our new content strategy ebook, Plug and Play Content Strategy, from Content Strategist Augustin Kendall:

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Conduct surveys

Surveys are an effective way of gathering information about who your audience is, what they want, and what they think of your brand or product. The information you gather from a survey can play a strong role in your research process. And although they may seem like a fast and easy way to gather data, if you want them to be effective, you need to create them with care.

Here are a few tips to help you get started creating a survey:

  • Determine the goal of your survey so you can develop relevant questions and whether it’s quantitative or qualitative.
  • Select who will receive the survey. Look at demographics, environment, and how they’re connected to your brand before you decide.
  • Write a short introduction to explain the purpose of the survey and how long it will take to complete, as well as a confidentiality statement.
  • Warm users up to your survey by starting with a couple of easy questions, such as their city or age.
  • Keep the survey short. There may be different people on your team who want to include different questions, but resist the temptation to gather as much information as possible. Instead, compromise on what you’re going to include so you have a better chance of people filling it out. Some information is better than none!
  • Use a survey tool such as SurveyMonkey, especially if it can be integrated with your inbound marketing and sales software to build out what you know about your best prospects and customers.

You’ll also want to ask the right questions in the right way. Make sure your questions:

  • Have a logical flow so they’re easy to answer.
  • Don’t contain two concepts, such as “Rate the quality of the boots by comfort and style.”
  • Are clear and easy to understand.
  • Aren’t biased. Watch for words or certain phrasing that could lead participants in a certain direction.

There is a lot to learn about surveys if you’ve never conducted any before and it’s more than we have time for in this blog post. If you want to learn more, we recommend reading “Better User Research Through Surveys” by UX Mastery or The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank.

These are just a few research methods out of many. Try them out, see what works, find other insight-gathering tactics, and iterate.

Analyze and Synthesize

You’ve collected a lot of information through your research. Your desk is covered in notes. Your wall is plastered with sticky notes. And your boss is eager for answers. What’s a marketer to do?

It’s time to analyze and synthesize.

When you analyze, it means you begin to define and categorize the data you’ve gathered. When you synthesize, it means you create usable information out of raw data. Do them simultaneously.

One way to synthesize is through affinity diagramming. Affinity diagramming is used to sort your data into logical groups. Grab a room with a large wall or white board and have everyone write pieces from their research down on sticky notes and sort them into categories. For example, some of your categories could be “pain points,” “motivations,” and “demographics.” See if any patterns start to form. Note any categories that have notably less sticky notes under them than other categories. The similarities that you find means your persona is starting to form.

Here’s an example from an affinity diagram we did for a potential cooking app. Each pink sticky note represents a category and the yellow and orange sticky notes represent findings that fall under each category. When we did this exercise, my team realized we only had two sticky notes under the demographic category, so we went out and conducted more interviews to find out more information.

How Affinity Diagramming Can Help You Build Personas

Building Your Persona

Once you’re done compiling, analyzing, and synthesizing your research, you can start creating your personas. The type of information you include in your persona can vary, but typically you’ll want to state the following:

  • Name
  • Demographic information
  • Goals
  • Frustrations or fears
  • Motivations
  • Personality

Here is an example of what a fully formed persona can look like:

It might feel cheesy or disingenuous to add a name and image, but this information will help remind you that what you’re creating is meant to be consumed by an actual person.

Keep in mind that personas are only as valuable as how representative your data is and how good of a job you did compiling and analyzing your research. If you make unresearched assumptions about your users, your personas might not be accurate. If they’re not accurate, you’re going to see that play out in key metrics like lower readership and lower revenue, causing you to iterate towards content that does resonate with your audience. Or you might just assume that content metrics driven by inaccurate personas are as good as you’ll ever be able to achieve and simply stop there.

Don’t Let Them Collect Dust

Many people treat personas like a shiny new kitchen gadget from Sur La Table. When they bought it, they were sure it was going to change the entire way they cooked. They might have used it once, but they quickly returned to their normal cooking routine, placed the gadget in a cupboard, and let it collect dust.

One way to mitigate this is to make sure you create personas as a team so more people will use them. Some people may argue that they’re not realistic. But by including your team throughout the process and showing them data from your research, they will understand that the characteristics of the fictional persona are based on actual data from real people.

It’s important to recognize that personas are one tool in your belt. Sometimes they are powerful and useful, other times they’re a hammer when you needed the proverbial wrench. Know when to use personas, when to use other tools, such as your voice and tone guide or competitive analysis, and when to use them all simultaneously. And if you do decide to create personas, make sure you keep them up to date so they don’t lose their utility. Users evolve over time, so your personas should too.

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