6 Ways to Build Blockbuster-worthy Marketing Personas

Kyle Eliason

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, before I was a digital marketer, I was a screenwriter. It was a period of endless coffee, erratic pay checks, and afternoons that inexplicably turned into early mornings. I learned many valuable skills as a writer that I still use to this day. For example, I know exactly how much food and/or coffee you need to purchase in order to not get kicked out of a cafe. I also learned skills that made me a better marketer.

The most important skill for either a writer or a marketer is being empathic. A true writer needs to be able to write with empathy for any and all characters that exist in their world.

The same is true for marketers. Simply put, marketing is understanding your customer and providing effective content to get them to take action. Without really understanding your customer, you’re shooting in the dark and wasting marketing dollars. That’s where personas come in.

A marketing persona is a representation of your customer based on research and data that outlines behavior patterns, attitudes, goals and anything else that might inform you on how they engage with products and content. But as Stefanie Owens notes, “Personas in this space are, first and foremost, all about building empathy.”

If you’re reading this article, there’s a really good chance you’re familiar with personas already. But I’ve been shocked by the number of times we’ve asked clients for personas and they need to dig them up from the archives like some sort of lost artifact. It makes me doubt that they’ve been created effectively or are be used in any meaningful way.

In this article, I’m not going to explain why personas are useful or provide a guide on how to create them. My goal here is to give you some tips on how to make your personas better. Here 6 things that every screen-writer answers to create well defined characters that every marketer should copy to create kick-ass personas.

What time do they go to bed and wake up?

Screenplay example:
In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman works at an investment firm in Wall Street and happens to be a psychopath serial murderer by night. You’d think that’d tucker him out and he’d sleep in a bit, however, his need to be seen and revered by others causes him to go through an extensive early morning wake-up ritual full of grooming and exercise.

Patrick Bateman

Why it’s important to a marketing persona:
Defining whether your customer is a night owl or early morning riser can have a lot of implications for not only when you provide marketing materials to them (ex: early morning eblast) but also where. Although it’s a traditional medium, infomercials still pull in a ton of dough – almost $250 billion dollars in 2015. What time is best for infomercials? Yup – night owl territory.

What is their routine when first getting to work?

Screenplay example:
In Stranger Things, Police Chief Hopper’s morning routine is to saunter in (often late) with a cigarette, trade insults with some of the other officers, grab coffee and a donut and postpone any police business until he has a chance to wake up. As he dismissively reminds his secretary, “Mornings are for coffee and contemplation.” This behavior perfectly illustrates him as apathetic and, as we eventually find out, emotionally damaged. This is the perfect starting point for an arc that leads to redemption and purpose.

Police Chief Hopper

Why it’s important to a marketing persona:
Email campaigns are tricky because of mobile devices. A higher percentage of people review their emails before work hours during a commute. However, there’s still a high percentage that cap their day with a giant email sweep.

On top of that, some customer types might be more likely to discard email promotions first thing in the morning, but be more responsive in the afternoon. Does your customer prefer to relax first thing in the morning or are they ready to make decisions and learn more about what you have to offer?

Are they set in their ways?

Screenplay example:
In Fight Club, the two main characters, The Narrator and Tyler Durden, are opposites when it comes to conformity. The Narrator’s need for order is at total odds with Tyler’s preference for chaos. The entire movie is about The Narrator’s slow slide into chaos and his transformation into liberation. As soon as he realizes he has gone too far, he pulls himself back to where he finds his strongest self.

The Narrator and Tyler

Why it’s important to a marketing persona:
One of the most basic and important characteristics of your customer is where they sit on the technology adoption curve. Defining whether they’re an early adopter or laggard is crucial when deciding how to market to them.

Each of the groups on this curve has preset characteristics just like generational groups. You’re not going to want to run a marketing campaign that requires an Oculus Rift if your customer base are laggards. Nor will you want to run flash banners if your customers are innovators. Actually, don’t use flash. Just don’t.

Do they need a face or a name?

Screenplay example:
In Kill Bill: Volume 1, the main character’s name is never mentioned. In the screenplay, she is referred to as “The Bride.” Quentin Tarantino makes it a point to hide the name. In fact, during the movie, another character refers to her by name and it’s bleeped out. It’s never explained exactly why this is, but it’s most likely to help the viewer empathize with her. Tarantino wants us to not focus on her label, but understand who she is as a character and why she is intent on revenge.

The Bride

Why it’s important to a marketing persona:
Although eventually having a great photo or name is effective for personalizing your persona, it should not drive the process. It’s critical to have a fully fleshed out written persona before slapping a name on it and providing imagery.

Stefanie Owens makes a compelling argument against using stock photos, cartoon-ish artwork, or useless demographic information in your personas. She provides this example of an excellent persona set that uses only relevant imagery and resists the urge to artificially put a face to a name:

Infographic Persona

Personas created by Virginia Honig, Hala Shih, Leila Johannesen and Caroline Law from IBM

What kind of environment do they need?

Screenplay example:
In As Good As It Gets, Melvin Udall is a neurotic novelist with a terrible case of O.C.D who hates any interaction with other people. Any sort of noise, including cracks in a sidewalk, totally disrupts his life and leads to stress.

His way of life is turned upside down when he’s forced to take care of his neighbor’s dog and deal with people that he’d never dreamed of holding a conversation with before. The storyline revolves around his fight to become “a better man.”

Melvin Udall

Why it’s important to a marketing persona:
Understanding how your customer reacts to different forms of exposure can change everything in marketing, from web design choices to the pacing of a nurture campaign. Likewise, if your touch points are too frequent in something like paid remarketing or any other nurture method, you can lose trust and may do more harm than good.

What do they fear?

Screenplay example:
In Jerry Maguire, Jerry is a high-rolling sports agent who resists all personal connection and gets self-worth only from his business accolades. The thought of losing any of his business relationships is devastating to him which is evident when we see the expression of shock on his face as he’s effortlessly fired. His (seemingly) worst fear comes to fruition, leading to his breakdown. But ultimately, he learns that his real fear is living and dying alone.

Jerry Maguire

Why it’s important to a marketing persona:
I’ve put the question of “fear” last because it’s one that generally isn’t addressed with most personas. And yet, it’s potentially the most important question to answer when it comes to understanding what drives your customer.

I would argue that the nature of business is identifying fear (whether that’s fear of missing out on something wonderful, or actual avoidance of a negative outcome) and using that information to solve problems. In advertising for instance, that could be highlighting and accentuating a fear, only to follow it up with the end-all, be-all solution. In content marketing, it’s educating customers on the issues surrounding their fears and problems and providing them with the beginnings of a solution.

As an account manager, a large portion of my job is to hear KPI-based symptoms and translate that to understand a client’s underlying worry. Ultimately, it’s to address that fear with a clear solution in mind. Many times that may look different than what we were hired to do at a surface-level. The mark of a quality agency, and a quality marketer, is whether they can look beneath the observed symptoms and get at the more meaningful underlying issues that ultimately drive the plot.

There are many different ways to put together a potent marketing persona —a text heavy persona with minimal imagery, an infographic with mostly icons and figures, or even a video persona. The important thing is that, given all the data and research you’ve done, you become an empath and that your documented personas help to bring others into the same story.

Kyle Eliason

Kyle Eliason

Senior Client Partner
Senior Client Partner

Kyle is an Account Manager at Portent, Inc. He brings over 9 years of experience managing digital media projects. He is passionate about innovative marketing strategies – the more creative, the better. When he’s not account managing, he’s either on a soccer field, on ice skates, or screenwriting. On a blue moon, you might catch him on all three.

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