The Art of the Customer Persona and Four Things Most Businesses Get Wrong
Developing audience personas is a pretty basic part of being a marketer. Most product or account teams at some point go through the process of imagining an archetypical customer to keep creative messages on track—eg. Chris the IT Manager or Shawn the Organic-Manic Parent. And in the digital era, we have more buying and behavioral data than ever to paint the picture. But a lot of brands are still going about it all wrong.
Working with hundreds of clients over the years to develop strategic brand platforms, my team and I have seen first hand how weak personas can hamstring growth and frustrate personnel. When we first get to know a client and talk about their perceived target markets—who they see as their best customers and why—nine times out of 10 they’ve just scratched the surface. As a result, they’re missing out on a big opportunity, because really good strategic personas aren’t just about marketing. They can also help you drive better decision-making and improve overall organizational health. What’s more, when we work with clients to really understand the complex psychographic elements that connect brands and audiences, the results are transformative.
The power of psychographics personas
Well crafted psychographic personas are valuable tools for focusing the energies of your organization on the right audiences and the right decisions. Unlike demographic segments, psychographic personas look at aspirations, attitudes, fears, and motivations that make a given consumer take one path over another.
With a shift in thinking toward more brand-linked, holistic, and strategic personas, organizations can be more effective, efficient, and visionary in how they market and innovate.
Psychographic profiles layer on rich contextual, behavioral, and motivational information about an audience and specific to the product and/or its defining features. Desires, needs, and obstacles help you determine the specific subset of your demographic universe that will be most responsive to what your brand offers.
Based on our experience, these are four rules for creating good psychographic personas:
1. Personas have to be part of your brand
A lot of marketers approach persona building as a one-off activity, with the results living in a marketing brief or product messaging document. But customer personas should be fully embedded in your company’s overarching brand strategy from day one. Your brand strategy articulates who you are and how you communicate, and when personas are part of that bedrock, they give you an objective framework for subjective decisions all across your business.
Good brand strategies and personas are built on what is inherently true about your business, your values, and your vision for the future. They should be accessible and transparent to everyone at your business so that decisions are consistently based on customer parameters and preferences—not the CEO’s tastes or some trend du jour. Who your suppliers are (or aren’t), what colors go into your fall palette, whether you expand into a new market—company decisions informed by brand-based customer personas move your company in the right direction, and everyone is more likely to be on board.
2. Demographics ≠ Personas
Marketers frequently define audiences based on demographic characteristics instead of motivations and behaviors. But a demographic segment is not a persona. For example, consider several Portland players in the luxury housing market, each located in a different part of town and in neighborhoods with very different vibes. From a demographic perspective, potential buyers for these condos look very similar. They all exceed a certain HHI and fall within a narrow range of age and education, etc. But all that is just table stakes. What actually attracts an individual to the specific complex is all about psychographics—what are their desires, fears, and ambitions? Are they headed back from the suburbs and easing slowly into city life—may be wary of urban issues? Are they moving out of the city toward the grassy suburbs but don’t want to let go of cool too fast? Do they have an “Old-Portland” mindset or a “New-Portland” mentality? Two buyers could have similar bank statements but radically different worldviews. Bank statements don’t buy products; worldviews do.
3. Think beyond your core
The goal of psychographic persona development is not a single customer profile per product. More useful is a spectrum of personas that identifies who fringe buyers are likely to be, core buyers, and your “radical buyer”—the person who seems to have been waiting a lifetime for your product.
Each of these categories matters. For one thing, fringe buyers may eventually become core buyers, and core buyers may enter the radical zone. Busy parents become empty nesters, and recent grads eventually become homeowners. It may pay off to nurture all the different personas on your spectrum, as long as you are transparent about why and your teams understand the rationale for catering to fringe or aspirational audiences. Without that clarity, employees may look at an aspirational audience, feel a disconnect, and think “who are we kidding?” That’s a recipe for churn.
Bottom line: each audience on your spectrum can have value, and having a common language around that value is crucial for organizational health and consistent decision-making. Which brings us straight to the fourth rule of good personas.
4. Own up to the anti-persona
If your product or service won’t tick the desire boxes for a certain consumer, give her a name, and let her go. The anti-persona is that customer whose specific needs simply don’t meet, and clearly defining her makes a lot of sense. It prevents your team from reaching too far and spreading messages too thin. It provides a clear frame around your true audience and allows your teams to exclude, ignore, and otherwise relinquish that audience to the competition.
Good personas are good for business
Empowering, challenging, liberating, revelatory—good psychographic personas can be all that for your organization and more. For brands with well-established customer profiles, you’ll discover new audiences, start communicating with consumers based on what they really care about, and stop marketing to the wrong people. Emerging or under-rated brands can accelerate success by understanding how their products fit into the larger competitive picture and what messages will immediately call to the right buyers. Niche, uncompromising brands can dramatically expand their audiences by discovering the crucial common denominators among brand loyalists.
Remember, personas should be more than just a visualization of your ideal customer. They should be a brand-specific strategic tool that helps people across your organization make better decisions and continually drive growth and customer engagement for your business.