Improve Marketing Personas by Getting Lean and Iterative

Many marketers have adopted the idea of personas — or cohorts, or profiles — as a way to better understand their audiences. And that’s a good thing. But far too often we’re finding that the process of building personas is becoming the focus, rather than the resulting knowledge.

As an example, Marriott has proven itself to be an amazing content creator in recent years. Reverse engineering their personas based on the content they’ve put into the world, I imagine they’ve done a lot to see the full picture of the interests of their audience. It’s not just about lodging and amenities; Marriott covers the world of travel and adventure in their content. Of course, lodging is one aspect of that, but they don’t treat it as central to the travel experience. They focus content on things like:

  • The culture in the cities they serve;
  • The music scene their customers are coming to experience;
  • The meetings their business travelers are there to have;
  • And more related interests to travel.

They’ve opened the aperture wider than lodging and it makes all the difference in being effective with content.

What should you do to keep your personas both focused, while remaining open-ended?

Instead of trying to get to the level of specificity that says “our audience wants ‘x’,” look for one level higher of abstraction. Look for the storylines around “why” people want “x.” In the case of Marriott, that might be “our audience has a passion for travel and adventure” rather than “our audience needs a place to stay when they travel.”

3. You Haven’t Been Keeping Your Personas Up to Date, and Now They’re Out of Touch

In a completely non-scientific (yet completely relevant) poll of marketers about the state of their personas, more than 60 percent either have never built personas or have personas that are over a year old.

Considering the rate of change in marketing channels, the language people use, and product innovation, if you haven’t updated your personas in that long they’re pretty much pointless.

How Old Are Your personas?

What can you do to keep personas current?

In order to ensure you’re marketing to the right audience, in the channels and mediums they prefer, consider a two tiered approach to constant iteration on personas.

Tier one is setting aside time every three months to bring your marketing team, agencies and other stakeholders together to review and vet your personas. Yes, this may seem like an arbitrary time frame, and you’d be right. But based on experience, if the time is not set aside well in advance, this vetting and iteration tends to slip perpetually until “tomorrow.” Because the projects you’re working on will always take precedence over any ad hoc planning you have to review past work.

Tier two is more specific: Review and iterate on your personas at any time you’re reviewing the results of a campaign. Once a campaign, event or product launch has run its course, good marketing teams come together to explore the results. They dive deep in Web analytics to determine whether visits or time on site increased; or they dive into Marketo, Hubspot or another platform to see how many leads were generated.

But rarely, if ever, do those sessions involve pulling the current persona out and asking the questions: Do the new visits or leads match this audience? If we made our goal, what was it that was said that aligns with the personas’ needs? If we missed our goal, what can we learn from the similarity or discrepancy between message and audience need? Through those questions, checked against your personas, you’ll find nuance to make more accurate, current personas and, therefore, better content and experiences.

Where Does This All Lead?

Personas can absolutely be a powerful tool for better marketing — the guidepost for creating content and experiences of value. But only if there are the kind of everyday tools that you’re willing to get dirty, occasionally break, and put back together. (Not the kind of tools that only hang and the wall to be revered but not touched.)

The keywords to focus on to create personas that will be used — and more importantly — successful are:

  • Rapid
  • Open-ended
  • Iterative

Rapid, because if it takes too long to build them, they’ll be out of date and they’ll probably be so overly-specific to become unusable. Open-ended, because you’ll want to appeal to a broad audience based on common interests. And iterative, because people are constantly changing, in terms of the channels and language they prefer, as well as the context of their lives that influence their purchasing and brand affinity. Learn to change with and for them!

Author: John Lane

Watching TV as a kid, I used to run to the bathroom during the shows so I could make it back for the commercials. Those days launched me down a path that included layout and writing for the college paper; communications strategy for political campaigns; marketing strategy and graphic design for Gensler (a global design and architecture firm); and the implementation of new programming, animation and design techniques for Centerline.

Today I specialize in content marketing strategy and building digital deliverables to execute those strategies. But it’s about more than just creating killer digital content. At Centerline, we help clients succeed in the digital marketplace using a three-pronged approach: strategic (message creation, brand strategy), tactical (design, development), and analytical (measurement and adaptation). This experience-tested approach allows me to build campaigns that are both well-designed and effective for clients like IBM, GE and Quintiles.

One thought on “Improve Marketing Personas by Getting Lean and Iterative”

  1. I think this (for me) is by far the best, and most useable article I have read since joining Target Marketing over a year ago!

    I will be putting these tools to use immediately and have archived it for future reference, as I am certain it will remain perpetually invaluable in my small business marketing plans.

    Again, thank you for rekindling my spirit, I feel regenerated and can’t wait to begin the journey refreshed with a new vantage point!

    Glitteratti Group

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