A few days ago I came across an article that got me thinking. It was a post by Mark Schaefer of {Grow} titled “Why customer personas may be an outdated technique.”

Mark raised some excellent points about the problems marketers run into when using personas and gives several examples of personas gone wrong. But the real issue seemed to be the approach to personas – not the concept itself. He writes:

“If you believe that authentic, original, and human content is the best formula to attract an audience who will engage with you, then why would we ask a marketing professional to fake their way forward based on a script aimed at a theoretical personality?”

The answer, of course, is: we wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean we should write off personas altogether.

Mark shared examples of marketers using personas to guide their content strategy, only to find themselves writing boring, cookie-cutter content that stifled their creativity, wasn’t true to their brand and didn’t serve their customers well at all. Unfortunately this seems to happen all too often – but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Personas (done well) shouldn’t force you to produce lots of formulaic content or make you sound less ‘human’. Nor should they give lazy marketers a ‘script’ to write to.

Instead, they should help you create content – blog posts, videos, landing pages, etc. – that meets the needs of your target customers, and helps you talk to them in a more real, personal way.

So, how can you use personas to guide your content strategy?

Use Personas to Find the Right Topics

Personas can give you key insights into what your audience is struggling with – their pains and needs – and what influences them to make a purchase, or at least move to the next stage of the buyer journey.

This information shouldn’t shape your blog posts, emails and other content word for word, but it should guide the topics you talk about and the types of content you produce.

For example, let’s say you’re a marketer at a mid-size, multisite DIY store. You have a lot of potential customers, all with different needs. A young couple who have just moved into their first house won’t have the same questions, concerns or obstacles as an contractor picking up supplies for his client’s project – even if they’re buying the same thing.

So, let’s say you’ve identified the following two personas, which make up the majority of your customer base:

Persona 1: Renter Rachel (and Rob)Persona 1: Renter Rachel and Rob
Rachel and Rob are in their 20s, living on their own for the first time, in a rented flat. They can’t make too many changes to the property, but want to personalise their space as much as possible. They also need to do occasional, basic maintenance. They do most of their research online before purchasing.
Pains: Don’t want to spend lots of money, as it’s a rented flat. Have minimal experience in DIY and aren’t always sure how to choose the best product.
Buying influences: Respond well to vouchers / promotional offers. Value expert advice / tips, as well as recommendations from other shoppers.

Persona 2: Handyman HarryPersona 2: Handyman Harry
Harry runs a busy handyman business and often needs to pick up supplies for the various jobs he’s working on. He also has a range of standard tools and hardware that need to be regularly maintained or replenished. He works to tight deadlines and knows what he’s doing, so doesn’t need to do much research beforehand.
Pains: Needs to purchase quickly so he can finish the job on time. Each project is different and may require specific tools or parts he’s less familiar with.
Buying influences: Ease of purchase, with products available in store when he needs them. A loyalty / VIP programme that rewards him for his frequent purchases.

Even though these personas are fairly simple, there’s enough information there to start thinking about the topics and types of content that will help these customers move towards purchasing.

Let’s take our renters, Rachel and Rob. They do a lot of online research when they start a project, so a helpful how-to on your blog may be their entry point to your main website. To cater to this type of customer, your blog might feature tutorials, DIY inspiration, and practical guides. As they’re largely motivated by price, your emails might focus on the latest sales and promotions, or a collection of the most popular products in a certain category.

Use Personas to Find the Right Channels

Where do your customers research? Online? In store? On a mobile device?

Well-developed personas can help you determine the best channels and format for presenting your content to different types of customers.

In the example above, the Handyman Harry persona will use different channels to interact with your brand than the renters. Detailed product spec sheets on the website are useful. But since Harry generally shops in store with little time to research beforehand, he’ll also want to access this information whilst he’s browsing the shelves.

In contrast, Rachel and Rob don’t want to see lots of technical content – they want clear, practical advice to be front and centre when they visit the website.

As you develop your content strategy, consider the way different personas will research products, interact with your brand and make purchases. This can help you decide what channels to prioritise, as well as how to best organise the same content across different channels.

In the example above, for instance, the detailed product info would still be available on the website. But the simplified product info would be presented first to cater to the customers who fit in the Rachel and Rob persona.

Use Personas to Find the Right Tone

The language, tone and style you use will vary slightly for each persona. The challenge here is using the right style for each persona, whilst maintaining a consistent brand voice. So how do you find the right balance?

At HTK, our customers and prospects are SMEs and larger enterprises, but we work with several public sector organisations as well. The tone of voice we use when we talk to marketers in the private sector doesn’t work as well in the public sector.

We’ve defined our overarching brand voice as “smart, personal and empowering”. This reads a bit differently in the public sector than it does in the private sector, but it’s still the guide for the style we use, helping us maintain a consistent brand across personas.

Try to define a core tone of voice for your business, and then shape the style you use for different personas around this. Remember that your brand tone of voice goes beyond written text to include images and video content as well.

Finding the Right Data

One of the key issues with the examples Schaefer shared in his article was that they seemed to be based on guesswork rather than data. Personas will never be perfect – they’ll need testing and updating. And no customer (or potential customer) will be a perfect match for any one persona.

But the development process should be more than a brainstorming session where everyone discusses what they think your customers are like. Using real data to build your personas will help them be more accurate and more effective.

Finding the information you need to build out your personas shouldn’t be too difficult, although it might take a bit of time. Generally, you’ll want your research to answer the following questions:

  • What do people who fit this persona need that your product can help them with?
  • What are the pains or obstacles they face at different stages of the customer journey?
  • What motivates or influences them to make a purchase? (e.g., social proof, price, company values, detailed product info, etc.)

Social Media
Social networks are a great source of data about your customers and potential customers. Look at sites like reddit and Quora to find out what questions people are asking about the kind of products you sell or the services you provide. You can also use Twitter’s advanced search to find tweets that are asking questions.

Broadly, these results will give you an idea of some of the needs and pains of your potential customers. Some of the questions and discussions may also inspire more specific content ideas, such as a blog post or a how-to video.

Services such as Followerwonk or SimplyMeasured can also give you broad insights about the people who follow your brand – things like location, demographics and interests.

Free Twitter Followers Analysis from SImplyMeasured

Your Current Customers
The best place to look when defining personas is at the customers you already have – this is where you’ll find the most relevant and reliable data. It sounds obvious, but it seems to be a frequently overlooked data source.

Send out a survey to existing customers or as a follow-up after someone has made a purchase. Make sure what you ask will help answer the broad questions highlighted above, so the responses you receive will actually be useful when it comes to defining each persona.

You might even survey subscribers who’ve signed up to your email list but have never bought anything, to find out what’s holding them back.

It’s also a good idea to talk to the people in your business who have direct contact with customers. They should (hopefully) have a good understanding of what different types of customers want/need, what their obstacles are and what helps them make that final decision to purchase. For example, we know that our private sector tone of voice is wrong for the public sector through input from our account managers.

General data
If you’ve got Google analytics, you can get a general overview of the topics your website visitors are interested in. The Audience section has lots of helpful data about visitors’ demographics, interests and more.

Google Analytics - Audience Interests

Another potentially helpful (and entertaining) tool is the YouGov Profiler. It gives you a breakdown of common traits among customers of just about any midsize (and up) business, from their shopping habits to their favourite TV programmes. The results are based off self-reported data from hundreds of consumers. The persona presented for each business is an aggregate of these responses.

Most of the information it presents is too granular for use in an effective customer persona, but you may find something useful in there. If you’re a relatively small business, you may find there aren’t enough responses to build your customer profile. If that’s the case, you can always check out your competitors’ typical customer.

Final thoughts

Personas can be a useful marketing tool, if created and used properly – but it’s a delicate balance. As Mark notes in his post, one of our goals as marketers is to engage with customers in an authentic, human way. Done well, personas should help – not hinder – your efforts.

Using customer personas as you plan your content can help you brainstorm relevant topics, find the right tone of voice for different customer types and communicate over the right channels.

But personas aren’t just for thinking broadly about your customers and prospects. Grouping your existing customers into the relevant personas allows you to send more targeted communications – helping your tailored messages get in front of the right types of people. (We’ve found a way to do this automatically in our Horizon platform – find out more here).

Always keep in mind that personas are only meant to guide your content strategy, not create a script. If you make your personas too granular, it’s easy to fall into this trap. Don’t make your personas too specific or take them too seriously – you’ll end like one of the bad examples Mark Schaefer describes.

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We’ve put together a best practice guide to help you create more effective customer personas. Download the free guide for step-by-step tips and advice.