Marketers’ drive towards personification and personalized experiences for their customers has elevated the need for actionable personas, but a common complaint we hear from marketing leaders who have invested in personas is that that once they’re completed, the personas get little use. As “nice little stories,” they’re often put in a drawer and forgotten.

But personas are not meant to be nice little stories – they’re meant to be strategic tools to help marketing teams focus and make insightful decisions that positively impact their customers. Paired with journey maps, they help identify the key moments that matter from a customer’s perspective.

So where are some personas failing? In working with clients, I’ve noticed a misunderstanding of how personas generate insights, and it goes something like this: We’ve done our due diligence collecting data and observations, bucketed what we saw into a standard persona template, and applied humanizing names and photos – why are our personas now not delivering insights for us?

In other words, clients expect the finished personas to generate insights, when in actuality insights should have been generating the creation of the personas.

There is a common misconception that data is insight or that straight observation is insight, but insight is something different. The definition I like is that insight is “something that you feel.” It provides context and pairs data with empathy to not just observe but to understand. Focusing on insight over straight data is essential when creating personas because it calls out “the differences that make a difference.”

An example might help clarify the distinction between straight data and insight: Suppose site analytics on an apartment search site shows relatively equal visits to the Floor Plans & Amenities channel as to the Photos & Virtual Tours channel, suggesting that both are important to customers. While that may be true in general, a deeper dive into the data shows that a sub-set of visitors to the Floor Plans & Amenities channel and a sub-set of visitors to the Photos & Virtual Tours channel only visit those respective channels – and that the conversion rate for each is in line with the overall site. An insight to be gleaned from that data is that there are two different ways that customers may approach their apartment search – one focused on “just the facts” around floor plans and amenities, and another focused on how they’ll “know it when they see it” through photos and virtual tours. That’s an insight. That’s a difference that makes a difference. That’s something that would allow marketers to hone their messaging and experience to two different types of customers with different informational needs, expectations, and challenges.

In the above example, the “just the facts”/“know it when I see it” insight would be leveraged to identify two distinct personas around which additional quantitative and qualitative data could be collected. Who’s more likely to engage through mobile? Who’s more likely to engage a sales rep? What specific information is most useful to each? What’s their respective emotional states when shopping and/or making a decision? And so on. The finished persona is simply a way to document both the initial insight (the difference that makes a difference) and the accompanying data and research that provide a fuller understanding.

Part of what separates strategic, actionable personas from the rest of the pack is a calibrated focus on uncovering insight over simply reporting data, but there is more to the process than that. For more (subscription required), see “How Marketing Leaders Make Personas Actionable” (G00308274) and “Create Actionable, Insight-Driven Journey Maps” (G00348339).

Banner photo by Marko Kovic on Unsplash.

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