Personas: The Journey

Related Framework BoxBuyer PersonasPlanningUser Personas

It’s not so much about how much it costs, it’s about how it costs,” says Eddie, a CIO for a medium-sized IT group. Eddie has a large corner office with bay windows overlooking the campus. Every surface of his office—the desk, credenza, even the window sills—is covered with case studies, product sheets, solicitations and other marketing collateral. A single industry-specific magazine sits on top of his meeting table. Eddie doodles and plays with it throughout the interview. I realize, without even asking the question, that Eddie is constantly pummeled with marketing material; all of this valuable collateral, turned into noise. Only industry-specific materials produced by industry experts catch Eddie’s eye. A thousand surveys, a dozen sales calls and industry-analyst data would have never revealed this. To truly understand the buyer or user, you must understand that person as a human being.

Learn their motivations, aspirations, pains and plans. Personas are the best way to articulate the challenges of your customers to development, marketing and sales. I have seen many persona documents that are essentially demographic data sheets. Statistics are valuable for providing context but don’t tell the real story of your target customer. Visiting customers and prospects face-to-face is the best way to shape this narrative.

In other cases, companies have focused on user personas to the exclusion of buyer personas, or vice versa. Developing user personas is critical for engineering teams to have context when building products and for customer experience and support teams to attune themselves to customer needs. But buyer personas are important for marketing teams to design the right messaging, engineering teams to support buying criteria, and sales to map their processes to the buyer’s pains. One without the other is only half the story.

When I started building personas, simply getting away from the office was hard. However, visit after visit brought new revelations. Existing customers and prospects in our sales pipeline were the low-hanging fruit. But potentials—those not currently shopping for our solution—were the real treat. I learned about new opportunities and even new value propositions for our existing solutions. Following every interview, I wrote a summary as if it were a story. I not only wrote the answers to my questions, but also described the environment, the subjects’ clothing, the way they spoke and more.

After several interviews, I began constructing personas. The interviews revealed three personas that encapsulated our market: Connor the CIO, Dan the IT admin and Jen the analyst. Connor, a wise and thoughtful figure, was the buyer. Jen and Dan were users, but they often acted as recommenders in the buying process.

Personas were an entirely new concept to our company and their introduction needed to be compelling. No one would identify with statistics; they needed to hear a story about our customers and their problems. Each story had a protagonist, the persona. This persona had a name (e.g. Connor the CIO), a picture and a personality.

Like every good story does, it used storytelling tools such as rising action, climaxes and foreshadowing. The goal was to create a narrative that didn’t simply describe the persona’s problems but provided context into why the problems exist to help the team empathize. We built powerful narratives designed to build a strong rapport with the personas, despite never having met them.

When we first introduced personas to the entire team, the reception was … tepid. Did we get something wrong? Weren’t they compelling? As it turns out, there were missing ingredients. We failed to illustrate why personas are important; how to apply them to marketing, sales and product development; and the key revelations they revealed about the market. Creating and introducing personas was a slow process (nearly two years) and perseverance was key.

I talked about Connor, Dan and Jen as if they were real people, illustrating them through the real-world examples of our customers. After sales calls, the salesperson and I would discuss the customer’s alignment with one or more of our personas. I was challenged about our personas by staff at all levels of the company. I didn’t fight it; I welcomed it. I asked for the data that backed the challenge and countered with market facts (quotes and observations from interviews, survey data, etc.). The new information enhanced our personas. Most importantly, we finally arrived at why personas were important to each department. This was my misstep in the beginning: We didn’t start with the why. Without personas, we risked inside-out thinking, building products only for ourselves, marketing messages that only we understood and sales conversations where we talked more than listened.

Once we demonstrated how personas enhance product requirements, shape value propositions and tune the sales language, everything seemed to click. Major changes in the company’s engineering, marketing and sales processes made our personas even more impactful and adoption became less difficult. The company finally tuned in to the market’s goals, feelings and pains.

Today, we continuously grok our personas, telling their story to newcomers and reminding our team. Like people, Connor and the other personas are constantly evolving; new interviews bring fresh perspectives and story arcs to these complicated individuals. We constantly refresh our data through interviews

In the end, what matters most about personas is that they tell the common narrative of our market, focusing on the human element. When done right, that’s far more powerful than any statistic.

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