Personas: The Magic Behind the Mirror

  |  October 4, 2013   |  Comments

Personas are complex creatures, like your customers. Learn to create personas that are truly effective in helping you develop your content marketing and persuasive strategy.

Did you know that most persona efforts fail as soon as the personas are completed? Teams create their personas, design slick posters to put on the walls, and say "these are our personas!" Congratulations, but what's next?

Creating personas is really just the beginning. A persona is not a document; it is a clear understanding of a target customer that exists in the minds of your team. Personas evolve as your data around them evolves, as well. Every test you do and every insight you gather should be designed to further understand your customer base and your personas.

Many companies we speak with have developed personas, yet only a few seem to have used them effectively. It is relatively easy to throw together a set of customer characteristics and call it a persona. It's not so easy to create personas that are truly effective in helping you develop your content marketing and persuasive strategy.

What Personas are Good For

The principal value of personas developed for the persuasion process is scenario planning in order to understand how they approach the initiation of relationships, how they gather information, how they approach the decision-making process, what language they use, and how they prefer to obtain agreement and closure.

We're not concerned with what an interface looks like at this point. We use personas to define how people will arrive at the site or store and what questions they have and to connect them to the content that helps them buy the way they want to and to provide the kind of customer experience that matters to them.

Personas at their best evoke empathy in a process that's easily hijacked by technical imperatives and self-serving, company-focused needs. A design team must work with personas that seem like real people, people that can be conversed with, ideas bounced off of, joked with, related to. One way to determine if you are on track with your personas is to share them with your top sales team members and customer service members and if they aren't telling you they spoke to someone just like that the day earlier you may be off in your persona efforts.

Identify Persona Traits

If your brand was a person, what 3-5 character traits would define its personality? Be honest. Don't tell us aspirational qualities. Even though you may be blind to this, make sure it is defined from your customers' point of view. List the good and the bad. People are a mixture of positive and negative qualities. A brand is no different.

Now do the same thing for your customers. Invite members from various teams including product, marketing, sales and customer service into a room and start coming up with the traits that characterize your customers. As you list these traits, have someone organize them on a whiteboard on a 2x2 grid. One axis will be from logical to emotional and the other from quick to make a decision to deliberate. Once you understand what people do on your website and why, you'll want to plot your personas this way.

You will end up with a list that looks something like:



Map Out the Different Personas

Once all the attributes are listed, we add colored shapes over attributes that may appear in the same people. For example, we usually don't find many data driven people who are also nurturing, consensus builders. That indicates that this is likely two different personas. You will end up with something that now looks like:



How Many Personas Should We Create?

The usual number of necessary personas is "a handful." Too few is as bad as too many. Even in the most complex content planning meetings, we've never seen a need for fewer than three or more than seven personas per business line.

Ultimately, the number of personas should reflect the number of primary motivations to purchase your product/service that exist within your customer base. Sometimes, personas have identical motivations but dramatically different needs.

Personas are complex creatures, like your customers. Don't get fooled into wrapping them up into a single or primary "average" user (unless, of course, you're the only company in the world with average customers).

Next time, we'll learn how to take these lists of attributes and use a technique to turn them from your typical persona stereotype (soccer mom, techno geek) into characters that ensure deep understanding and empathy.


Bryan Eisenberg

Bryan Eisenberg is co-founder and chief marketing officer (CMO) of IdealSpot. He is co-author of the Wall Street Journal, Amazon, BusinessWeek, and New York Times best-selling books Call to Action, Waiting For Your Cat to Bark?, and Always Be Testing, and Buyer Legends. Bryan is a keynote speaker and has keynoted conferences globally such as Gultaggen,, Direct Marketing Association, MarketingSherpa, Econsultancy, Webcom, the Canadian Marketing Association, and others for the past 10 years. Bryan was named a winner of the Marketing Edge's Rising Stars Awards, recognized by eConsultancy members as one of the top 10 User Experience Gurus, selected as one of the inaugural iMedia Top 25 Marketers, and has been recognized as most influential in PPC, Social Selling, OmniChannel Retail. Bryan serves as an advisory board member of several venture capital backed companies such as Sightly, UserTesting, Monetate, ChatID, Nomi, and BazaarVoice. He works with his co-author and brother Jeffrey Eisenberg. You can find them at

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