Please Don't Stereotype Your Personas

  |  November 1, 2013   |  Comments

Too often, personas are written as flat narratives, with no emotional hooks for our team members to understand them. Columnist Bryan Eisenberg explains how to give personas depth and truly emphasize with customers.

shutterstock-95842987In my last column, I promised to show you how to take these lists of personality mapping attributes and turn them from your typical persona stereotype (soccer mom, techno geek) into characters that ensure deep understanding and empathy. Many of the techniques we use to draft our personas come from the same techniques used by great storytellers and scriptwriters. The goal of a great character is to make you emotionally connect with them and to empathize with who they are.

Without empathizing with your customers, it's hard to engage them emotionally, just as it's hard to engage someone in a rich conversation if you don't have some empathy for him or her.

An easy way to create empathy is to remember that your customers, are as emotionally complex as you are. Keeping this attitude on your part will help encourage empathy.

One of the key components of a more persuasive website is copy that feels relevant to the particular visitor who engages with the site. The problem is most people write copy as if they are speaking to an audience of 50,000; aiming for an average visitor and not feeling relevant to any.

Author John Steinbeck once said,

"Your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person - a real person you know, or an imagined person - and write to that one."

When Jeffrey and I had our agency, we needed to develop a process to help our clients write to the one person. Having a long background in sales and developing telemarketing teams and scripts, we knew the value of good interactive exchanges and looked to find ways to create characters our clients could empathize with.

Intuitively, we were creating rich personas that our clients were identifying with, but the challenge for our company was how to reproduce this intuitive process into something that anyone on our staff could do. We delved into the world of literature and film to understand the rich history of character development. After all, the etymology of the term 'Persona' comes from Latin for an actor's mask.

Are Your Personas One-Dimensional?

Too often, personas are written as flat narratives, with no emotional hooks for our team members to understand them. One of the techniques we used is based on the work of prominent Hollywood screenwriter and script evaluator, David Freeman. Freeman taught us about "character diamonds," a tool he teaches in his course, Beyond Structure.

Freeman teaches characters as a series of layers. One layer is the character diamond. Each corner of the diamond represents a major trait in the character's personality. A trait helps shape how the character sees the world, speaks, thinks, and acts. "Character diamond" loosely means the combination of three, four, or five traits that govern a character's personality.

Some characters' personalities are spread evenly among the traits. Others might have a trait so powerful it eclipses the others. In "Star Wars," Darth Vader's creepy evilness is his most salient trait, although he does possess others.

Each corner of the Character Diamond represents a major trait of the character's personality. By trait, we mean an aspect of the character which helps shape how that character sees the world, speaks, thinks, and acts.

Let's look at a couple of film characters to understand how this is used. For example, the Character Diamond for Melvin (Jack Nicholson) in As Good as It Gets is:

  1. Literary/articulate (He's a famous author and can really turn a phrase.)
  2. Terrified of the world (He tries to hold his fears at bay with obsessive/compulsive behaviors.)
  3. Belligerent

shutterstock-93596194Gradually, some of these traits change. For instance, his terror fades and his belligerence turns to caring.

You'll notice that his Character Diamond only has three corners. In truth, characters often have not four major traits, but three, four, or five. Thus, we use the term "Character Diamond" somewhat loosely to mean the combination of three, four, or five traits that govern the character's personality.

You'll also notice that one corner, "Literary/Articulate," is really a cluster of two related traits. It's not unusual that a corner of the Character Diamond is really a cluster of several traits.

In As Good as it Gets, Helen Hunt plays the character Carol. Her Character Diamond is:

  1. Loving/concerned (toward just about everyone)
  2. Not a pushover/in control/matter of fact (She can handle Melvin.)
  3. Ironic/intelligent
  4. Lonely (and thus very eager for a date when we first meet her)

Let's take a look at the Character Diamonds of another character. In The Matrix, when we meet The Oracle (Gloria Foster), she's:

  1. Psychic/intuitive
  2. Powerful (The agents like Smith can't find her or kill her.)
  3. Motherly (She bakes cookies; she's got kids in her living room.)
  4. Ironic
  5. A revolutionary (fighting The Matrix.)

Another interesting aspect of Character Diamonds is that, for some characters, their personality is spread somewhat evenly among the traits, as with Carol or The Oracle. Others, however, might have a trait that is so powerful that it often eclipses the others. This is the case with Melvin's belligerence.

This Character Diamond stuff can get pretty fancy. In life, and in movies, some people are phony. They have what David Freeman calls a mask. That is, they put on a false self that fools others and often even fools themselves.

In fact, with Melvin, his belligerence is just a defense mechanism (a mask) that covers his terror. But, phony or not, his belligerence is still a trait that helps govern how he sees the world, thinks, speaks, and acts.

A Well Developed Persona Lets You Think Like Them

A lost wallet lies on a Manhattan street, stuffed with cash. A white middle-income male, New Yorker, between 30 and 44, picks it up. Will he look for the rightful owner, or pocket the cash?

It's anybody's guess with that level of "targeting;" there is just not enough information to know.

However, if George Costanza, the white middle-income male New Yorker between 30 and 44 from Seinfeld picks up the wallet, everyone knows exactly what he'll do.

He'll keep the money.

By allowing you to imagine their concerns, reactions, and questions, personas allow you to better plan marketing interactions and messaging. Personas are critical to to lead gen websites, specifically those that want to engage their suspects and prospects in a sales dialogue both on and offline.

Starting with personality attribute maps and character diamonds here gives you a more human, believable persona. That's much more useful than an average persona, which we see people using. Your company and personas deserve more than flat stereotypes.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock.


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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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