How Many Personas Do You Need?

In past columns, I’ve talked about creating personas and evaluating them. Today, I’ll explore how many personas are enough.

When clients ask us how many personas they should have, we typically tell them a handful — two to seven — is enough.

Not long ago, a client tried to identify its market segments and announced it would need 42 personas. After the uncovery process, we identified a need for 7 personas, not 42. The client was skeptical, believing we couldn’t address the needs of its entire customer base with only seven personas. We began creating scenarios for the personas, and the team realized one persona was so similar to another it wasn’t adding any value to the persuasion planning process. They suggested we remove that persona. We did, committing what we affectionately term “personacide.”

Uncovery can also introduce a persona that’s being ignored or overlooked by marketing or sales. Another client resisted using a persona we developed largely from a gap we identified researching its lost prospects. The team kept telling us, “This doesn’t seem like our customer.” We agreed, telling them they were failing to close this persona (or market opportunity) because its needs and motivations weren’t addressed by the current sales process. By creating new scenarios for this persona and staying aware of what it needed during sales calls, the client began to close more of these prospects types.

Personas Aren’t Targets

A common misconception about personas is they are somehow a set of marketing targets. This mindset is understandable considering most marketing campaigns are created with a demographic target in mind.

Yet, demographic information always falls short of revealing a segment’s motivations and needs. Demographic data fail to address the attitudes and perceptions that exist about a company in relation to its competitors.

In the first example, the company had 42 demographic market segments, but the demographic differences had a minimal influence on buying motivations. There was no need to mirror demographic data into 42 different, easy-to-forget personas. Instead, we sorted the customer base’s divergent needs and motivations to determined the number of personas needed.

We use this psychographic information (collected by interviews and other means) to create a persona set, which represents the buying processes and preferences of the entire customer base. We think of personas as nets, not targets, that when weaved together and presented as a set allow a company to plan persuasive scenarios without leaving any major segment out.

Many persona sets offer new opportunities for a company to message and market to prospects that have been falling through the cracks. Personas can also be used to evaluate how your prospects see your competitors. Perhaps your competitor does a tremendous job with one persona; perhaps another competitor isn’t as big a threat as you’d believed.

How Do You Know If You Have Enough?

During the persona creation process, we do a mind-mapping process, in which we list every common motivation and need for purchasing a product or participating in a conversion process. We then sort and build these into our personas.

After you create a persona set, test it by discussing items from the dump list and determining if that problem or need is represented somewhere in a persona. Occasionally, we find a deficiency and can alter a persona to carry that need by changing its buying situation. Other times, a need or motivation requires an entirely new persona.

Sometimes a customer need isn’t worthy of an entire persona. For example, we identified a significant demographic, the single mom, in a recent project for an entertainment company. Upon further research, we found the single mom displayed few behaviors or motivations different from the married mom. Recognizing it as a significant demographic, we created a page to acknowledge a few concerns specific to single moms but allowed the other mother personas to represent her needs and motivations elsewhere in other scenarios. The single mom was simply not different enough to warrant an entire persona.

A Handful Is Usually Enough

We’ve never encountered the need for more than seven personas or fewer than two for each business segment or product line, if they’re diverse. Most projects have four or five. But more important than the number is how accurately the personas behave as stand-ins for your customers as a whole. Our criteria is based on building predictive models of customer behavior that can be tracked by Web analytics, which we continually optimize. If you can’t predict a persona’s behavior in any given scenario, you don’t fully understand their needs and motivations.

Personas must be believable to evoke empathy in the team that uses them. But they must also be reflective of real customer needs, as well as be accountable to a business’s need to grow and cultivate sales opportunities.

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