Why you should review your audience personas — or do away with them completely

I have three clients. I’ll call them Jill, Sue, and Mary.

Jill oversees the internal and external communications of a global engineering company, mostly as a one-woman-show. COVID has highlighted the importance of internal communication to keep teams aligned and to reassure them during difficult times.

But, as Jill prepared to take maternity leave, she worried about who would oversee this crucial function that she’d spent years refining.

She called me.

Sue heads up the marketing division of a software development company. She’s so good at her job that she was recently offered a position to head up a new business unit.

It was an opportunity of a lifetime.

But rather than excitement, Sue felt dread.

The corporate world had lost its novelty and she wanted to use her skills to support an NGO — a lifelong dream of hers.

While Sue is planning her great corporate escape and building her personal brand, she still needs to show up in her corporate job and assist with the new unit’s marketing and content strategy.

She called me.

Mary is in charge of content creation, curation, and contractor management at a multinational software company. Her content KPIs and goals are insane: 150 high-quality blogs a quarter, white papers, e-books, marketing collateral, social media posts, research…

Mary’s internal team can’t handle the workload. She needs a pool of reliable, outsourced storytellers who can help her hit her KPIs every time.

So, what did she do?

You guessed it…

She called me.

Same, same — but different

Why am I telling you these stories? Because, at first glance, Jill, Sue, and Mary can be lumped into one category, or client persona:

· Title: Marketing or communications manager

· Industry: B2B tech

· Demographics: Female, between 30 and 50 years old

· Personality traits: Working moms that lead active, healthy lifestyles. They’re in the prime of their careers but still find it difficult to juggle work and home life.

· Challenge: Finding strong, reliable B2B tech freelance writers to outsource their content and storytelling needs to, so that they can focus on strategy and life.

Personas are useful for segmenting my clients, but they lack nuance and detail.

They don’t tell me about Jill, Sue, and Mary’s personal goals and challenges, their dreams for the future, or what’s going on in their lives right now.

I only know this about Jill, Sue, and Mary because I’ve developed relationships with them.

We don’t talk shop when we meet for coffee (or wine, in the case of pre-pregnant Jill).

We talk about life and how it sucks sometimes.

We share our fears of sending our kids back to school in the middle of a pandemic, and our fears of losing our sanity if we don’t.

We bounce ideas off of each other, and show each other photos of our pets doing stupid shit.

So, yes, personas are a good starting point, but they’re everyone’s starting point. And your picture of an ideal customer is possibly identical to your competitors’.

To stand out, you have to go beyond the persona to truly engage and connect with your audience.

The person behind the persona

As marketers, communicators, and content creators, we often forget that we’re speaking to real people who have lives outside of the office.

People who are worried about their jobs and the economy.

People who are terrified of losing their loved ones to COVID and are frustrated with the uncertainty of it all.

People who, over the past year, have come to realise what’s really important and who have shifted their priorities to match.

Humans. Like you and me.

Not paper depictions or snapshots in time of some ideal client that can quickly become obsolete.

People change. Technology advances. Markets fluctuate. Businesses come and go. Global pandemics fuck everything up. Life is in flux and nothing is permanent.

If you’ve changed anything in your own business recently — your marketing approach (hello, personalisation), sales strategy, terms of service — anything — then you need to review your personas.

Because when your personas no longer reflect your audience’s current needs, goals, motivations, and behaviours, you’ve got a problem.

So, how can you align your product or service with your customers’ new priorities?

By asking two questions:

1. How does your audience define success today?

2. How does your product or service fit into this new reality?

Then, find and tell the stories that make an emotional connection between the two.

Like the story of Jill getting high on newborn baby scent and drunk on oxytocin and not having to worry about internal newsletters and crisis communications for a few blissful months.

Or the story of Sue and her quest to find an NGO that needs her now more than ever.

Or of Mary rising through the ranks because she’s proved that, with a strong team supporting her, she overshoots her KPIs every time.

The easiest way to capture, engage, and transform an audience is not by shouting the same things louder than everyone else.

It’s by finding and telling authentic stories. Stories about real people who your broader, persona-defined audience can relate to.

A case for ditching the personas

Personas have their place, especially when you’re just starting out and don’t have customer stories to tell, but they underestimate the influence of contextual and situational factors.

Segmentation doesn’t help you to really understand what your customers are doing, thinking, or feeling.

In fact, Edelman Group research found that 51% of respondents felt that brands could do better when it came to understanding their needs, fundamental motivations, and concerns. Only 10% considered brands to be doing it well.

As your business grows, make an effort to have honest conversations with real customers. Ask the hard questions that help you to understand their frustrations, the potential shortfalls in your product or service, and the value you bring to the relationship.

Then find the stories that demonstrate this value in the real world — and tell them.

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