I’m a mother, aged 25-40 years with a combined household income of $60,000.

Tell me, how are you going to solve my biggest challenge?  (please don’t say my by making my whites 3 shades whiter…)

Do actually know anything about me? Or are you assuming things because you know a few mothers yourself? 

This type of profiling originates in mass media buying. It allows vagueness becuase there’s not the same ability to collect finite details as in newer digital channels. For example, in NZ TV ratings are based on 600 monitored households. We generalise TV ratings based on 0.033% of our 1.7M households. So it’s understandable that these broad audience profiles are accepted when purchasing airtime.

This doesn’t mean we should allow the same greyness in our own profiles. If you’re trying marketing to broad customer groups based on a few demographic statistics then your messaging will seem equally generic. You’d never yourself to a stranger as a “male, aged 35-60” so why talk to people in this way?

It’s our job to create empathy

When personas (customer profiles, target audiences) should create a bond between the reader and the customer. They can allow us to step into the shoes of potential buyers. We can empathise with their problems and what success means to them. We can imagine how they may view our products, services and messages.

A well-crafted persona brings teams together. Marketing, sales, customer support and product development can all be on the same page. Talking about the same people and trying to solve the same problems.

However, our customer profiles are often stereotypes in masquerade. We start we a few facts and then sprinkle in assumptions and extrapolation until we’ve created a convincing illusion. This picture may or may not reflect reality.

So why do we rely on profiles filled with assumptions?

The Illusion of Correlation

Every marketer knows it’s important to understand our customers. We don’t purposely create stereotypes. Occasionally our brains trick us. Illusory correlation is the phenomenon of perceiving a relationship between variables (typically people, events, or behaviors) even when no such relationship exists.

For example, a person catches many fish in one place at a lake.  After that day, the person believes that the place where he or she caught many fish is a place where there are more fish than at other places at the lake.  However, it is possible that it is actually just a chance event.

Most explanations for illusory correlation involve psychological heuristics: information processing short-cuts that underlie many human judgments. In the age of information overload, our brains must develop short-cuts to cope.

As marketers, we need to be conscious of this fact and work hard not to let it creep into customer profiling.

Let’s get back to our mother to see why this is dangerous…

Meet “mother” the stereotype

If we only know some basic demographics about our mother then we may draw on our knowledge of parents and draw a logical assumption that our audience is time-poor. That they seek convenience and speedy solutions. We put this information into our customer profile and treat it like a fact.

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 4.38.56 pm

If we’re selling our mother a coffee machine then we may put this assumption into our copy with a message focused on the speed we can deliver her caffeine hit.

This might result in an ad like this:

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 5.41.43 pm.png

To create a real connection and develop empathy personas are often written as if you’re talking to one person. And with digital and social media you often are. 

So let’s say we go and talk to our customers and potential buyers, we might find out some interesting information that let’s us speak to our mother more directly. For the purposes of this post I’ll use a mother that you may be familiar with. 

Meet Lorelai – the persona

lorelai coffee IV.gif

Lorelai is a single mother with a grown-up daughter, she lives in a small rural town and runs her own business. To sell her a coffee machine, we need to know what coffee means to her, what problems it solves, what could be improved and where she looks for information.

If we actually spoke to Lorelai we might find that coffee isn’t just a luxury, it’s an addiction, an obsession. If she named her five favourite people, coffee would be one. 

Coffee is intrinsically tied to her social life and her routines. She drinks lots of different types of coffee throughout her day. Filter coffee in the morning at home, on the way to work at her local diner, another drip coffee at work, a giant takeaway coffee in the afternoon.

Even though she’s busy, she ties coffee to the moments of sanctuary in her daily schedule. Coffee is her moment of respite. Telling her that her caffeine fix will be faster is effectively telling her you’ll take away time from her breaks. 

When you write your advertisements you’re more likely to speak to her about coffee as an emotional lifeblood than simply another beverage.

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 4.50.55 pm

Does this mean we’re marketing to individuals?

It’s overwhelming to have too many personas. You need to have a select few customers that you focus on. While other might purchase from you, you’re best chance of success is with 3-4 personas. By focusing on these customers you have a better chance of building products that solve real problems and creating marketing that resonates. Lorelai is one of many that you can sell too if you have empathy for their relationship with coffee.

Personas are never finished

At SilverStripe, personas are a process of continuous improvement. We need to keep adding richness into our profiles as we learn more. We’re currently working on better feedback loops and transparency between our teams using Intercom and regular cross-team learning opportunities.

We’re also adding more facts and quotes to our profiles so that our product development teams have confidence that they’re not just “thumb-sucking”. This is a term one of our developers recently used to describe personas generally. It’s a phrase used in his hometown, Cape Town to describe an answer the was just a wild guess with no evidence. Developers can be skeptical of opinions paraded as facts. When we buy-in from our product development group I’ll consider our personas pretty robust!

Getting started

You can’t create your buyer personas from inference and intuition. Here’s some steps you can take to improve your customer profiles by seeking out facts:

  1. Read over your current profiles and think “how do I know this is true” for each piece of information?
  2. If you find any grey areas then look for evidence to prove or disregard the information
  3. Take a look over your Google Analytics and social media audience profiles to fill in any demographic details missing – this will help understand the general groups your personas fit into
  4. Speak to your teams on the coalface, sales and cupport teams talk to customers every day, they can be a wealth of information.
  5. Talk to customers and potential customers (and customers of your competitors). This is the most important step! Add real quotes into your profiles to help create empathy.

Helpful resources

I originally covered this as a talk for the Wellington Marketing Meetup “What I’ve learnt about marketing, from people who hate marketing. You can view my full slide deck here.

Your turn! What’s your best tip for creating a great persona?

Posted by Nicole Williams

I'm a marketing geek with a passion for tech. Previously, I was the marketing manager for SilverStripe (open source CMS and cloud PaaS) Currently, podcaster and blogger for TechMarketer.org and founder of Wellington Marketing meetup. Currently exploring Europe and living the dream! I'm always up for a chat about marketing and I love sharing my experiences so that others don't have to learn the hard way.

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