Buyer personas are a well-worn technique adopted by marketers to get under the skin of customers. A fictional but data-driven profile of your ideal or actual customers, buyer personas have long been used by the marketing department as a way to surface and document customer needs and wants, and help understand how customers make purchasing decisions.
And if accurate, these completed personas can then enable marketers to better segment their messaging, by targeting different personas with the most appropriate content and offers; develop new products/services based on the needs and wants of your key customers; and reach the right people, thereby pre-qualifying leads by attracting the right leads.
But personas also have a crucial role to play in the increasingly important discipline of customer journey mapping.
“Personas are the starting point,” says Michael Hinshaw, CX strategist and president of MCorpCX. “Because a journey map is the story of a customers’ experience – it explains what happens along the way, to whom, and how it happens –you need to know who is taking the journey to tell the story. Persona represent the customers whose journey we’re mapping… in fact, we’ll often do persona workshops in advance of journey mapping workshops to make sure everyone is aligned on which customer they’re solving for.”
He continues: “Persona and journey maps together help shift companies focus from inside-out to outside-in. Personas describe in detail who your key customers are and why they feel the ways that they do. Customer journey maps show you what your customers do as they interact, including where things do and don’t meet their expectations, and places where an organisation can improve to serve customers better.”
Simon Spyer, cofounder and insight partner at Conduit Data Services, adds: “Personas are a tool that helps you take a customer-centric approach to journey mapping: they help you to really define the tasks that your customers or prospects want to complete and their needs and pain points in doing so across the customer journey. By understanding these needs and pain points, you can start to define the ‘moments of truth’ that really matter to your customers, where your business has a role to play and what you need to do to make this possible.”
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So with buyer personas playing such an important role in the overall customer journey mapping process, it is vital that organisations create valuable personas that provide a robust platform upon which to build the maps. The question, then, is how to successfully generate these customer personas. And to answer that question we must first establish what constitutes a robust buyer persona.
Vicky Smith, executive advisor, customer experience design, at KPMG Nunwood, advises that a universal persona template should be used across the business. She recommends that the template should typically consist of:
- A persona name, image or photo – depicting the customer segment that you are aiming to portray. “A name and photo helps to bring the customer segment ‘to life’ and means that stakeholders can more easily relate to the specific customer type,” says Smith.
- Key characteristics and key information about them regarding the nature of the subject (e.g. ‘My finances’), using any ‘hard facts’ that you have collated on the relevant customer segment. “This includes demographic traits, as well as any insight into the type and value of any products held with the brand versus any competitor providers.”
- Lifestyle characteristics and key rational and emotional needs, e.g. ‘What matters most to me?’ ‘My lifestyle’ and ‘My attitudes’. “This should use any additional information that you have on the segment, something likely to come from segment profiles or from more in-depth qualitative research.”
Spyer says that good personas typically consist of five parts:
- Needs and goals. What is your persona trying to do, why and by when?
- Motivations. What are their key triggers and barriers? What influences their thinking? And do they have an actual need or feeling pressure from elsewhere?
- Behaviours. Where do they find information? Is your persona spontaneous or do they research and plan every detail? What media channels do they like to use?
- Profile. Think about your persona’s demographics. It can also be useful to think about variables like price sensitivity, confidence with technology and amount of leisure time and whether your persona over- or under-indexes on them.
- Quotes and photos. Bring your personas to life. It’s important that they are stereotypes that feel real so give them a name, add comments captured through research and photos of what they look like.
Other information that should be accounted for in the template is transactional data, such as purchase histories and post-sale service records.
With the template in place, it’s now time to fill it out! While some buyer personas are built to be aspirational, if the personas in question are being used to support customer journey mapping, the profiles need to be built around real customers groups. Therefore, in order to fill out the template, you need to ensure you know all the information in question – and that means doing some deep customer research.
“If personas are created based on gut instinct rather than accurate data and defensible research, they’re not going to help you be more customer-centric,” warns Hinshaw. “In fact, the incorrect perceptions that these represent real customers or relevant (to your customer) situations can create significant issues.”
“You need to get away from your desk and computer, get out of your building and go! Talk to people, listen to them, meet your customers and stakeholders,” says Arne van Oosterom, senior partner and founder of DesignThinkers Group.
Be curious, realise you are full of biases, let go and open your mind.
“Be curious, realise you are full of biases, let go and open your mind. Ask people about their lives, their goals, their frustration. Ask open questions and let people tell you stories. Write everything down and make picture and videos. Get together with your team and cluster all the things you heard and try to discover patterns. Then get some customers to help you map their customer journey to enrich your understanding. Keep doing this until you know enough to move on. That moment will come.”
But Spyer recommends that persona work should also incorporate data above and beyond customer interviews, including existing information and the knowledge that exists within your own four walls.
“You can't just make your personas up. They should be informed by your data and research. This may mean kicking off new research that’s specific to your objectives. But we often find that a lot can be gained from working with existing research,” he notes.
“Involve a wide team in the development of your personas. Harness the knowledge and insight of your whole team, particularly those who are customer-facing. Personas shouldn’t be the sole domain of the marketing department.”
Finally, with the research conducted and the persona templates completed and verified by stakeholders within the organisation and the customers themselves, there is one final consideration – design.
“Personas need to be well-designed,” recommends Hinshaw. “This means they need to look and feel professional, incorporate basic information design principles (easy to scan at a high level, or dive into the data in more depth). We also like them to align to an organisation’s visual brand, helping to reinforce the notion that these are created and owned by the company, for its customers - which they should be, regardless.”
It is important to remember, however, that persona work doesn’t end there. While it provides the catalyst to build customer journey maps that are appropriate to this particular moment in time, the reality is that with business objectives, markets, products, services and customers all continuing to change over time, personas can become outdated.
Hinshaw notes: “We encourage customer experience teams to conduct regular reviews of persona to ensure they’re accurate, as well as proactively engaging across the business to stay on top of initiatives that need customer insight.
“For most businesses, revisiting persona as part of annual business planning is sufficient, though changes can occur at any time – and to the degree those changes affect your customers, your persona may need to be reassessed as well.”
About Neil Davey
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.