29 June 2007 ~ 19 Comments

2 Ways to Get Started With Personas (Part 1)

Who are your customers, really?I was having a conversation with the experience team at a major “entertainment” company after my presentation at the Internet Retailer conference a few weeks back. We were discussing ways they could get started on Personas, and how to overcome the challenges they’d faced thus far. Given that this dialog took place just off-stage, we had no expectation of privacy. Then again, I had no expectation that well over 100 retailers would be so interested in this conversation as well. It became “the presentation after the presentation”–so much so that the conference producer had to politely ask me to take the impromptu mob outside into the main hall… sorry again, Kurt 😉 –and I promised all those who wanted to listen in that I’d write up my thoughts and take them to a more appropriate vehicle. So, without further ado…

There are 2 ways to begin a Persona project:

1) Hire a firm to conduct research.

Level of difficulty: easy
Likelihood of success: minimal

Expect to cough up tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on this research–and the wise marketer would do everything in her power not to entertain discussions of ROI (at least positive) from this exercise. Expect the resulting research to create beautiful-sounding Personas and make excellent posters to put up on the wall. In some organizations, you may even expect a raise for a job well done, but you’ll profit more from selling all your company stock short. (Bryan chronicled this approach in his ClickZ column, but it’s worth diving into even further, because the underlying question marketer’s are asking when they hire a research firm is an understandable, but flawed one.)

The question being asked of the research is, “How do we know which types of people make up our audience?” Cough up the dough, create a survey, and you’ll find out something absurd, like your audience is made up of “Info-Driven types,” “Conquerors,” and “Browse-2-Buy” types. How did they determine that? They asked about past purchases, of course, and–naturally–those are good predictors of future behavior, right?

Let me know how that works out for you.

Our clients undoubtedly tire of hearing us over-communicate, “Believe what they do, not what they say they’ll do“. Why? It’s simple. People lie. Not intentionally per se, but between people telling you what they think you want to hear (in America, there’s a bias against being “wrong”), people telling you what they want to be perceived as (what they wish were the case), and finally, people telling you something they simply don’t know (the right brain makes the decisions, and the left brain articulates & rationalizes them, yet both sides of the brain “speak” in different languages. Ever played the telephone game?), it’s virtually impossible to separate the signal from the noise.

“Who makes up my audience?” isn’t the question to be concerned with; rather, “How will each different type of person approach and buy my product?” The smart marketer uses this last insight to align the sales process with their customers’ buying process.

Let’s look at a concrete example of why “who” makes up your audience is irrelevant, while understanding the “buying mode” they’re in is essential.

My mom is a Methodical personality type, meaning her preference dictates a logical process, and one that is rather deliberate in its pace. She works professionally as a bookkeeper and routinely catches oversights by the auditors of her books. She remarks with bewilderment that someone whose singular concern is maintaining hyper-accuracy of the data can so easily miss the details. Notice, she wouldn’t qualify the details as minute, though to many they would be. To a strong Methodical, no detail is too fine. When she buys, chances are she’ll ask 10 – 20 extra questions than most other buyers, and with each successful answer, she’ll gain a touch more confidence.

My preference shares her bias towards a logical process, but has a much faster pace; what we call a Competitive personality type. Whereas Methodicals need a sense of order (or structure) to their process to gain confidence over time, Competitives are perfectly comfortable living amongst the chaos, and letting intuition guide their decision making process. The Competitive type can quickly dismiss logical-sounding fluff (you know, the statistical correlations marketers present when they have no actual causation to report). Think like “The Donald,” and you’re probably closely resembling the Competitive’s approach. When he buys, he’s in a hurry, and just wants the bottom line.

The key word in the examples above, is preference. My mother doesn’t methodically choose where to get her nails done, or where to go for a special dinner. In both of those cases, she buys more experientially, favoring more of an emotional process, and eschewing her normal deliberate pace for a much quicker one. She’s quite comfortable giving it a whirl. After all, “How bad could it be”? (Spoken like a true Spontaneous type, she’s operating outside of her typical buying mode.)

I went to buy my first car right out of college and, despite my bias toward a logical process, did zero research on the ‘net–and never checked out a consumer report. I also didn’t use my typical fast pace; I was much more deliberate. I talked to other people who’d owned the car previously and asked for their opinions and experiences. I considered the car to be an extension of my personal brand. My process was almost purely emotional and, with the deliberate pace, was the complete opposite of my typical buying preference.

Had the manufacturer done market research and decided Competitive types were their #1 audience segment, what would they have done? Built a micro-site catering only to fast-paced, logical thinkers. If they did, the conversion rate would’ve likely been the same anemic 2.4% we see today (because, after all, that’s what most sites today do: cater to one type of person, usually resembling the CEO/founder or IT professional who put the site together in the first place).

The point is, knowing your audience’s type doesn’t tell you which mode they’ll be in once they buy your product. That’s what you want to know and, unfortunately, research can’t tell you the answer to that question. If it can, it’s totally different research than anyone has ever done before. It involves using live test subjects, and not in some contrived listening lab. It involves designing the experiment so that the subjects don’t know they’re participating, they’re actually operating according to their own motivations. It involves making the experience become the experiment.

Planning the customer experience in advance, so you can hypothesize motivations, will drive their buying process (read: what mode they’ll be in). Once you’ve properly accounted for motivations, you can test their actual behavior–in a real environment–thus proving your assumptions about their motivations and optimizing the experience accordingly. The level of difficulty is far higher than simply hiring a firm to conduct research, but the likelihood of success is infinitely higher. And there’s a process to it, so you don’t have to bite off the entire approach in one sitting. This process leads me back to where I started, the second way to get going on Personas.

To be continued . . .

[Read Part 2 to learn how you can build Personas from the ground up without costly research, and build in the feedback loop necessary to know where you’re right and where you need to focus additional energy.]

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