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How we use personas to design a content marketing strategy

How we use personas to design a content marketing strategy

By Conal McClure

Developing personas is one of the most critical pieces of work we undertake while developing a content marketing strategy. If something isn’t quite firing in your marketing, chances are there’s something in the persona that has been missed.

They give you a clear picture of your target audience by personifying their characteristics, buying motivators and insights into their buying journey, making them easy to distill and reference within the strategy.

I don’t use the word “critical” here lightly. If personas were just simply a cute way of describing your target audience by giving them faces and names (as seems to be often the case), then maybe they wouldn’t be that important.

Good personas are steeped in deep thinking, enough to reveal strategically significant insights that will underpin the entire strategy. Good personas strongly answer and reinforce the “Why?” of all your marketing activities, linking everything you do back to some insight grounded in the persona.

Good personas give you the angle for the strategy. Then they continue to inform the positioning, messaging, content to be written, nurture strategy and most effective call to actions. And good personas, are continually referenced even after the strategy is implemented. This continual refinement captures new insights gained along the way, deepening the value they provide – they become an IP asset.

Badly developed personas tend to get written up front, don’t really add anything much beyond what was already known before, then get filed away and never referred to again.

This article describes how I handle persona development. Keep in mind, this is just a look behind the curtain of my own personal approach. I’m not the ultimate authority here but in my work, this approach (that has evolved over time) significantly shapes the design of any strategy I create.

Also, keep in mind, I’ve skewed this heavily towards B2B content marketing of expertise that focusses on solving problems. The approach can look quite different if you switch any of those components out.

This article is structured into 3 sections.

  1. Some pointers
  2. What I put into a persona – a bit of a process
  3. How I tie the personas into the strategy

Let’s go!

 

Some pointers

They aren’t a person

The more a persona looks and feels like a real person, the better. Rather than just being a list of characteristics, personifying them in this way makes it easy to see them in our mind while developing content.

But they should only be a broad generalisation of a group of buyers that share a set of characteristics that help inform the underlying strategy of the campaign. A target audience can be sliced and diced in many ways, identifying the personas relevant and helpful to the strategy is part of the challenge to be figured out.  Actually, it’s not something you do once. You should be revisiting this and tweaking as you go.

 

The fewer personas the better, but not too few

This follows from the previous point.

Don’t go overboard creating personas for every nuance, permutation and combination.

Go too narrow or specific and your personas all start to look the same with just minor or subtle differences. This just makes it hard to be clear on who you are targeting and why. Conversely, go too broad and there’s no target to aim for. Either way, your personas become far less useful.

You need to strike a balance that lands you on the minimum number of personas that are useful; just enough to properly define a distinct target group.

 

Don’t be superficial

This is a common problem. Too often I see personas that provide very limited strategic insight.

Good personas don’t focus on the basics. They dig into the real problems, pain points, aspirations. More significantly, these are not necessarily the ones the persona is aware of or thinks to tell you they have. In fact, homing in on the things they don’t know is often where most of the strategic gold comes from. See my article here.

 

Don’t mark them done too quickly

Because there’s no clear concept of what “personas done well” looks like, it’s too easy to mark this piece of work off as done when you’ve merely scratched the surface.

Resist the urge to move on too quickly. If the depth isn’t there, then they’ll add little value. Spend the time reading between the lines, getting inside their head finding the nuggets of insight. Then keep revisiting this while working on others or while working on the strategy.

The personas are probably never actually done!

 

What I put into a persona … and sort of a process

As most of my clients are experts at servicing their target audience, I usually have access to fairly extensive intel. We try to leverage this as much as possible, supplemented with some research and interviews with some real people in the target audience where needed.

My role is initially to draw out the key insights. A lot of questions are asked like “Why?” while trying to dig under the surface to challenge preconceived ideas.

This often means reading between the lines. Buyers are often motivated by hidden agendas. In B2B marketing for example, buyers are not necessarily motivated by the aims of the organisation even though they think they are. There’s often some element of selfish ambition in there. Often these buyers will want good outcomes for the organisation, but usually because it reflects well on them. Thinking along these lines can give some really interesting out of the box ideas for how to approach the market.

So, with that said, following are some components of thinking that I find useful to work through.

 

Identify the different types of people who are part of the buyer’s journey

This includes people who affect the decision-making process of buyers, not just the buyers themselves.

A good place to start is to distinguish between the economic buyers and the technical buyers.

The technical buyers often get you in the door, off the back of some kind of problem they face. They are meticulous around the details of how you solve their problems, features and benefits. Especially in larger organisations, they’ll almost always lack the authority to write the cheque. In many cases, they’ll also lack the necessary influence to convince someone to write the cheque.

The economic buyer has authority to commit to the sale but is more concerned with the broader implications of any engagement. They’ll look at the bigger picture, ROI, broader business implications.

Analysing both types of buyers, sheds some insight into the nuances of their buying behaviour and underlying motivations. This will give some clues to the kind of information and support they are going to be looking for through the journey.

And along the way are influencers such as advisors, family, other customers and suppliers. They aren’t buyers themselves but can be important ways for buyers to be introduced to your products and services. As a potential target, it is always worth thinking about these fit into the picture.

 

Identify a set of general characteristics

For each of the buyers and influencers identified as potential targets, look for a set of distinguishing demographic data that broadly describes this audience. This includes age, gender, personal motivators like hobbies and interests outside work, typical career progressions, family structure etc.

Obviously, these are generalised and only some are strategically significant.

 

Choose a photo and a name

I always assign a photo to help frame a picture in my mind. Just the process of looking for a photo (often on Google images) helps me think through characteristics of the target audience.

I generally prefer real photos of people.

 

Write a brief paragraph on their story

Doesn’t need much, but a bit of an introductory statement on who they are and how they ended up becoming one of your personas.

 

Ask – Why are they accepting the status quo?

I find this question useful to really get inside the head of potential buyers.

Buyers move through a journey, called unsurprisingly “The Buyer’s Journey”. The first stage of this journey we call “acceptance of the status quo”. Buyers stuck here, accept their situation (if they are even aware of it) and have no intention to pursue any kind of solution.

Rattling the status quo cage is critical if you are to move them forward in the journey.

We tend to focus a lot of effort on this early stage of the journey, trying to understand the reasons and mindset behind their acceptance of this. Reasons can often stem from factors such as:

  • Lack of awareness they have a problem, or that things could be better
  • Lack of belief that anyone can solve the problem
  • False perceptions or assumptions – e.g. will be too expensive, high risk
  • Workplace culture, pressure from influencers etc.
  • Not enough self-interest

I’ll invest most of my time contemplating what they aren’t telling me, reading between the lines as far as possible.

This early stage in the buyer journey is a powerful spot to inject your influence. There are a few good reasons for this:

  1. The size of the market stuck here is exponentially bigger than those ready to buy.
  2. Less competition, so easier to attract attention.
  3. Arriving early in the buying cycle, and nurturing the places you into a stronger position to win the sale when they are ready to buy.
  4. Allows us to strongly tie into the unaware pain points.

 

Ask – What would commit you to change?

Like all these questions, it’s useful to ask people who represent this persona what they think would cause them to let go of the status quo and seek change. But it’s also useful to ponder answers they might hypothetically give. Just working through this in your head forces you to roleplay in your mind and see things from their perspective.

Answers to this question give you some idea of what kind of content to create that would start to loosen the status quo and challenge ideas that are keeping them there.

I usually distill the answers into a series of bullet points for easy reference.

 

What they don’t know

This highlights problems they are likely unaware of but may bubble to the surface if they don’t change. Thinking through these problems gives more scope to trigger movement beyond the status quo.

The more things the persona is unaware of, the greater your scope to educate them differently, gain their attention, demonstrate a depth of expertise and nurture them to an ideal client.

I’ll spend a bit of time thinking these through and defining them clearly, so they become a useful reference point when building out the strategy.

 

What their buyer journey looks like

It’s often the case, the journey will start out with the technical buyer. If this persona is a technical buyer, be aware that they may not have the capability to progress the purchase through to completion. They may get bogged down in technical detail, not have sufficient influence with decision makers.

Identify areas in their buyer journey where roadblocks are likely to be hit. As they move through stages of researching and comparing solutions, identify effective tools or information that helps support their ability to sell you in and keep moving forward.

Influencers are important here. What other personas could be introduced that may help overcome the challenges?

 

Where do they go for help currently?

It’s important to understand where they hang out, what publications they read, what industry websites they refer to. Do they interact with social channels like LinkedIn or Facebook?

 

Iterate and refine

Personas should always be a work in progress. Having developed the persona this far, they need to be tested against the audience.

Going through the persona with someone in the target audience will also prompt them to think about their own situation in a different way to how they’ve usually thought about it before. Channel this feedback into the personas to refine their accuracy and level of insights.

It’s also important at this point to look for opportunities to consolidate overlapping personas or identify new ones. Each persona should justify its existence as a discreet and strategically significant target buyer, with an aim to end up with as few as possible.

 

How I tie the personas into the strategy

The whole point of doing this persona work is to inform the strategy. It’s why we structure our approach the way we do. I’d go as far as to say that the strength of the strategy is underpinned by the quality of the persona work completed.

With this in mind, a typical content marketing strategy boils down to the following:

  1. Make your firm as attractive as possible to the personas
  2. Disrupt their acceptance of the status quo, educating with enough information to move through the buyer journey
  3. Elevate your expertise in their eyes
  4. Frame your offer to convert the right kind of clients

 

Make your firm as attractive as possible to the personas

First, develop a market position that speaks directly and succinctly to their problems sets and convincingly connects them to outcomes you create. Without going deep on the personas, you end up with fluffy, ambiguous, catch-all messaging that is, for the most part, ineffective when selling expertise.

There’s a range of assets that need to be created to support this positioning, but a couple of key ones worth mentioning here are lead baits and the website.

Lead Baits

Lead baits are short, succinct, hard-hitting messages that are designed to attract attention. If the personas are done well, you’ll be armed with some strong issues to bring to the surface that will naturally raise their curiosity.

The persona done well will bring clarity to what these most compelling problems are and keep you focussed on clearly articulating the answer. This will give a clear rationale for the journey you plan to take them on after they click.

Lead baits can be tuned into ads or sponsored posts in social channels that drive traffic back to some supporting content in the website. An important part of the strategy will identify the best sources to get under the noses of personas.

Website

Your website will be the strongest positioning asset you have. If you’ve done your work well, any personas landing here will be quickly convinced they’ve arrived in the right place.

It’s critical to lay out a strong case for why you deserve their attention. The problems you identify and the way you relate to them will all be firmly anchored in the personas developed.

There is a bit of a formula we tend to lean on. You can check out our website home page for a real example where we break it into separate panels down the page, leading the reader through a logical presentation of the situation to solution.

In a nutshell, we break it up along the following lines:

  1. Develop a strong positioning statement. This is a short and sharp statement that precisely identifies what you do and who you do it for. For example, in our case, the statement is “Marketing for partners who want to grow their professional services firm.”
  2. Pointedly articulate their current situation. They should recognise themselves here, almost like you’ve implanted a spy camera. We lead with the intro “Are these characteristic of your firm?”
  3. Describe their problems and frustrations. We use the lead in “You want and realise you should be doing more in the digital space as …”
  4. Paint a picture of their desired outcomes. Our section is introduced with “We transform firms for the digital age and help them make the cultural shift required to succeed by:”
  5. Describe how we achieve those outcomes.
  6. Educate. Offer content to help demonstrate our understanding of their problem space

 

Disrupt their acceptance of the status quo, educating with enough information to start moving through the buyer journey

Moving prospects through the buyer journey needs different kinds of content at different times to serve different purposes. All content written should be created to:

  1. Disrupt their thinking, raise alarm bells on things they don’t know but lead to action.
  2. Reframe problems – a gradual process of education to help align their thinking with your perspective.
  3. Clarify pain that never thought was linked to a problem and demonstrate how it could be solved.
  4. Practical DIY action they can implement themselves.
  5. Help with buyer decisions to compare options

You’ll also find that a rich set of personas will highlight similar problem themes. These include problems known and unknown, barriers that inhibit progress through the buyer’s journey, frustrations we can tap into. These all help shape the topics of content that need to be created. We call these content themes.

Any time an article is written for example within a content theme, you know where it sits in the strategy and why you created it. It’s traceable to a content theme, which is in turn aligns it back to a strategically significant piece of insight captured by a persona.

 

Elevate your expertise in their eyes

All this content is designed to not just move buyers through the buying cycle, but also to provide some substantial demonstration of expertise by providing clarity and insight into problems.

Playing the role of educator at this stage, really cements your influence over potential clients and ensures you are in the box seat at the pointy end of the buyer’s journey.

 

Frame your offer to convert the right kind of clients

Despite equipping your personas with a highly convincing case for the need to take action, there can be many reasons why they don’t become a client.

Barriers will always exist in the form of perceived risk, costs (time and money), incumbent relationships with existing advisors, competing priorities. Making it easier for buyers on the journey to engage with your firm beyond just receiving content represents a significant next step.

We often use our personas to find opportunities to develop what we call bite-sized engagements. These are engagements designed to provide smaller steps for prospective clients to take. They’ll be typically lower risk, so an easier sell and decision to commit, but provide a stepping stone into a much broader engagement. It gives a chance for both parties to test the waters.

Having said that, of course, some barriers are important to have in place. They filter out those who are not ideal clients and represent the rules of engagement that make your business work.

Once you have figured out which barriers are inhibiting the conversion of quality clients, work on developing 1 or 2 bite-sized engagements that address those barriers directly.

 

Wrap Up

Personas are such a large part of the strategy, that not having them may mean you don’t really have a strategy.

Admittedly, it’s easy to assume you know your target audience well enough, or you have a rough picture of personas in your head, but this is just a cop-out to not put the work in. Spend the time creating them in the first place, revisit them regularly and keep placing personas at the center of your strategy. It’s the only way to remain on track.

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