4 Principles For A Human-Centered Approach To Personas in Marketing

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Tony Zambito

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Sophia #9 100 Strangers
Sophia #9 100 Strangers (Photo credit: Just Ard)

Often studied in psychology, is the phenomenon of what people say and do is not always what they mean.  Lurking in the sub-conscious as well as on conscious levels are guarded perceptions, defense mechanisms, mental images, prejudices, and etc.  Often needing in-depth qualitative studies in social psychology to determine how groups of people think, behave, and make use of language.

In social psychology, archetypes are often used to help communicate the social psychological dynamics of people.  Helping psychologists to translate their qualitative research into meaningful insights and portrayals of people in a social context.

In the business world, marketers and sellers must especially be on guard for this type of social psychological phenomenon when what people say may not actually be what they mean.  The use of personas in marketing helps us to understand customers and buyers deeply within a social and cultural context.  Giving us insight into how purchase decisions are influenced as well as helping us to connect with customers on the things, which matter most to them.

Sometimes, and often lately, such efforts stray far from this intention.

Inhuman Personas

A disturbing pattern I have noticed recently is personas used in a marketing context, particularly buyer personas, are not really sounding like personas.  While they have been adopted more widely, I am afraid some businesses are adopting in ways providing little value nor representing true personas.  Serving more as profiles versus personas, which give insight into what really matters and what people really mean.

Recently, I have been doing helpful reviews of personas previously created. With people who believed they had received the right level of guidance but somehow are not getting the results they expected.  Something struck me hard when in the process of reviews.  It is this:

The personas did not sound very human.

Personas, in a B2B context and particularly buyer personas, can stray far from their original intentions and design methodology.  Which provides the most value when the purpose is to help us understand the human story of customers and buyers.  Yes, it is important to understand how purchase decisions are made and why.  However, it is equally important to understand this within the context of a human story.

Product-Speak And Corporate-Speak

The mad rush to fill the void of buyers conducting their own research and evaluations before sales intervention with content has led to a narrow focus on the buying process.  Not in truly understanding the human story and context taking place.  The result is personas in marketing look and sound very corporate.

Personas in marketing can become very corporate indeed.  Filled with product-speak and corporate-speak.  Filled with jargon-related product-driven and sales-driven terminology.  Where we have personas laden with bullet point reference to buying criteria, KPI’s, ROI’s, KSF’s, objections, risks, products, and more.  Sounding very corporate-speak and not very human at all.  Leading to very little understanding of the human story involved in purchase decisions.

Human-Centered Personas

In order for personas, particularly buyer personas in a B2B setting, to have true value in helping organizations to learn about their customers and buyers deeply, they must be more human, empathetic, and authentic.  They must tell the story of the human experience and offer contextual guidance.

There are four principles modern marketers can keep in mind to be guided by human-centered personas – whether they are buyer personas, customer personas, or user personas in a marketing context:

Focus on the contextual situations. Many buyer persona initiatives, for example, are approached from a non-contextual approach.  They are approached from a buying process and “deal” approach, which in my book is a profiling approach.  When you do this, you wind up with sales-driven and product-driven buyer personas covered with corporate-speak.

Listen to and see your customers. To get to know your customers involves qualitative listening and seeing. Using qualitative contextual inquiry and other qualitative research techniques to understand what goals matter.  To my first point, when buyer personas in particular are approached from a “deal” perspective, most companies will rely either on internal data and sales knowledge or if buyer interviews are done, they stem from recent win or lost deals.  When this happens – you wind up with personas, which are sales-driven “deal” speak.

Do not confuse intelligence with insight. The word “insight” is so overplayed today in marketing, it seems any type of basic intelligence is called an insight.  Unfortunately, this also means basic intelligence information related to selling is called an insight and contained in personas.  From a sales profiling as well as qualifying perspective, you absolutely need to know about customer priorities, initiatives, KPI’s, purchase criteria’s, and the likes – these have existed for decades.  Persona-based research is designed to uncover revealing behavioral as well as humanistic insights, which can often be unarticulated and not so obvious both to the seller and the buyer at first.  By pre-determining or labeling your intelligence needs as insights beforehand, you are closing the window to true revealing insights into the human experience.

Use personas to model human-centered interactions. The end goal of personas in marketing should not be to wind up with a 1 or 2-page description piled with corporate-speak.  The end goal of personas in marketing is to help us understand what matters to people, what goals they are attempting to accomplish, and serves as an informing guide for developing human-centered marketing approaches.  To reach this end goal, it involves understanding the use of scenario design and mental models as well as story-based modeling.  These are very core and essential elements of persona development – even more so as the digital age accelerates.

By following these principles, you can avoid buyer interviews in which people end up saying what they do not really mean and personas, which can be rendered meaningless.

Human Understanding

Oftentimes, when personas are developed without contextual-based qualitative research and approached from strictly a buying process deal aspect, they do not have a very long shelf life. They do not serve as the archetypal living and breathing representation of customers or buyers. One of the key underlying foundations of personas has always been to bring human-centeredness to understanding people’s use of as well as purchase of products or services.

With the advent of the digital age, it is becoming increasingly important to develop a more human understanding of people, whose personal and professional lives intersect.  Our goal being to understand and to tell their stories about what our customers are attempting to achieve and how we can help.

More importantly, adopting a human-centered approach to personas in marketing can help you to become part of your customers’ story.