Why Customer Personas Matter

Why Customer Personas Matter

I’ve spent much of my life in the media business trying to define the audiences that our editorial products were targeting. The reason was very simple. Advertisers were looking to share their messaging with the audiences most likely to buy their products.

In the go-go days of print publications (those things called magazines), the audience research was pretty simple compared to today’s standards. A survey was mailed out to a reliable sampling of subscribers who would rate how they meshed with the buyer profiles advertisers were looking for. The more progressive publishers would do this surveying by phone!

Fast forward through the massive media industry transformation — from print publishing to digital media and now to performance-based data models. The notion of an audience profile obtained via mail and phone surveys is laughable. They’ve been replaced by tools that track user engagement online, driven by cookies stored in readers’ Web browsers.

Sophisticated algorithms now triangulate a variety of engagements across media and e-commerce platforms to develop profiles from which programmatic (automated) advertising is delivered. If you’re shopping for a pair of hiking boots on Zappos, you can almost be assured of seeing suggestions for hiking boots in an ad on Facebook.

Before the ad exchanges became more user friendly, I once researched and eventually purchased “My Little Pony” toys for my toddler nieces, and for months received every variety of baby toy and pony advertising that one could imagine.

Unlike consumer marketers, business-to-business marketers have the challenge of creating purchase personas through much less sophisticated and reliable means. The sheer number of influences involved in the purchase of an enterprise-wide deployment makes a “My Little Pony” scenario very challenging to accomplish.

This persona challenge is not limited to selling products or services. The need to define personas within an enterprise is just as critical as pinpointing the cash-carrying customers in the marketplace.

Every website or seminar related to enterprise IT strategy makes some reference to the ongoing need to develop a better understanding of “the businesses.” A key to this is the ability to develop a deep understanding of personas serviced by the IT organization, well beyond using LinkedIn to view their profiles.

I use the example of Georgia Department of Community Health’s (GDCH) healthcare provider personas (seen in the headline image above) to illustrate the exhaustive effort some enterprises put into understanding their internal customers.

First and most typical is the time and resources required to develop such a sophisticated profile. GDCH partnered with Georgia Tech to build the personas and the incredible detail related to each.

Second is that in cases where internal personas are developed, they tend to be based on job title or function, as opposed to the complex needs that the business partner has in the enterprise. GDCH takes great pains to detail the “motivations, concerns and frustrations” that these personas experience on the job, as well as tracking their organizational and personal dimensions on a slider scale.

Arguably, the final and greatest challenge to developing internal or buying personas is the outlier. I’ve worked on a number of projects in a variety of segments where the personas seemed to map very well with what I experienced on the inside and the outside. But upon further exploration, “shadow personas” were found that fell outside the more obvious norms. These personas had a dramatic effect on such areas as innovation, communications morale and purchase, creating a dead end to our other work.

In summary, a deep understanding of audience and users (customers, employees and beyond) can be incredibly helpful in delivering better, more productive solutions — whether it’s the right ad at the right time or an IT service that meets everyone’s needs in their own way. It might be a challenge to develop, but certainly worth the effort to try.

Stay tuned for the release of the groundbreaking HIMSS Media Lab Personas and Content Themes Study next month.