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FutureNow Article
Friday, Jun. 29, 2007

2 Ways to Get Started With Personas (Part 1)

By Howard Kaplan
June 29th, 2007

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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Comments (19)

  1. Howard,

    I agree with you that ‘asking’ customers for preferences or feedback has never served to to reveal reality. That is why we profess that actual observation of customers and their behaviors is much valuable than the traditional surveys or secret shopper approaches.

    I profess that you can’t outsource customer experience, the interaction with the customer is too strategic to leave it to someone to do it for you, or to tell you about it.

    I look forward to Part II.

    Rob Howard
    CEO, Clearbrick LLC

  2. Your assessment of Persona development option #1 is BRUTAL (and yet amusing, in a ghoulish sort of way)! Unfortunately, I think you make the case that it’s also pretty accurate.

    I am FAR from an expert in the whole concept of developing and applying Personas, but from a “beginner’s mind,” here are some areas I think there is a lot of confusion among those not as steeped in the methodology as you and others that “get it” better than most of us…

    TYPE vs. MODE– you do a good job w/ your mother story helping articulate the difference. Not always obvious at first blush to many.

    DEMOGRAPHIC vs. PERSONA– yes, I was there during the “after session” at Internet Retailer (no apologies necessary), and it was obvious that many folks who have spent TONS of time and money on DEMOGRAPHIC profiling have a hard time distinguishing that from Personas. Or perhaps more accurately, after having spent so much time and money on demongraphic research and technology, it’s a bitter pill to swallow that it’s of limited value in developing usable Personas.

    “PERSONA-FICATION” vs. PERSONALIZATION– Bryan addresses this a bit in the ClickZ article you reference. While not a direct correlation to persuasion architecture, I thought the YesMail presentation at IR gave some good examples of where “personalization” as we’ve come to conveniently define it falls short in understanding the MODE a visitor is in at the time of a touch– be that online or via email.

    “UI” vs. CONTENT– I like what Bryan says about the persuasion “UI” being the content rather than the navigation (my paraphrasing). My understanding of the proper application of a Persona-orientation (if you’ll forgive the Newtonian physics metaphors) is NOT in reducing sales process FRICTION found in UI, navigation, linear sales processes, etc., but to increase the GRAVITATION effect drawing the guest into a sphere of influence (persuasion) based on really understanding them (and their needs, motivations at POA) rather than just conveniently labeling them.

    My thoughts and observations as a relative “newbie” to the converstation, for what their worth. That and $4.60 will get you priority mail postage…

  3. I agree that most traditional market research is a laugh. A colleague of mine makes this obvious with the following typical research question:
    “Can you please tell us why you did not buy a white shirt from our company yesterday?”

  4. Kurt,

    Great comments! I really enjoyed your Newtonian physics metaphor.

  5. [...] Part 1 of this post, I eluded to a process to plan the customer experience around facilitating their buying process [...]

  6. [...] 2 Ways to Get Started With Personas (Part 1) Perception is Reality… At Least That’s What it Seems Like [...]

  7. [...] Part 1 of this post, I eluded to a process to plan the customer experience around facilitating their buying process [...]

  8. [...] Fabulous article at on how a buyer’s state of mind may be different when considering … Gregarious FeedFlare reddit_url = ‘’; Click to share this on your choice of 14 social networks [...]

  9. [...] Once you get them to click on your Google Adword you need to provide them with the proper scent and persuasive experience in order to get them to take the action you want them to take. Very few businesses make money [...]

  10. Howard,

    Off the top of my head, I would put your Persuasion Architecture this way.

    Visiting a website is like taking a dump.

    Unlike the bear in the woods, we humans are all driven to make use of a lavatory from time to time as we go about our daily perambulations. Some days we need to evacuate quicker than others.

    Say, for instance, you chose the wrong Chinese restaurant, and discovered that the new-age, interior designer had so disguised the toilet that you could not navigate your way around to accomplish what was necessary in the few seconds you had before…explosion. Well, you can imagine your dismay.

    Familiarity and ease of use can be vital under such circumstances.

    And, yet, there are those occasions when we have more time on our hands, and the visit to the throne room is one of meditation and scholarship. “Bob, do you need an enema!” my mother would shout through the door, as my father did the NY Times crossword puzzle for hours.

    For those visitors, your website should have fun, engaging content.

    Alas, while sitting on the can, many of us take stock of our surroundings and shape our perceptions by what we see.

    Am I in a god-awful, service station toilet and should sell all my stock in Mobil? Am I in the spa suite at Billagio’s text-messaging my friends to come upstairs quick and check it out. Or perhaps I’m the guest of a wealthy business acquaintance and realize — “I want what he has!” — and, subsequently, to know this person better.

    The smart website, therefore, needs to be aware that different people have different agendas, which may switch at any moment, depending on their ever- mutating situation in life.

    If I may continue to use my lavatory analogy…

    …family members look for their toothbrush. Guests hunt for soap and hand towels. Drug addicts rifle the medicine cabinet. Lovers rummage for condoms and lubrication.

    In short, people who come to the same place may want different things.

    How often have we tried to decipher the hieroglyphics on a new-fangled shower knob only to be scalded in the process?

    A website must anticipate all who come to visit, and not only give people what they want, but make it easy for folks to get what they want.

    If they get burned, you get burned.

    If they can’t find the Bounty…the safety pins…the deodorant…the People magazine…the Oxycotin…or figure out how to defecate into the Kohler San Rafael Two-piece French Curve with Ingenium flush technology, they will go somewhere else.

    You cannot stop Mother Nature.

    Shit happens.


  11. I love these comments- newtonian physics and scatology both!

  12. [...] What are their underlying needs? How will they be using the camera? To address motivations, learn how to create real customer personas that transcend demographics and [...]

  13. [...] more in-depth instruction on how to creating personas for your business, read Part 1 and Part 2 of Howard Kaplan's series on "How to Get Started with [...]

  14. [...] Two Ways to Get Started With Personas (Part 1) [...]

  15. [...] FutureNow use to form personas.  If you’re new to personas, we suggest you take a detour and read this overview and then part 2 of how to get started with [...]

  16. [...] FutureNow use to form personas.  If you’re new to personas, we suggest you take a detour and read this overview and then part 2 of how to get started with [...]

  17. [...] easily found right on the first page of your site? Customers on mobile generally speaking fit into competitive/spontaneous personas: they need information quickly and want to move on with what they’re doing. Do you make it [...]

  18. “Very few businesses make money”? If businesses weren’t making money, they wouldn’t exist!

  19. [...] they need to feel comfortable taking that action?) start to fall out into different groups (ie. personas) whose unique communication styles will impact the scenarios you have to deliver in your efforts to [...]

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