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Tuesday, Jun. 23, 2009 at 10:28 am

Dear Confused By Personas

By John Quarto-vonTivadar
June 23rd, 2009

A student at the University of British Columbia Web Analytics course reached out to us via Twitter to ask some questions about creating personas, specifically Persuasion Architecture® Personas and the information is important enough that we thought we’d share our response:

“Are you saying that we shouldn’t bother with creating multiple personas with granular details but rather focus on creating only a few (4 if we use the logical-emotional, quick-deliberate quadrant)? But if we add the stages of the buying cycle in there, we could end up with [too many] personas. This is still unclear to us.”

First off, thanks for reiterating these common issues. You probably won’t be surprised to hear us suggest what we’ve said on numerous occasions before: start with what you can handle. If you are unsure of how to proceed, that in itself tells you to shoot for the simpler solution by focusing on the *actual* goal, which is to improve conversion, sell more widgets, get more leads, etc. If you do nothing, you obviously will just continue to have the same results you already have. But if you over-reach for “perfection” to the point at which your eyes glaze over and you become catatonic then you’ll also have the same results you already have. So start small.  A subtle and deep Persona development that doesn’t get implemented correctly is hardly better than using the quadrant approach, and both approaches will definitely work on the important stuff that ought to be improved first.  In fact, if that wasn’t the case, then you’d have to worry, right? Navy blue is still blue, right? An Anjou pear is still a pear, right? And meerkats are still…oops, ditch that last.

And just to let you know: there’s no particular reason that smaller companies should find this harder than larger companies…just the opposite, in fact. We had a recent client, a *huge* technology company, who’s marketing pros convinced themselves they “got personas” and then wondered why their recently-developed PA personas were different than their expectations. So they missed the real point, which is not to reinforce a company’s self-centric approach, but instead to re-think their marketing to be customer-centric. Smaller companies tend to be more likely to implement change, often because fewer sacred cows need be put out to pasture before improvement can begin.

In short, go with the quadrant approach (or even one-dimensional, if need be!) and move on from there. Add in buying cycle, but don’t add a dimension just to keep the count “evened out” — add in distinct differences that result in a required change in persuasion, not a change in demographics. A Spontaneous persona, for example, will often breeze through her Early and Middle stage buying process faster than you can model for, so there’s nothing to be gained by inferring a difference that cannot be measured. Think of buying a candy bar — the buying process is fast for pretty much everyone, except outlier demographic specialties (a diabetic, a seed nuts allergy, a strict bodybuilder, etc). I often refer to this as “the demography seasons the modality.”

Now think of buying a house — surely the Spontaneous is going to go through a completely different process buying a home than buying a candy bar. There will be a Early buying process, and a Middle as well before the house is chosen, inspected the deed is signed and the lawyers paid. The nature of the underlying goal influences how the customer goes about achieving that goal, even when she has a pre-disposition to act in one preferred mode or another. Got it? I like to refer to this as, “The topology mediates the modality.” How much of your content strategy today answers the Methodical’s early stage buying needs?

“We also began questioning the practicality of designing at the page level for all of our personas. Some of us feel that it is possible to use personas for creating a scent trail at the individual page level if personas are very clearly defined but we also believe very large international sites would become extremely cluttered if multiple personas were used in the persuasion architecture of each page. Could you explain your
position on this?”

Another great question, probably because we hear this one a lot as a “freeze” point for larger companies. The answer is almost *never* to be creating multiple page versions, one variation for each persona. That’s not working for personas; that’s working for personalization in an aggregated populance. And if that worked, you’d've seen that emerge a decade ago as a solution that everyone would have jumped on. The reason it doesn’t work is that Persuasion Architecture(TM) Personas aren’t designed to be stereotypes of demographic groups; instead, they are representative models for the buying process and there’s a limited number of ways that the Human Operating System works. Each of us is a little mix of each of the modalities, and even that varies in time, place and context. The Personas are models; the Customers are not. So each of us, as individuals, exhibit varying relative balances of the PA Personas at each step in our own buying process.

So when you design for persuasive scenarios you’re optimizing how the various personas *could* move through the site *persuasively*. Not all possible paths; just those paths along which effective persuasion occurs (that distinction will drive your IT folks crazy. Sorry! ). And to answer the final part of your question, the question of internationalization is a good one, but again is answered by the persuasive process. If someone from Japan buys a camera the same way as someone from Poland, then your issue is one of language. If those processes are culturally different, then the persuasion is different, and has to be analyzed to really lead to optimization (and you’ll have to also determine for yourself, if, say, one quadrant type is different from one culture to another while another quadrant might remain the same), and then you layer the internationalization on top of that.  Usually, though,  when one mode changes due to culture, all modes change and the relative mix of modes changes as a whole.

Again, keep the goal in mind: more conversion, more sales, more leads. You’re looking to optimize your sales system by optimizing all parts of the process. You correctly comment that this can get complex and, in your words, “extremely cluttered”. The “clutter” claim often comes when a company attempts to graft persuasion architecture on top of information architecture — without having understood the persuasion first, an information system was designed and implemented un-prepared to persuade — of *course* it’s going to turn out complex and cluttered. Our experience has been that when you plan the persuasion first, you’ll actually be amazed at how un-cluttered your very talented information architect’s work will be since she’ll be working to a plan for persuasive paths.

I hope that helps! Let us know if you need any further clarification.

This post is intended to respond to the questions we were asked. If you want to know more about personas I’d recommend you read our books or if not download two documents: our Persuasion Architecture (PDF) & Getting Started with Building Persona (PDF) whitepapers.

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Comments (14)

  1. Great article. I was also wondering about these questions during the UBC course. One question – how do you cater for two opposing personas on a webpage? Wouldn’t the scent trail confuse the other personas?

    Btw the “Getting Started with Building Persona” link is broken.

  2. The Persuasion Architecture whitepaper answers the question of what you do with opposing personas on a web page.

  3. Thank you for your comments!

  4. Thanks for this! Great stuff. :)

  5. Interesting article but I am unable to open the pdf “Getting Started with Building Persona” – says file is corrupt. Are you able to fix the pdf file or link? Thanks.

  6. [...] Dear Confused By Personas | FutureNow’s GrokDotCom / Marketing Optimization Blog — 1:21pm via [...]

  7. [...] gives one type of valuable customer view, while personas offer another. Bryan Eisenberg provided an excellent overview of how personas work that’s worth checking [...]

  8. Can you repeat the part all about the things? (Favorite Homer Simpson quote).

    Seriously though, I am going to have to print this out, sit down, and read it thoroughly considering it has come from a UBC Web Analytics course. I wish my University offered a course like that.

  9. Thanks from everyone on UBC course for your comments – they really helped.

    Having seen a marketing agency’s perspective on personas, it appears they have decided to create personas per product line.

    If we add product line into the equation we have, say

    3 product lines

    multiplied by

    4 persona types

    multiplied by

    3 buying stages

    That looks like 36 permutations and building blocks for the persuation architecture to work properly. My instinct would be to focus the two strongest/most common personas but to maintain the numbers of product lines and buying stages. What do others think ?



  10. Dan, that’s not PA personas, that’s just segmentation with lipstick and called personas (cuz agencies can’t get 6 figures for just segmentation).

    We had one client “back when” who came to us claiming they had 80-ish personas. Of course, it all turned out to be segmentation differentiated in one demogrpahic dimension.

    Generally speaking, the typical topology will yield 4-7 personas, sometimes a few more in the most complex of situations. When PA is done right, it will “jump out at you” as to how to “reduce degeneracy”.

    Note, that’s the physics use of the term ‘degnerate’ — as in “having the same energy despite having a different shape” — which I think sums it nicely.

  11. [...] they are asked, so look at the page in terms of why visitors would be on that page.  Note that a persona-based or scenario-based analysis helps with [...]

  12. wonderful post
    I think this sentence “keep the goal in mind: more conversion, more sales, more leads” is really useful.
    thanks for the sharing

  13. Thanks so much for the depth and understanding at which you covered the topic.
    it’s a useful piece of information not only for me but for many others.

  14. Thanks for this! Great stuff.

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John is the co-author of the best-selling Always Be Testing and 3 other books. You can friend him on Facebook, though beware his wacky swing dancer friends, or contact him directly at

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