The most successful content marketers understand their audience like they know themselves. Here’s how to best understand your audience to create the most relevant content.

The idea of personas as a tool to focus a marketing message can be traced back to a golf course in California, in 1983, as software developer Alan Cooper stalked the links, waving his arms and talking out loud.

But he wasn’t crazy and he wasn’t talking to himself.

Cooper was wrestling with making a hard-to-use project management program more user-friendly. He had the idea of interviewing acquaintances and colleagues who might one day use the program, and who could answer questions from their unique perspectives.

One woman he spoke to at length was Kathy, a real client from a company called Carlick Advertising. Kathy’s job was managing the traffic on big projects.

Cooper was waving his arms and talking to Kathy about her unique project management needs, explaining how his program could help her.

Every day he walked the course, as his updated code took a long 1980s hour to upload.

‘Kathy’ was the first recorded persona at work to solve a marketing challenge.

It wasn’t until Cooper wrote a chapter on personas in his 1998 book, The Inmates Are Running The Asylum, that the idea took off in the software industry, because of its simplicity and effectiveness.

He started to use personas more and more, as his understanding of their effectiveness grew.

“I presented my designs from the points of view of (personas) Chuck, Cynthia and Rob instead of from my own. The results were dramatic. Programmers could clearly see the sense in my designs because they could identify with these hypothetical archetypes. From then on, I always presented design work using one of the personas, and eventually even the … engineers began to talk about ‘what Cynthia would do’ or ‘whether Chuck could understand’ some dialog box. The product was so successful that it defined a new product segment,” Cooper wrote.

How exactly do we define a persona? Marketing writer Tony Zambito offers a great definition; they are “research-based archetypal (modeled) representations of who buyers are, what they are trying to accomplish, what goals drive their behavior, how they think, how they buy, and why they make buying decisions”.

Creating an effective content persona is about putting the customer’s needs firmly at the centre – what are their interests, challenges and questions? What motivates them? What are their likes and dislikes?

The more real your audience is to you, the easier it is to create content that’s real to them.

Personas can improve customer experience, increase conversion rates, create more repeat business and increase revenue and profitability. A Cintell benchmarking study on personas found that “companies that exceed lead and revenue goals were 2.2 times more likely to have and document personas than companies that miss these targets.”

Here’s how well-crafted personas can make it easier to create content marketing that starts meaningful conversations with the people that matter.

Build your personas on research

Personas are fictional characters. But to work, they must be rooted in reality. Without deep research, using real people, personas can end up being so broad as to be meaningless.

Ask these key questions to help create meaningful personas:

  • Include demographic data like gender, age, whether they have children or dependents, annual household income and where the person lives. It can also include open-ended questions like “describe your career path?”.
  • What is the size of their company? What industry do they work in?
  • What is their job role and title, who do they report to or who reports to them, and how is their success measured? What does a typical day look like? What skills are needed for their job? What are the most common difficulties in the role? What tools do they currently use?
  • Where do they prefer to get information from. What time of day do they do the most reading? How often do they go looking for information?

When Mahlab was developing personas for our work with The Pharmaceutical Association of Australia, we undertook bespoke qualitative and quantitative research, chatting to real members of each persona, getting to know them better and testing ideas with them. Like Cooper spoke to Kathy, use your research to get to know your target audience so you can put their real needs first.

Build personas into the process

Once you have created a persona, your content writers have to use them properly. They need to be built into your processes. For instance, if your content calendar has a column for the persona being targeted with each piece of content, those personas will stay front of mind and ensure that you are producing content specifically for your different target audiences.

Let’s say you’re bouncing around an idea for a story. The first question you should ask yourself is ‘Will Barry care?’. If yes, then ask ‘Why will Barry care?’.

Knowing what you know about Barry and his challenges and motivations, get inside his head and interrogate your topic for the angle that will really push Barry’s buttons.

Case study: personas at work in the real world

Engineers Australia (EA) has more than 100,000 members, across all engineering disciplines. Mahlab undertook in-depth research to build personas that would inform our relaunch of the association’s magazine and our refresh of EA’s content brand.

Surprisingly, we found engineers didn’t define themselves by their discipline. Instead, they focused on industry – a structural engineer in the defence industry would have more in common with an electrical engineer in defence than with a structural engineer in city planning. This key understanding helped us approach our content in an entirely different and more efficient way.

Mahlab launched create magazine, create digital, an e-newsletter and a paid amplification strategy based on these insights. Our content team of journalists with engineering backgrounds uses the in-depth personas to create content that informs and inspires the very real people in engineering roles across various industries.

The importance of this relevance is clear, and getting it right has benefited readers and EA alike, drawing 441,555 unique visitors to create in the site’s first 10 months.

Powerful personas worked to increase readership of EA content and transformed the association’s brand perception.

Hannah Dixon contributed to the writing of this piece.

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