Personas: Using fiction to inspire fact

Richard and Linda Ames run a real estate company out of a south Florida bank building. Their teenage children, Carl and Sara, are into video games, music, and instant messaging their friends. Every Sunday night they all settle in with some popcorn and a rental movie.

Sound like people you know? They might, but the Ames family isn’t real. They’re personas: fictional characters created to make a company’s marketing communications more effective.

Your communications must speak to audiences in terms as familiar as an instant message, addressing their unique priorities and needs. Otherwise, you’ll never motivate your desired response.

Don’t know your audiences that well? That’s where personas come in.

Personas can help you discover what will enthuse target audiences and inspire them to act. There are four basic steps for developing and using an effective persona:

Research

Start by interviewing some real, breathing target audience members. Find out everything you can about the people on the receiving end of your communications: Where do they live? How old are they? Where and how do they spend their leisure time? Do they vote?

Identify general trends that arise from your interviews. The more you know, the more realistic your personas will be.

Invent

Based on your research, choose representative home locations, professions, ages, and families for your personas. Consider these particular background details as you construct your characters.

Give each persona a name, then figure out how circumstances affect his or her behaviors. A web user over 65, for instance, may not be familiar with Twitter or Google +; whereas a 30-year-old is apt to be savvy about all social media channels and have multiple browser windows open at any one time.

Write

Describe your persona in detail on paper. Keep non-marketing details to a minimum, but do include those humanizing specifics that make for a memorable fictional character (a love of bird-watching or hockey, for example).

Find a photo that looks like your persona to give him or her a “face.” At the end of your one-page bio, list goals that your marketing communications must help your characters accomplish, such as “I want to learn more about my investments” or “I need to order supplies online more efficiently.”

Engage

This is, perhaps, the most important step of all: Take your personas into even top-level marketing meetings — and don’t be shy about referring to them by name or sharing their “opinions” about a particular campaign or creative direction.

Dreaming up imaginary people may sound like child’s play, but savvy marketers know it’s often the best way to understand the habits, tastes, and needs of your real-life audiences. If you value their input, your personas will quickly become integral members of your team.