How to Get Started with Content Persona Research

There is always a temptation to ignore persona research when you think that you either are a part of or “know” your target audience perfectly. I am sad to report that this is never the case.

Just because you are a designer, for example, that does not mean that your brand’s particular audience of designers is interested in your personal content needs. Assuming the opposite makes sense for lifestyle, opinion, fitness, and fashion bloggers, whose platforms are largely built on admiration for their individual personalities. Even then, personal brands should also make sure they are constantly monitoring their platform for emerging trends and tastes. They, too, need to prioritize content persona research.

If you are managing a corporate brand, please go beyond your individual perspective and engage in thorough persona research with an open mind. I am not saying you should ignore your unique outlook, since that is probably why the company brought you in in the first place. What I am saying is that it is dangerous to base an entire strategy on that single outlook, and robust content production processes are grounded on a profound knowledge of the brand’s audience.

B2B Versus B2C Content

As you go through the exercises in this chapter, it is important to understand that your business model will largely dictate the type of persona you will create:

  1. B2B Personas are appropriate for brands whose revenue model hinges on business-to-business (B2B) transactions. Popular B2B personas include corporate buyers, managers at every level, and entrepreneurs. Since corporate purchase processes are often lengthier and involve more individuals, it is crucial that you identify who the key decision maker is. It is probable that the gatekeeper you have detected makes such decisions with collaborators’ inputs, but at the end of the day someone has to pull the trigger. For the sake of B2B content personas, focus on the individual within the corporate chain that is most interested and entitled to acquire your offer.
  1. B2C Personas are developed when your business caters to end-users directly, hence described as a business-to-consumer (B2C) model. B2C personas represent individuals who often make consumption decisions on their own. Because they act outside of the corporate ladder, consumers’ purchase processes are often swifter and less cumbersome.

Four Steps to Discover and Design Personas

Let us take a look at a few simple steps to get started with your persona research. What I’m going to share is a lean method that you can complete in-house, but feel free to explore independent vendor/consultant options if this is not something you can work on directly at the moment. If you do have the time and bandwidth, read on.

We arrive at personas only after looking at various sources of data. Both quantitative and qualitative information contribute to constructing personas:

Step 1: Start with existing data.

Look at existing quantitative data that has been collected automatically. Look at sources like your website analytics package and social network insights. If your website and profiles have been around for a while, chances are you will find a wealth of data waiting to be analyzed. The tracking we installed in Chapter 2 should provide valuable data after a few weeks, depending on the amount of visitors your site gets. You can also try advanced tools like heat mapping, to reveal common behavior patterns among your readers.

What to collect here: demographic data and psychographic data. Click reports. Cohort data.

Step 2: Conduct nethnography.

You might have heard of ethnography as a research method. Essentially, it is about observing behaviors in the environments in which they develop from an insider’s perspective. Nethnography, then, is taking this research method to the context of the Internet, observing your readers where they normally hang out online. Forums, discussion boards, blog comment sections, customer support tickets/emails, social media groups (Linkedin and Facebook work great). What are they saying and how? What words are they using? What problems are they running into frequently? What frustrates and excites them? Are there any lifestyle traits that seem to pop up across the board?

What to collect here: representative comments, standout discussions, common terms and expressions, frequent problems (as expressed by certain users), interesting conversations, and illustrative blog posts. This last data source is fascinating in that researchers used to have to collect physical diaries or journals to obtain this type of information. Known as diary studies, we can now emulate these tools looking at subjects’ online journals, or blogs. Collect as much text as you can, as it is raw material for an interesting analytical method called content analysis, which I will describe below.

Step 3: Try ethnography.

Time to go outside. As in the real world. Drop this book and find a physical spot where your convertible readers are likely to be found. Think about places where they work, buy, play or potentially view your content. If you are speaking to a business audience (i.e. creating B2B content), consider attending the types of events or conferences that are popular within that industry. Observe silently and take lots of notes. Just like in step 2, the goal here is to perceive without intervening. Understand without questioning. For this observation technique to be effective, you should literally blend with the background. As far as I am concerned, you are now a hyper-realistic piece of wallpaper. A trompe-l’œil, or trick of the eye.

Dying to intervene? Ask? Play? I like you already. You can also try a variant of the ethnographic method called participant observation. Infiltrate a group where your audience is likely to be found. Attend that sports match, go to that design conference, join that book club. Go ahead. Just make sure you respect the privacy of other members and are transparent about your intentions.

If you want to try an interesting variation, consider analyzing your readers’ artifacts. Artifacts are just objects that make part of people’s physical and social environments. With prior consent, analyzing the content and layout of items like desks, backpacks, and purses can be an excellent starting point to discover commonalities.

What to collect here: personal notes, environment photos, object photos, any interesting artifacts. You can also draw your observations as maps, where a certain reader’s journey is clearly depicted. This is called behavioral mapping, and many kinds of designers have been using it to synthesize human activity.

Step 4: Ask.

Ask and you shall receive. One-on-one interactions can reveal powerful insights. Find convertible readers that are either currently looking at your content or a close competitor’s. Do not be intimidated by your lack of practice interviewing people: we are naturally wired to learn. As social beings, we are born with the ability to empathize with others pains and gains. We can connect with our peers, and conducting effective interviews is just a matter of some committed preparation and practice. If an unstructured interview sounds challenging, you can always use a given set of questions. If this is all sounding terrifying at this point, feel free to create a structured questionnaire and use that as a way to survey your readers.

What to collect here: transcripts, questionnaire answers, audio, photos, video or a combination of any of them.

Synthesizing Personas

If you have done this correctly you should be drowning in evidence. This is good, bear with me. What you will do now is 1. Refine the raw data you have so that it is not nearly as overwhelming, and 2. Find affinities/similarities in what you found so that we can design some actual personas.

Refine all this fuzziness

Let us start with all those data reports from step 1. At this point, you can complement what you found with secondary research. Industry reports, white papers, journal articles, books, and third party studies can be valuable sources of information — especially when you are trying to find out more about the demographic group you have discovered.

After identifying patterns in the raw data you have collected (steps 2-4), adding a layer of third party information can help characterize the group you are about to target. Secondary research enriches the picture of your target persona by providing complementary data points that others before you have identified. Going back to Sarah and Jessie, the “mom personas” I mentioned earlier in this chapter, it was extremely useful to pair my insights with:

  • Existing industry reports about Millennial moms
  • Media articles about the rise of the working mother
  • Market information about products that simplify motherhood
  • Social trends around motherhood in the workplace
  • Statistics on mommy bloggers

These sources of secondary research, combined with the primary data that I was collecting, gave a fuller picture of the two personas I was targeting with my content efforts.

Nailing Down Personas: Affinity Diagramming

“Affinity” is an awesome word. Chemists use it to describe what happens when particles cannot help but crash into each other and combine. And that is exactly what we are trying to do with all these data points we have found: cluster them up into meaningful personas.

  1. 1. Start by splitting individual insights into single sticky notes. (Think of “insights” as specific findings that you came across). Use one note per insight.
  1. 2. Then take a giant board or wall and paste all the sticky notes in a way that you can still move them around.
  1. 3. You guessed it, now you move them around. Find insights that share some kind of need, pain point or characteristic. A “pain point” can be any particular situation, issue, or limitation shared by various individuals. The logic here is to cluster together findings that seem like they referred to the same person.

Soon, you will find yourself looking at two or three large buckets. Look closely, since those buckets are soon to become your reader personas.

Get Creative: Name and Design Reader Personas

Here comes the fun part. You get to name these newly found fake people with real needs. Experienced researchers suggest going for names that carry a certain connotation that fits the persona. Maria, for instance, points to a Hispanic ancestry. Charlotte carries a certain elite tone. Agnes sounds slightly older than Emily, and so on.

Naming them is not a petty suggestion. Whenever you are thinking about a potential reader for a specific piece, now you will imagine an actual being with needs and wants — rather than sitting alone thinking about a group of sticky notes. Picking names humanizes these personas in a way that makes them useful for content ideation.

That being said, you will need a one-pager to remind yourself and other content creators who it is that you are all aiming for. Synthesize your personas using the template you will find on the next page. This profile summary is what most people understand as personas. It is how you will keep track of the main data points collected and the most actionable traits of this hypothetical reader.

Buyer Personas vs. Reader Personas

Now that you know the importance of conducting rigorous persona research, I have one more note of caution. There is a difference between content as a means to close a sale versus content as the product itself. This distinction is crucial when starting your persona research study. While amusing, nobody cares about your 1 million unique visitors if none of them would ever be willing to pay for what you sell.

When your content is serving as a bridge to close the sale of a different product, you might find that the characteristics of those reading you differ from those who buy from you. One of your goals as a strategic content manager is to minimize this discrepancy. Think about it: do you want to spend countless hours and resources creating content for readers that are not going to sustain your business in the long run? Nailing down your buyer personas involves figuring out who this ideal user is, and going for him or her with everything you have.

Similarly, when your content is the actual product, you might find that those who consume your free pieces are not necessarily interested in your paid pieces. In this case, try to understand who those buyers actually are. Who is willing to leave money on the table after they have benefited from your free content? After you determine that buyer profile, he or she should become your main objective while creating content — your convertible reader persona. Let us stop on the word convertible for a second. Someone you are able to convert. You want to craft content that attracts consumers within that profile and encourages them on to the next stage, such as purchasing your product.

Convertible Reader Personas

Your reader will not always be at the exact point in time where the need for your product is most active. Sometimes, you must nurture this persona over time in order to convert him/her when the time comes. Other times, this persona is not directly the purchaser; they are “gatekeepers” to certain communities. Gatekeepers are convertible reader personas because they, too, are potential purchase drivers.

The goal of designing convertible reader personas is to find people whose demographic and psychographic characteristics make them potential buyers, whether that is now, in a few weeks, or even months. Whether they are buying directly or strongly influencing someone else’s decision.

Every business identifies one or more activities that lie at the core of its survival. These positiveconversion actions are completed by users (visitors, readers, viewers) during their experience with your product (site, content, app). Here is an example of how a content piece like an article could become a step within your visitors’ larger conversion funnel:

Every time you are producing content, you are betting on a certain reader to complete a specific action at some point in time. All sales funnels are different. Understand yours and connect it to your content production process. This is the only way to connect content production with a true return on investment.

As you start developing new content for the personas you are targeting, it is important to realize that not all of them are created equal. Even within a group of individuals that share certain affinities (i.e. your fictional persona), there are levels of engagement that dictate how they interact with your content.You should plan for both low and high engagement readers by offering content in various formats in order to maximize success. We will discuss how to achieve this in the next few paragraphs.

Low-Involvement and High-Involvement Readers

Put simply, a reader will not experience content the same way when completely distracted in scrolling mode as they do when being utterly immersed in research mode. The first kind of user is passively waiting for a shiny object to catch his attention, while the second — more proactive — user is laser-focused on a need that needs solving.

The first user is under a condition typically known in marketing as that of low involvement. He is not particularly invested in any kind of decision-making process. When presented with the type of content you are offering, he will react (click, like, or comment) based on impulse. There is no complex, time-consuming evaluation of alternatives where he checks out other sites for the information you are supplying. You just happened to be in the right place, at the right time.

The second user has an active need that has put him in a more invested content research mode. He requires a specific kind of information, and bases his conscious decision to consume on clear criteria like length, quality, and reputation of the content pieces at hand. When analyzing buying behavior, marketers label this condition as that of high-involvement. The reality is no different when looking at the content consumption experience: some users are actively searching for information while others are passively ingesting it.

Why is this important, you ask? Because depending on their level of involvement, your audience members will be interested in different types of content. Those in a condition of low-involvement will be drawn to you because of something we call peripheral cues:4 pictures, music, shiny objects. Meanwhile, those that are highly involved will be persuaded by more central cues: factual information, long-form articles, in-depth analysis. Whenever you are pitching a content piece to your audience, you will always have to rely on either a peripheral or central route to persuasion. Sometimes it is both.

As you read this, it is highly probable that you have already arrived at a mental image of what these two types of users look like for your case. Understanding the difference between these two content consumers will affect your strategy in powerful ways. It is the first step in succeeding both in short and long-term content production. No longer will you get frustrated when someone hurts your bounce rate with a 2-second visit, or wonder why someone else spent 10 minutes looking at that one article.

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