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The Power of Personas

by Leigh Duncan-Durst  |  
September 21, 2006

Imagine for a minute that you're on a charge to make your company -- or your product, or your Web site --increasingly customer-centric. So you have a company-wide kickoff to rally passion around the customer....

"We need to better serve our customer and be more customer centered," says Joe the CEO. "To do this we're going to..."
–and Joe then rattles off a list of initiatives like retooling the customer database, increasing call center resolution by 6%, reducing churn by 20% and redesigning the self-service Web site.
I can't tell you how many of these meetings I've been in. While they're often informative, they fall flat in rallying the troops because in the end, they're about tasks, not about the customer. They fail to unite individuals around real people and a common set of goals that will help service those people, and instead focus individuals on operational activity.
To rally an organization around the customer, it's a good idea to make some introductions. In an increasingly complex world of demographic, psychographic and ethnographic research, it's no longer safe to assume that your employees actually know your customers. When rallying the troops, getting back to basics and keeping it simple can be powerful. One of the best ways to do this is to harness the power of persona.
My friend Kelly Goto has been preaching the power of persona for more than a decade, specifically highlighting power of their use pertaining to Web design. Kelly and I frequently work together, and for years we've been harnessing customer personas to develop a clear picture of the type of audience we're designing for.
They work for Web sites, products, brick and mortar store experiences, marketing campaigns – you name it. The results are great .... and they're effective in uniting diverse work teams around a set of customer-centric objectives. All tasks and activities are then tooled around customer goals.
So what's a persona?
A persona is essentially a representative profile, which summarizes a key demographic target. It is usually accompanied by a photograph of a representative customer who is given a "real name" and assigned some basic demographic data (such as age, marital status, tangible occupation and income) as well as relevant information pertaining to personal behavior. Personas represent the "real face" of a customer and make it easier to unite groups of people around the customer base. There are usually a number of customer personas for any given project.
The use of personas, along with the method of validating our designs with real customers in an iterative manner across the design lifecycle is a powerful way to unite and rally staff members around customers and guide activities (design, production, launch) effectively.
Taking personas a next step, we also recommend the development of "customer scenarios." These describe, in further detail, the needs, behaviors, preferences and requirements that will fuel the development of customer experience. Customer scenarios essentially describe the optimal experience the customer should have, and can be used to drive the development process - and as a reality check during testing. They're highly effective for uniting the diverse teams charged with developing customer experience. Here's an abbreviated sample from Kelly's best-selling book, Web Re-Design: Workflow that Works:
One company that has done a great job of utilizing customer personas for "telling the story" of its customers is Best Buy. There are a ton of articles describing how the stores have been retooled to meet the needs of customers like "Barry," "Buzz" and "Jill." The early results are in and highly promising. We'll talk a little more about how this is going, and how it is changing the business - and customer relationships in a tangible way in future posts.

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Leigh Duncan Durst (leigh at livepath dot net) is a 20-year veteran of marketing, e-commerce, and business and the founder of Live Path (

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  • by Mack Collier Thu Sep 21, 2006 via blog

    "While they're often informative, they fall flat in rallying the troops because in the end, they're about tasks, not about the customer." Which do you think most companies are more familiar with, their business tasks, or their business customers?

  • by Lewis Green Fri Sep 22, 2006 via blog

    In 1998, I oversaw the production of Starbucks Annual Report. We decided to abandon long narratives, and instead used 15 pages of customer photos (including a dog licking Starbucks ice cream) and day part captions. The press paid lots of attention, shareholders loved it, and it won several awards. You think Personas work? I do.

  • by Allen Weiss Fri Sep 22, 2006 via blog

    What always amazes me about the internet is that people were talking about how the world of traditional marketing is dead. So, things like segmentation of the population was useless. It's nice to know that people are using personnas (which are just another fancy word for traditional segments) as a better way to understand the people coming to a web site. I guess traditional marketing ideas aren't dead after all. Anyway, thanks for the post on personnas. It would be great to know a process on how to decide what personnas exist for any web site. Any suggestions? Thanks

  • by Leigh Duncan Fri Sep 22, 2006 via blog

    Hey Mack - One stand out that comes to mind is Best Buy. They've created customer personas that map to their CRM system/customer database and you may have heard about their HUGE initiative to gear each store around one or more of these personas. For example, you might find a store geared around "Barry" a 40- something professional male who is an early technology adopter. You may find gaming and entertainment areas geared toward "Buzz" - a 20-something (or younger)gamer who loves games, gadgets, music and movies. Other stores are geared toward "Jill" the 30-something mom who may visit once per year. Jill might find displays that help her seasonally find stuff for the family - from calculators and school-related stuff, to Hello Kitty radios. She'd also find a "mom's only" checkout line and special shopping support from staff trained to spot her and help her through the store. Early results were OUTSTANDING (I'll try to find a link to the Washington Post Article). Since then, they've been rolling out (not without hiccups). In general Best Buy has done a great job of rallying their management around this segmentation, and it's catching on lower down, as well. Best Buy is using personas to do customer-centric training of their staff (an average of 2 weeks per year which well exceeds the norm) helping them design displays and address the needs of these targeted customers. They're also rewarding initiative taking by personnel, who seem to be getting better tuned in to the customer base. For example, one 20-something employee in their Texas market called attention to the fact that the store was missing the "Mega Church" audience. The store manager asked him to do some research and the guy came up with a list of new music recommended for this audience. They sent him to the HQ in Minneapolis to pitch the idea. In the end, the store ended up boosting music sales by 15% - and rolled out the program to other stores in the region, as well. Now THAT's smart business. Another great example of using personas is Chrysler. They teamed with Organic to build persona ROOMS in which the engineers WORK while designing cars. I've decided to do a follow up post about this - very cool way to get engineers into the hearts and minds of the customer. And using a ROOM (reflecting the style of the individual, the musical taste, clothing, direct mail, brands, a My Space page etc.) brings these persona on to a "real" level that may well be unforgettable. Good stuff, right!?

  • by Tiffani Bova Sun Sep 24, 2006 via blog

    I used personas in the past when I was head of Sales and Marketing for Interland, a very large web hosting company. We were building out our products, web site building tools and a support site which as you can imagine had many different 'personas' associated with them. From a beginner to the web, to a novice, intermediate and ultimately a web developer who of course did not want to be spoken to or presented with information which was 'beneath him'. It was very challenging when we had to find a way to allow users to self select paths so we could route them based on their comfort level and experience (all from one home page). The personas were the only way we were able to ensure we had all our bases covered and communicated properly. It was a project saver .... I highly recommend this approach to anyone tying to improve customer satisfaction and loyalty.

  • by Sean D'Souza Sat Oct 28, 2006 via blog

    You know what? How about we look at this totally differently? Instead of this multiple personas, I believe there's just one person. You're sending out a message to 'Tricia.' Not Tricia and Bob, and Anjali and Nug-Nug. Just Tricia. And then you get what is an army of Tricias. We've used this concept very successfully by tackling not just demographics, but psychographics. And the core problems that clients have. Sean

  • by Dilawar Thu Nov 16, 2006 via blog

    Personas are really an old concept and very effective in communicating across various groups of different expertise. I remember our marketing professor asking this question," Imagine your secretary informs you that two persons, Mercedes Benz and Toyota Corolla, are waiting in your office. Describe these persons to me." Even as a first year MBA class we were able to describe the (brand) attributes of these two persons with an extreme accuracy. Personas or personification of customers and brands have been around for a number of years now. We just re-purposed the knowledge about brands and customers into a more physical form. Anything that improves dialogue and cross functional understanding is great.

  • by Leigh Durst Tue Jan 19, 2010 via blog

    @sean - I agree that if personae are taken too literally you end up with a problem... but it's important to understand how they serve their purpose. The average employees have trouble aligning to a clear, representative vision of a customers wants and needs. They won't remember DATA ... They are more likely to remember a PERSON. That's what a good persona does... and the training that goes along with it addresses the mistaken thinking of the "Army of Tricias". Introduce the persona the right way and the data sticks - including psychographics.

    @dilwar - An oldie, but a goodie. Thanks for your comment. :-)

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