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In the ever-evolving landscape of websites, apps, and other interactive experiences, understanding and engaging with your target audience is paramount.

Curating an experience is all about keeping the user top of mind while you design, but how do you figure out what that user looks like?

Painting an accurate and insightful picture of your audience is a complex process, but it's a crucial one. Personas and journey mapping are major marketing tools that have long helped craft audience strategies that engage with the people companies are trying to reach.

But how do those tools translate to interactive experiences, and how can we ensure we understand all of our users' needs?

Using personas as an example framework, we've outlined why audience research is worth the investment and what role it plays in the development of interactive products, in particular. Read on to learn how your research can create exceptionally engaging experiences that keep users coming back.

Why Personas?

Audience personas offer a synthesized representation of a real segment of your audience. Their purpose is to help us better understand that audience's needs, preferences, behaviors, and motivations. They are archetypes and demographics of a specific customer or prospect you're aiming to attract or you're already actively engaged with.

Personas provide a deeper understanding of your target audiences, enabling you to create messaging and content that aligns with their interests and connects with them on a more personal level.

Audience personas might include detailed information about their everyday habits, their hobbies, their level of education, or their personal and professional goals. You can use a variety of methods to build those personas, but they always rely on research into actual customers to develop an understanding of what they need. That might require surveys, voice-of-customer interviews, or other data collection methods.

Persona development occurs at the beginning of a project, during the early stages of audience research. That's because personas serve as a foundation for everything that comes after the research process. They help guide the development of a message, product, or experience that accurately meets the needs of the audience being targeted.

Once you're equipped with buyer personas, you can begin the process of mapping their journey as members of your audience. Maybe you're interested in what steps they take to buy a particular product, how they seek out a type of service, or which goal they're trying to accomplish. At each step of their journey, you want to identify their goals and any related pain points.

Knowing their goals helps identify areas where you may be able to step in and meet their needs, thereby building trust in your brand as a reliable solution provider. Knowing your customers' pain points helps you find opportunities to provide a uniquely strong experience that addresses issues they've had in other places.

When you can do that consistently, you elevate your brand and build confidence that it can deliver on its promise. That leads to repeat customers, brand advocates, and ultimately long-term growth. It also helps differentiate your brand from the competition and communicates that you understand people's challenges—and that you're there to assist.

For interactive experiences in particular, personas are important because they inform how someone might use a website, app, or other interactive experience. People from different age groups, professions, or levels of expertise might interact with a digital product differently, and personas are one way for us to account for those differences and design experiences accordingly.

Because user experience is a major component of customer experience, special attention toward the interactive element your brand offers will go a long way toward ensuring that your audience's needs are met.

Let's break down some of the ways audience research can be applied specifically to interactive experiences, and how that influences the development of websites, apps, and other digital products.

Audience Research for User Experience

We've covered the ways that personas and journey mapping help you understand your audience, and consequently cater the experiences you provide to meet its needs. But how do such traditional marketing tools apply to the people using your interactive platforms, such as websites and apps?

Fundamentally, your marketing team and your UX team are researching roughly the same persona groups because they are both trying to reach segments of the same audience. The only difference in their approach is the type of information that they collect: UX teams are interested in not only audiences' marketing demographic information but also the traits that will inform how they will interact with a website or app.

First, there are specific questions related to digital experiences you'll need to answer about your audience. Some examples:

  • What is the user's connectivity going to be like based on where they live?
  • What kind of look and feel is the user most likely to engage with?
  • What type of voice or tone of content is the user most likely to engage with?
  • What kinds of accessibility needs are unique to the user?
  • How does the user prefer to interact with websites—traditional navigation menus or a different layout?
  • What is the technological proficiency of the user?

Those are just a few of the basic facts to know about your audience that will prove crucial to the development of your website or app. But on a higher level, UX audience research is trying to home in on what users want to know and what they want to do.

Those needs underpin every way users behave when they encounter your interactive experience.

Why Invest in Audience Research?

Critics of audience research often point out a few flaws:

  • Personas are often based on stereotypes, and they are therefore unreliable.
  • Audience research takes a lot of time and resources to conduct accurately.
  • User findings can become quickly outdated with evolving technology.

Let's address each of those.

First, the claim that personas are overgeneralized or based on stereotypes overlooks that they are based on real research into the audience. Generalizations in personas happen only when you begin to make assumptions about who your audience is. Even if you're extremely familiar with your audience and you have worked with them for decades, you can't assume you know everything about their experience as an audience and as users until you collect data through interviews, surveys, focus groups, and other research methods.

Doing that research does require a significant amount of time and resources to do properly, of course. Some see it as an unworthy investment if you're already familiar with your audience. But again: thorough, reliable, and unbiased audience research will unlock new insights that you didn't know about your customers before, and that information can prove invaluable to curating experiences that keep people engaged, interested, and excited to work with your brand again.

It's also worth noting that although audience research can require a significant investment, there are now more tools than ever to collect data about your audience. Audience research tools such as SparkToro help you identify who your audience is, whereas customer relationship managers such as HubSpot and Birdeye help you keep track of your current users and analyze their experiences.

Personas, especially in the context of interactive experiences, can become outdated after just a few years. That's because the development of new digital experiences moves quickly, along with the ways people engage with them. You might be surprised at how quickly your audience could shift in demographic, as well.

But that's all the more reason to keep investing in updating your personas to stay on top of your audience's experiences. Doing so can work wonders for building rapport with your audience and building up the responsiveness of your brand. Failing to do so can run the risk of your speaking to an audience with which your message is no longer resonating

Case Study: Spotify's Personas in Action

In 2017, Spotify's user research team began investigating who its users actually are. Because it is a music streaming service, its audience is vast and therefore difficult to pin down, but the team began developing personas to understand how its users listen to music.

The team members broke the process down into two phases. They first began studying music listeners of all different ages, lifestyles, income levels, and more through qualitative interviews. Then they coded those interviews based on common themes they would find related to attitudes around music and entertainment.

The second phase focused on the context in which people listened to music, from the car to the home to the workplace and more. That covered many of the ways people would listen to music together, and it gave the Spotify team a better picture of the situations in which its product might be used.

After the extensive audience research process, Spotify started creating the actual personas that would represent the audience it had researched. That involved picking names and appearances to represent members of the audience, but it kept its visual style illustrated with brand colors to appear more abstract and flexible.

Spotify personas

The personas served as a jumping off point for any new feature or idea being implemented in the app.

"[Personas] can help us create educated hypotheses and save us time—meaning we don't need to run foundational research every time we want to explore a new topic within the music listening experience. Our teams can now focus their resources on diving deeper into problems from the level set by the personas." —Spotify Team

The team also noted that when performing maintenance on various Spotify features, the team could map out how it would affect different personas in different ways. That allows Spotify to better refine the features toward "certain ways of listening to music, while making sure they don't alienate others."

Although it took a significant amount of time and effort to make those personas, they now serve as a foundation for Spotify's decision-making for designing interactive experiences. The audience research informs its brand and makes it better at catering the experiences to the real people who use the service.

More Insights

BrandExtract helps businesses inspire belief by aligning their brand with what matters to their audience. If you're looking for help curating interactive experiences that make an impact, don't hesitate to reach out. Or, explore some of our other insights:

Written by Kinza Muzahir and Ben Gonzalez.

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BrandExtract is a brand experience firm based in Houston, TX that builds value by inspiring belief in people and organizations. We align your brand strategy with your corporate strategy to create exceptional opportunities.