Bringing persona to communications

Why communications professionals are exchanging demographics for personas and other behaviour-based tactics



Marketing and communications professionals have always loved demographic data.

In a world where nothing seems black and white, numbers always add up and this can be quite comforting. Unfortunately, many aspects of marketing communications have changed in ways that limit the effectiveness of demographic- and psychographic-based strategies. The proliferation of messaging channels over the past decade combined with the consumer’s ability to customise how they receive information means that an understanding of behavioural characteristics is fast becoming a critical success factor for communications efforts.

Integrated marketing communications experts in particular have turned to analysing and incorporating behaviour to make decisions on the best strategies to use for specific campaigns.

Communications professionals are often adept at incorporating behaviour into their work, particularly when it comes to the media. As campaigns become more and more integrated however, it’s necessary to understand behaviour on a deeper level. This article will outline the reasons for basing strategy on behaviour and provide ways to incorporate tools like personas into a communications practice.  

The importance of behaviour

The growing number of messaging channels has created not only a cluttered content environment, but a splintered experience for audiences. Audiences include not just the direct customer of a brand or service, but the media, influencers, and any other key public that may have an impact on a campaign. The challenge is to reach and influence target audiences through their preferred channels and that requires an understanding of how they behave and engage with those channels. This can be as simple as knowing what cable programs they watch, to something more complex such as learning the typical engagement profile of a Reddit user.

Defining the customer experience

Traditional marketing campaigns rule of thumb is that a message needs to be seen at least seven different times to achieve familiarity. In an integrated campaign based on behaviour, familiarity is achieved by ensuring the message has been seen many different ways.

When identifying behaviour, it can be helpful to return to the concept of the buying journey, or cycle. Within this cycle are six steps including problem identification, information gathering, solution evaluation, purchase and post-purchase activity. Although the nature of digital marketing has provided more sophisticated ways to define robust customer experiences, these six steps are the foundation for virtually every customer experience. Keep in mind that for communications professionals, that “customer” may include anyone within the target audience from a member of the media or other influencer, to another business or an actual consumer.

“In an integrated campaign based on behaviour, familiarity is achieved by ensuring the message has been seen many different ways.”

Changes in the ways audiences interact with brands are also adding more importance to the role of communications. Technology analyst companies like Gartner and Forrester have predicted trends that indicate more and more buying cycles are becoming self-directed, with approximately 80% of the cycle having no human-to-human interaction by the year 2020. With these changes, communications tactics are more effective than marketing to influence behaviour as the audience moves from one stage of the cycle to the next.

Describing the target audience

An accurate, narrow and descriptive audience behaviour profile is the fastest and most efficient way to reach audiences through multiple channels. For the most part the need for more detailed demographic and psychographic data was to enhance the ability to predict behaviour. Today, however, it’s no longer necessary to predict behaviour. Social media and other tools provide exact behaviour information. And quite frankly, it’s much easier to obtain.

Methods to gather behavioural information are too vast to describe in their entirety in this article. At a high level, online tools like Google Analytics, Alexa and others provide a view into how audiences interact with owned media. Social media provides a clear picture of the ways in which they curate and engage with certain types of content. And surveys, both formal and informal, are much more effective for gathering behavioural information. The reason for this is that demographic and psychographic information is deemed personal. Questions regarding age, education, gender, ethnicity, and characteristics that describe who we are seem intrusive. On the other hand, questions about things we do, and in particular how we solve problems are often answered with enthusiasm.

Beyond surveys, other methods like focus groups, usability testing and even simple observation can yield a tremendous amount of mission critical behavioural information about an audience.

Using personas

Although personas have typically been used primarily for consumer marketing, communications professionals have begun to incorporate the use of personas more frequently to help derive stronger strategies and tactics. As marketing communications campaigns become more integrated, audience descriptions must be increasingly specific and narrowly-focused. Attempting to reach a wide audience across multiple channels would result in a splintered effort. Identifying personas for primary target audiences with behaviour can help focus strategies on more specific goals and objectives.

The most commonly used definition of a persona is a semi-fictitious representation of the ideal customer based on research, experience and intuition. A well-developed persona can provide a strong foundation on which to review messaging, develop content and content calendars, identify and test tactics and hone strategies that work across multiple channels.

Personas can be categorised in many different ways, but should be determined based on the needs of the campaign. For example, buyer personas are usually potential, existing or former customers. User personas are of course used in UX or other design activities. Web personas often help digital marketers determine how best to drive traffic and achieve conversions. Influencer personas help describe the types of influencers needed to reach, and sales personas are often used for marketing technology and those working in B2B industries. In addition, communications professionals are developing personas based on the behaviour and preferences of different kinds of media professionals, from traditional journalists to vloggers.

It’s also important to understand personas from the aspect of social media and content marketing. Requirements for reach, engagement and relevance to the brand or service must be identified for each persona to help drive much more successful communications strategies.

“As marketing communications campaigns become more integrated, audience descriptions must be increasingly specific and narrowly-focused.”

When creating personas, attributing real names, and providing some demographic and psychographic information can be helpful for descriptive purposes. Smaller, more focused campaigns may examine one or two personas, while larger efforts may identify several personas based on multiple target audiences.

What’s most important when working with personas, however, is to understand how they behave in relation to the buying cycle and the brand. The campaign must understand which stage in the buying cycle needs to be influenced. Most campaigns focus on moving audiences from information gathering to solution evaluation, moving to a purchase or influencing post-purchase behaviour. However, a non-profit may need to educate its audiences regarding the problem it is solving, and so must focus at the beginning of the cycle. A new software tool may be focused on becoming a viable alternative for a commonly recognised problem.  

It’s also important to evaluate how much of this persona’s buying journey is self-directed. Determining this behaviour, by using the methods described above and others, is critical information for developing stronger tactics.  Examples might be the initial interaction between a journalist and a media relations professional, an actual product purchase or registration for a loyalty program.

Finally, it’s important to understand who influences the persona as they move through the buying cycle. Influencers may be important enough to a campaign to merit their own personas.

Introducing content acquisition behaviour

Content acquisition behaviour is important to harness the power of owned and earned media. This means understanding how personas and/or audiences find, curate and share information. This information helps develop tactics that place messages in the right place, at the right time and in the right manner. Audiences can then “find” this content naturally as part of a self-directed customer experience, and as a result it becomes much more powerful. Content acquisition is usually defined by determining the messaging channels an audience frequents most, the content types most likely read and shared, and the times when these events happen. Well-developed personas always include content acquisition behaviour. It should be part of any data collection exercise from social media observation to surveys.

Most successful modern marketing communications campaigns contain some level of integration. Successful integration requires a knowledge of the target audience’s behaviour. Understanding the customer experience, developing strong personas and evaluating content acquisition behaviour can provide the foundation for increasingly effective strategies and tactics.

Follow Bonnie on Twitter @waxmarketing

Image: Wikimedia / Alex Morley

Bonnie Harris

Bonnie Harris founded Wax Marketing, an integrated marketing communications firm, in 2002. She has designed and implemented successful marketing strategies for clients across the United States from major national brands to well-known non-profit organisations. Previously, she was an executive in the technology industry working with both traditional and dot com startup organisations. Bonnie also teaches integrated marketing communications at the graduate level for the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University.